Santa Clarita Diet is the new Netflix zombie show nobody was expecting.
Santa Clarita Diet is a gut-chomping horror/comedy starring Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant, and since it arrived on Netflix last Friday (February 3) it’s tickled viewers with its bizarro humour, its ridiculous bloodiness, and… its portrayal of unconditional love? Part Dexter, part The Walking Dead, and part Desperate Housewives, this is a sitcom in which Barrymore’s character Sheila becomes undead and starts eating people, her husband Joel decides that’s not a dealbreaker, and they carry on with their lives as real-estate agents while managing Sheila’s hunger for brains. It’s gross and lol in equal measure, and its existence is completely baffling – we asked creator Victor Fresco (My Name is Earl, Better Off Ted) how it came to be.
Where on earth did the idea for Santa Clarita Diet come from?
Victor Fresco: “I like to take a crazy idea and then ground it. I wanted to do a family show. The undead have always been portrayed as mindless eating machines, and I thought it would be funny to have someone that’s undead who also could function in the world, sell real estate, be in a relationship. You have to adjust if you love somebody unconditionally: how would they really navigate this situation?”
Can you describe the show’s version of zombies?
“I looked at the undead as the ‘ultimate narcissist’. In our narcissistic culture we glorify people who just think about themselves and only want what’s best for themselves – which the undead do. The other side of that is that the character’s feeling very empowered by what she’s gone through. She’s the ultimate empowered character, but she loves her husband and her family, so she has to be able to temper her pure id with being able to stay in her family.”
Were you channelling any horror-comedy precursors?
“It was very new for me: I’ve not seen anything that’s like the tone of this show. I’ve watched The Walking Dead, Dexter, I think there was a tone of Desperate Housewives, this light, suburban tone – but I didn’t see anything that had horror-comedy tonally similar to this. Which I like, because as a writer you’re trying to come up with something you haven’t seen before.”
Had you always pictured Drew Barrymore in the part of Sheila?
“We put lists together of who could be Joel and who could be Sheila, and Drew was at the top of that list. She’s a movie star and she hadn’t done television series before – I think Netflix helps with that, Netflix is a brand that’s doing exciting television and is a fun place to be, so I think actors who may not have done television may be willing to do Netflix.
“Tim [Olyphant] was also at the top of our list. I knew Tim mostly from badass characters, but I’ve always liked him as an actor. I saw him do some comedy last year in a short-lived show called The Grinder, and by meeting with him I knew he had a sense of humour. He brought something very different to that character. Typically comedies would have a broader character in that role, and I like the fact that he’s not broad, that he plays more real.”
How does this compare to your other stuff, like Better Off Ted?
“I try and do bigger ideas. I’ve never done just a straight-ahead family show. Better Off Ted or Andy Richter Controls The Universe have normal people faced with abnormal, difficult situations that either could break you, or you could rise to the occasion. In Better Off Ted it was about the dehumanising corporate world that our protagonist finds himself in and how he is going to stay true to his morals and navigate this craziness where he feels like he’s the only normal person. I think, there’s an element of that with the Joel character in Santa Clarita Diet, where he feels he’s a regular guy. That’s one reason it’s set in a regular suburb with just a regular family of realtors.”
Were there any gross-out scenes you particularly set out to create?
“There was no limit to what we could do, so that was kind of fun. We always wanted it to feel like we earned whatever the gross parts were going to be. So we didn’t start with the idea of something gross and then build to that – we always started with a story, and then saw where it would take us.
“It starts to get a little more elaborate as the series unfolds. I just always knew, particularly being on Netflix, I’d be able to show and do whatever we wanted, there were really no limits with technology and special effects. It’s really anything you think of. We had on-set effects and we also had post special effects, which was an area I’d never worked in before. But there were great people here doing really great work, so there were never any limits to our imagination.”
Were any scenes uncomfortable for Drew Barrymore? Like chewing up her first victim?
That’s all real – as in, that’s not put in during post – so that’s all stuff that was real on set. And whatever she’s putting in her mouth is edible, made out of some kind of gummy-bear, chewy material. Or some of it’s made out of beef paste, some of it’s made out of fish. Different things are used depending on the shot, and that particular thing, I think that was like a stretchy, sugary material that she’s biting.
“She was game for everything, she never had a problem with any of it. Frankly, the hardest thing about that I think is that it was very hot – Santa Clarita is very hot. The actors are sitting out there in 100ºF weather, trying not to look like it’s very hot. The hardest thing she did, I think, was sitting in the vomit in the bathroom in the first episode, which we were there for a good three, four hours. It was freezing on the stage, and she’s sitting in liquid. And to get the consistency of that vomit, they used pasta, which started to decompose, and it really smelled – it really smelled like vomit unfortunately. But she was a trooper – she was there a long time and she’s just got a great attitude.
“She was like: ‘Whatever we need to do to get it’. She never complained. I really adored her because she was such a perfect actress, in that it’s all about how we get the best material, how we get the best shot, how we service what’s here. Never about her own comfort. And I think she’s just not squeamish. She was able to do all of this stuff in a way that she actually enjoyed it – she enjoyed it because it’s something different than she’d done before.”
Why did you choose Santa Clarita as the setting?
“I grew up in suburbs kind of similar to that, and I like the juxtaposition of that planned, perfectly organised community with the chaos our main characters are going through. Everything’s very ordered out there – it’s all big developments that are planned, and kind of perfect.
“I also wanted it to be a middle-class/working-class neighbourhood, which Santa Clarita is. It’s fire-fighters and police officers and teachers, cause it’s about thirty miles outside of L.A., and as you get closer to L.A., the middle-class people have been priced out. You don’t find as many working-class people in L.A., they’re pushed out into the suburbs too.”
What did you want the show to say about contemporary culture?
“One of the geneses of this is that empowerment is a good thing: to take hold of your life and get what you want, and be confident. All of those things are good. The other side of empowerment is narcissism. You can just end up being a complete narcissist, and as I watched our culture in the last few years – mostly this is reality shows – we’re living in a very narcissistic culture where narcissism is admired and glorified.
“I thought the undead are the ultimate narcissists, you know, they’re empowered because they only want what they want, when they want it. It’s exciting to watch Sheila become empowered, but you also have to live in a family, hopefully, and you want to be loved and be able to love, so you have to keep those impulses in check. Otherwise, they’ll destroy you. So it was a comment on that we as people and humanity are the ultimate zombies, and destroy and consume without consequence, and could end up consuming the entire earth and destroying ourselves.
“It felt also like a part of how we’re living in our culture now, that we consume and consume without thinking about consequence, as the undead do. But you know, that’s a theme that I think is interesting, it’s not something we service in every episode. Sheila is empowered in a good way, but she also has to figure out how to not just be a killing machine, and she has to have some kind of limits. So I think most normal people can relate to that. We can relate to wanting to have what we want, but also not alienate everyone around us and to try to take care of our environment and our families.”
This was your first show for Netflix – how different was the process for you?
“Very freeing, in many ways. We don’t have to fit to the very tight time constraints that we do in network television, where you have twenty-one minutes and thirty seconds for a half-hour story. We can stretch to what we want. We don’t have ad-breaks, which is great for us. Particularly in comedy, we don’t have to manufacture a big ‘uh-oh’ moment every three minutes, which really informs our story. You now have four acts in network television, so it’s hard to get your story going because you have to then get to this big break moment.
“There’s no development process in Netflix – they liked the script, they bought it. They don’t make a pilot, they make a whole series. You don’t have endless rounds of notes from studios and networks, which I think can often do a lot of damage to a pilot because you’re just adjusting and adjusting and adjusting. I think that’s why they end up filing the edges off in network television, and we didn’t have that in Netflix.
“You also have a different template for them. They want an international audience, you’re not just programming for an American audience. And you can tell the story however you want to tell it, without breaking it up into little pieces. There’s no standards and practices, which are the censors. They don’t have that at Netflix. You don’t have to count the amount of times you say “damn”, your characters can speak in a real way, and it can be bloody. You don’t have someone always looking over your shoulder telling what you can and can’t do and steering you in a particular direction.”
You mentioned Better Off Ted before – would you ever want to resurrect that show with Netflix?
“Well yeah, I had a really good time doing that show. So I would love to come back and do more of those. There was a really fun cast. We had Portia de Rossi, who comes into our show in Santa Clarita Diet later in the run. And she was just delightful, as Ted and Jay Harrington and Andrea Anders, so yeah that was a really fun show and I would love to, I would happily do more of those.”
Will there be a Santa Clarita Diet season 2?
“I don’t know yet. Yeah we don’t know. Yeah, Netflix has been very enthusiastic and very behind the show but it just came on today, so they have to go through it and we’ll have to see. But hopefully we’ll know in the next month or so what happens.”
Santa Clarita Diet is on Netflix now