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Santa Clarita Diet Was an Unexpectedly Honest Portrayal of Modern Marriage

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Victor Fresco’s Santa Clarita Diet first aired on Netflix five years ago, starring Drew Barrymore as a meek wife, Timothy Olyphant as her gregarious husband, and Yellowjackets’ Liv Hewson as their sarcastic daughter. One of Santa Clarita Diet’s major underrated achievements was how the zombie (!) comedy was actually a surprisingly healthy portrayal of modern marriage — both the sacrifices that are often made between long-term partners, and how a destabilizing life event can upend a long-established dynamic. In the wake of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist — another show canceled before its time — exploring a trade-off-of-powers plotline, we’re once again marveling at how the supernatural can lay bare the emotional realities of modern relationships, and few shows have exemplified that better than Santa Clarita Diet.

Realtors Sheila (Barrymore) and Joel Hammond (Olyphant) are a husband and wife duo selling homes in the titular Santa Clarita, California. Joel is the affable face of their small business, reeling buyers in with his funny demeanor and easy-going attitude, while the quiet Sheila works behind the scenes, doing all the grunt work of contracts and other menial paperwork. If the Hammonds were a house themselves, Joel would be the mod-cons and shiny amenities, like a spa and heated floors, while Sheila would be the solid foundation that keeps the house standing through California’s increasing natural disasters.

Sheila claims she likes it this way. “I’m not a pound-one-out kind of gal,” she says when Joel tries to initiate a quickie before work in the opening scene. Her idea of being bolder is getting a shorter haircut. Why mess with a good thing, right?

Enter: zombies.

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Drew Barrymore ©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection.

Things veer into the supernatural when, during a house inspection, Sheila emits “an insane amount of vomit,” per fellow realtor Gary (Nathan Fillion), after a night out at a seafood restaurant.

“Do you think it’s an organ?” Sheila ponders of the meatball-like object she’s vomited up that sprouts legs and starts to walk. They settle on calling it “Mr. Ball Legs,” and the strange happenings are just beginning.

Before long, Sheila’s transformation into undead has taken over their family — and exposed the weak spots in Joel and Sheila’s marriage. Despite Sheila’s previous claim that she liked flying under the radar, her newfound thirst for life — literally! — sees her become more outgoing and outspoken, rivaling Joel as the star of the relationship. In turn, Joel immediately begins to resent Sheila’s impulsivity and “exuberance,” as he puts it, which has forced him into the role of good cop, concerned with kitchen appliances and being the responsible one.

“So she’ll never be like the way she was before?!” Joel once laments when an undead doctor gives Sheila her prognosis.

In season 2, Santa Clarita Diet disappointingly veers away from exploring Joel’s resentment towards Sheila, instead having them work together to find a cure for Sheila’s condition to no avail, and thwart the various obstacles that come their way. But in season 3, the show circles back to how Joel has been affected by Sheila’s transformation by having him get a taste of her new life (pardon the pun) for himself.

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Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant ©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection.

Throughout the season, Joel and Sheila consider making Joel undead so they can spend eternity together, a proposition that forces them to consider the concept of “til death do us part” in a whole new way — one that I haven’t seen many other, more traditional shows about marriage and relationships do. But before Joel and Sheila could explore this idea to its full conclusion, the show was unceremoniously canceled, and it’s taken years for another show to come along and explore where it left off.

NBC’s 2020 series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was also canceled at the very moment the female protagonist’s male love interest adopted her superpowers — but unlike Santa Clarita Diet, the show was granted a spin-off movie on Roku that let us take the storyline farther. In this two-seasons-and-a-movie universe, Zoe (Jane Levy) comes out of an MRI with the ability to hear others’ innermost thoughts through song. At the end of the second season, her on-again, off-again boyfriend Max (Skyler Astin), who is not unlike Santa Clarita’s Joel Hammond in personality, earns the ability to hear those songs, too.

In the movie that follows, we see how Max is handling the thing that had brought Zoey such conflict, and it offers a smart commentary on relationships that made me wish all the more Santa Clarita Diet had had the opportunity to explore the same thing. Max thinks it will be cool to have Zoey’s powers, but he quickly realizes how emotionally overwhelming it is to hear others’ “heart songs” (the show’s parlance for a power ballad sung about a character’s deep feelings).

“How many times have I hammered you over the lack of equality in our relationship because you could hear my heart songs and I couldn’t hear yours?” He asks Zoe. “I was so focused about how your powers made me feel that I never thought about the toll it took on you.”

Zoe’s powers here can be seen as a metaphor for women carrying greater mental and emotional loads in their relationships, because they’re taught that’s what’s expected of them. When the shoe is on the other foot, Max doesn’t know how to handle it — and it made me wonder what Joel might have learned if he’d had the opportunity to take on Sheila’s powers in Santa Clarita Diet.

Would he have more empathy for Sheila’s transformation and an understanding of why it left him feeling impotent and shut out? Would the Hammonds grow stronger together in figuring out how to deal with both partners having such specific, insatiable needs, or would it drive them apart? It’s disappointing that we’ll never find out (there’s been no talk of a revival or movie), but on the fifth anniversary of Santa Clarita Diet’s premiere, we pay homage to how the show covertly dealt with marriage and all its intricacies — the zombies may have been fiction, but the feelings they brought up were real.

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