The Santa Clarita Diet, Season 1

February 12, 2017   •   By Aaron Bady

Everything is About Trump Now

Dear Television,

Everything is about Trump now, whether it wants to be or not. There’s no fact more central to our consciousness, no event more pressing: if the president of the United States is a fascist, then nothing, here, can remain untouched by that reality. If you’re not speaking about Trump, you are ignoring him, looking away, such that inaction becomes an action: in the reality show that our politics have become, there is no opting out from this, especially for television.

Thus: The Santa Clarita Diet is a show about Trump and American fascism, even though it doesn’t want to be.

But first: what it wants to be. Conceived and produced long before the general election, it wants to be a lighthearted, comedic zombie farce in which a nice suburban family of realtors undergoes An Interesting Change In Their Life, after which Hilarity Ensues. It begins when—for totally unexplained reasons—Drew Barrymore’s tightly-wound wife-and-mother character abruptly becomes a zombie. At a house showing, she vomits a disturbing amount of vomit on the floor, retreats to the bathroom, and then wakes up… changed. But the change is mostly good. Her libido is increased, her inhibitions are relaxed, she barely sleeps, and though she has a taste for human flesh, there are, after all, plenty of people in society who would be better off dead, aren’t there? She needn’t kill and eat just anyone; she can look for really bad people and eat them. And so—with this tiny little addendum—the show becomes a disturbingly heart-warming family comedy: she and her family not only adapt to her new lifestyle, but her zombification brings them together. The teenage daughter bonds with her parents—as they have become vastly more interesting to her—and as the marriage is tested, it emerges stronger from the challenges of her new appetite and the new roles Timothy Olyphant’s husband character must take on. Zombification: perhaps it’s right for you?

When the show was first introduced, Netflix’s marketing implied that the show was about cannibalism—not zombies—and in a way, it is. Barrymore’s Sheila becomes a little less inhibited, but her priorities—family, home, and work—are unchanged. Becoming a zombie simply allows a more thorough devotion to success. Zombies may be undead, but they know how to live their best life: Drew Barrymore’s neighbors envy her newfound energy, spontaneity, and lust for life, and demand to know her secrets (“I’m on a very high-protein diet” she tells them). When another character becomes a zombie, it gives him the courage to give up a life of petty crime and finally pursue his dreams of singer-songwriter stardom. And so, if we take it on its own terms, zombification is a lighthearted parody of the Diet and Cleanse Industrial Complex, of suburbia as a space of pathological self-improvement, and of the self-satisfaction by which self-segregating Americans retreat within perfectible family lives.

It’s hard to take the show on its own terms, however, because those terms are fantastically incoherent. A helpful next-door zombie expert explains that zombies are “completely driven by the id”—and the show’s creator, Victor Fresco, has similarly suggested that zombies are “the ultimate narcissists”—but self-improvement is not quite the same as narcissism, or so you’d have thought before watching this show. Would the ultimate, id-driven narcissist be such a devoted mother, wife, and realtor? Perhaps not, but zombie Sheila is essentially the same person, only better: along with more energy, eating people relaxes her sense of social limits, but does not dissolve them. If anything, she becomes better socialized into each one of her identities—wife, mother, and professional—and better able to integrate them.

In making the show, Fresco wanted to ask “how do you get what you want all the time and still be able to function in a relationship?” But since the obvious answer is “you can’t,” the show doesn’t really ask that question; instead, by making the show about “what happens to a family when there's unconditional love between two characters and a bomb goes off in the center,” as he elsewhere explained, the show gets to have it both ways: the ultimate narcissist also somehow achieves the perfect work-life balance. If zombification is narcissism, then narcissism turns out to be the key to bonding with your daughter, maintaining intimacy with your husband, and also really killing it at work [rim shot]. Nobody, it turns out, integrates the conflicting parts of their identity into a single unified whole like those who blindly follow the dictates of their id and eat people!

Though the show still functions as parody—laughing at its fairly ridiculous characters, but gently—it’s more fantasy than satire. Compare it to The Stepford Wives, which famously used the suburban zombie as a metaphor for conformity to patriarchal authority. As one-time educated feminists are brainwashed into meekly subservient housewives, The Stepford Wives emphasized a fundamental conflict between professional success for women and the social demands of domesticity; their zombification horrifically resolves the problem by subordinating any or all ambitions outside the home, transforming ambitious feminists into robotic clones. Satire makes a point, but it has an edge. The Santa Clarita Diet does not; it’s funny and warm because being a zombie turns out to be a valid and advantageous lifestyle choice. Joel and Sheila respond to her undead status by struggling to become normal again—or, failing that, to make things seem as normal as possible—and they mostly succeed: Sheila cares for her daughter, takes care of her husband’s fragile ego, and manages to keep her zombification from impacting her career. As it turns out, what she truly wants are very socially acceptable desires: to be with her family and to succeed in her career.

It’s a perfectly good show, on its own terms. This family of white, All-American suburban realtors is a little ridiculous, and it’s always fun to watch actors play against type. The very idea of Drew Barrymore eating brains (or of Tim Olyphant playing a semi-emasculated house-husband) were enough to build expectations for this show that it doesn’t disappoint: the mismatch of subject and action is well-played for goofy humor, all the actors are solid in their roles, and the scene-to-scene, episode-to-episode arc is crafted to keep you watching, and you do. It’s very well done.

But this show becomes a different beast if you take its animating fantasy—that a hilariously murderous id-driven narcissist can also be a model member of society—and give it a different name than zombie: what if we call it The Trump Voter? Statistically speaking, after all, white suburbanites tended to vote for Trump, if they voted—and if they didn’t vote, they consented—and California’s blue reputation masks its deep red interior. If Santa Clarita is anything (which is debatable) it’s an uber-suburb, an interesting example of a suburb that became a city in its own right: in 1987, four outer exurbs of Los Angeles—Canyon Country, Newhall, Saugus, and Valencia—incorporated into the third largest city in LA county. Thus, like Trump voters, Santa Clarita is a kind of frightened periphery become its own center.

Like the suburbanites who once fled the dreaded “inner city”—and all that it symbolically represents, still, for Donald Trump—this suburban show wants to exist in a world without politics, without a larger frame of reference than the home life of a suburban family, their suburban neighbors, and their workplace selling suburban homes to other suburban families. Before Trump, perhaps, it could have, would have scanned as just another lighthearted parody. But after Trump, little details like the fact that both of their next-door neighbors are cops—a Santa Monica police officer and an LA county sheriff—start to seem more and more important, as does the scene where Joel smokes pot with his neighbors. Marijuana is semi-legal in CA, but not that legal; the real fact on display is that the suburbs are where the police live while they prosecute drug crimes elsewhere. And when a policeman instructs Joel to kill someone—a very bad person, he reassures him—Joel rationalizes that, if the person is really bad, and if it would be good for his family, then why not? This should be much more worrying than the show wants it to be.

In one sense, the show’s lack of broader ambitions simply reflects the very limited worldview of its characters, people who—because they only want to live the best version of the lives they’ve been living, zombie or no—have a distinct lack of awareness of anything outside of themselves. The crisis of becoming a literal actual zombie is not theological, existential, or civilizational; it is personal, the only thing there is for them. But because the show does not expand outside of their perspective, the show does not become a metaphor for consumerism, racism, terrorism, sex, pandemic, or anything else that zombie stories have traditionally allegorized. And though it mocks its characters with the same gentle irony that they mock themselves—and note how often they do mock themselves, a self-awareness that is actually self-absorption—the show is, ultimately, what it is and nothing more: How I Became a Zombie: Learning About Life, Love, and Making Spaghetti and Meatballs Out of Striated Biceps and Bloody Viscera.

Like white suburbia itself, this kind of family show seems less harmless after Trump. The Santa Clarita Diet is not only about suburbia, it is suburban in its normalization of anti-social violence. Just as suburbia is white flight, a normalcy that declines and denies its mixed-ness with everything else, The Santa Clarita Diet is a normal little show that insists on not being about the wider, larger world: it wants to exist without having to reference anything outside of itself, without having—for example—to be about any of the things that zombie movies have historically been allegories for: the aforementioned consumerism, racism, terrorism, sex, pandemic, or fascism. After Trump, however, it becomes hard not to think about the show in a larger context, to consider who the characters on the show probably—in terms of demographic probability—voted for. It becomes hard not to think about their literal connection to all of the things that zombie stories are so often metaphors for. When Joel and Sheila inadvertently spread the zombie virus, because of their self-centered desires, I found myself thinking about the anti-vaccine movement, the way a desire to protect one’s own family can become a society-wide health crisis. As Joel and Sheila begin an ad hoc hunt for people to kill—pedophiles? known drug dealers?—we find ourselves watching a show, inadvertently, about the micro-anti-sociality of fascism.

In its own terms, the show resists any particular allegory by declining to go into details about what zombification is. It’s a virus, but also she’s dead; it’s science, but also it’s a Serbian curse. Most Zombie stories are clear and precise allegories, but this one works hard not to be about anything but itself. Ironically, then, by refusing to expand the frame beyond a suburban household, it becomes about the refusal to expand the frame beyond suburban households: as it touches lightly on who in society you would set out to murder and eat (since you have to murder and eat someone if you want to continue living your best life), it can’t help but become an accidental exploration of how fascist you might have to be to live the good American normal.

Where are all the young, single Hitlers?