Television’s perkiest zombie returns in the second season of Santa Clarita Diet, aka: the show where Drew Barrymore is a zombie. Whereas the first season was mostly table setting, demarcating our characters – chiefly affluent suburban husband and wife realtors Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Sheila (Barrymore) Hammond – and their situation – chiefly holy crap, Sheila’s undead! – the second course expands the menu somewhat, serving up interesting character dynamics and beginning to lay out a background mythology that looks to be more detailed and involving than the pop culture’s default zombie lore.
This season is marked improvement over the first, which was no slouch itself, benefiting from a more consistent tone and having put all that set up behind itself. We’re in full-on story mode now. The show knows its central activity (looking for a cure while concealing Sheila’s condition and inevitable murders), it’s go-to gags (contrasting extreme gore against the pastel banality of suburbia), and its tone (upbeat cheerfulness stretched skingraft-thin over howling madness – that’s a tough needle to thread). Everyone involved is pushing in the same direction; uneven performances have been smoothed out, the stakes and buy-in have been established, and the overarching narrative is underway.
Not that Santa Clarita Diet is overly concerned with the big moments and sudden reveal theatrics that plague so many shows – instead, it piles minor complication upon minor complication until we and the characters look up and realise we’re hopelessly mired, overworked, under-rested, and a hair’s breadth away from snapping. It’s the old rat-race rigmarole of having to get to work, do the shopping, pick up the kids, make a dental appointment, do the laundry, make dinner, only with the added complication of clean the blood off the kitchen, get rid of the body in the freezer, and obtain the bile of a Serb. If it ain’t one damn thing, it’s another.
At the centre of it all are Barrymore and Olyphant, who are just killing it this season. Barrymore’s chipper and cheerfully homicidal Sheila is, of course, the main focus here, and its always fun to watch her try to conceal the fact that she is clearly loving being an undead cannibal (real talk: if a cure is found, will she take it?), while Olyphant continues to deploy comic gifts that could hardly be guessed at during his previous tenure as a tough guy in Deadwood and Justified. His ability to convey almost constant near-panic while maintaining a semblance of outward composure is remarkable.
The returning – which is to say, surviving – supporting cast are all in fine form. Liz Hewson as daughter Abby and Skyler Gisondo as professional dork Eric get a little more room to move on their own, with Abby becoming a kind of rebel hero at high school after she scones a bully with a lunch tray, while Eric continues to try and fail to be helpful. Andy Richter remains a perpetual thorn in the side as Sheila and Joel’s self-centered boss, while Natalie Morales is on hand as eccentric sheriff’s deputy Anne to crank up the tension whenever it needs cranking.
We also get a few new faces, some of which remain uneaten, including Joel McHale and Maggie Lawson as a ruthless rival realtor couple, and old Deadwood hand Gerald McRaney as a retired army colonel who may hold clues to Sheila’s contagion.
Santa Clarita Diet remains a consistently funny, weirdly amiable watch. For all that it deals with murder, cannibalism, and lashings of gore, there’s something nice about seeing a family sticking by each other through thick and thin, even when their matriarch is using a human heart as a stress ball. There’s nothing else quite like it out there at the moment, which is not something we get to say often. If subsequent seasons can maintain this level of quality, we’re all in.