Santa Clarita Diet And The Queen Of Puke-Comedy

With terrible jokes, pokey pacing, and a mostly lost Drew Barrymore, Netflix’s new show is as stultifying as being trapped in the ’burbs

Somewhere along the way, sunny, bubbly Drew Barrymore became the unlikely queen of the puke-stained romance. Her food-poisoning scene is just about the only memorable part of the Farrelly brothers’ baseball rom-com Fever Pitch, in which she was literally called “Lindsey the Vomit Girl.” In Blended, Barrymore’s third collaboration with Adam Sandler, her character doesn’t actually throw up all over herself, but she’s sure made to look like she did. A greater distance separates the actress from Sandler’s favorite liquid prop in 50 First Dates — this time spurting from a walrus — but the connection has been made and solidified over time. Drew + spew + some guy = love.

I used to find these ralph sessions embarrassing on Barrymore’s behalf, but now I think she likes them. An explosion of upchuck rushes out of her character’s mouth in the pilot of Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet (available now) — so much so that some of the mustard-yellow chunks end up dripping down on her own hair. (Long story.) For Barrymore’s Sheila Hammond, there’s life before her great hurl — and undeath after. Turns out that craving human flesh can really strain a marriage.

Santa Clarita’s ingredients — horror comedy, suburban satire, middle-aged marital tensions, cartoon-like gross-out gags, and stars Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant — are so promising that it’s deflating to see so little of it work. After deluging the screen with barfy excess, a wanness takes over virtually every aspect of the production, from the show’s energy level and character development to its stunts and cinematography. The jokes toss out references to Tupperware lids and Starbucks gift cards to signal how boring Sheila and her husband Joel (Olyphant) are, but they needn’t. We’ve already figured it out.

Created by Victor Fresco (whose Better Off Ted has become a cult classic), Santa Clarita is designed as a joke-delivery system — which is fine, when the quips are good and arrive at a snappy pace. That’s not always the case here, which means that several episodes are as stultifying as being trapped in the ’burbs. Olyphant’s genial sarcasm only goes so far, and Barrymore is so stilted in some scenes that I half-wondered if she’d forgotten how to act. She’s exuberant when exhibiting to her husband or bratty teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) the various ways her mom-bie body defy the laws of biology — it’s kinda neat to see what her undead blood looks like — but she seems to be going through the motions when just being a wife or mother.

That the show squanders its allegorical midlife crisis is a particular disappointment, since the 10-episode season builds on the question of “now what?” after Sheila realizes she’s no longer alive — and likes it that way. But any ethical interest or emotional attachment we might extend to the series slides off like a penguin belly on ice. Sheila’s gradual transformation into a more aggressive, no-fucks-given version of herself should create more friction between husband and wife, but the freaked-out Joel is steadfastly doting, even going so far as to join his wife in her cannibalistic hunts despite his repulsion. The script allows for cursing, but cunnilingus is prudely suggested only with an agape smile and some mildly breezy Muzak that you’d expect to hear in the elevator of an old folks’ home. Many of the gags hinge on absurd juxtapositions, like Sheila chitchatting about kites with a neighbor while Joel attempts to hide their latest kill in the background. There’s heartier chuckles to be had on your local NPR station.

Sheila’s spiraling appetite and recklessness lead her and Joel into increasingly darker hijinks, as well as the inevitable question of how the couple that can’t kill together might stay together. The Hammonds do draw out some sympathy as they slowly realize that there’s no going back to normal and have to adjust their parenting approach and professional goals accordingly. (Despite both playing one, neither Barrymore nor Olyphant pronounce “realtor” correctly.) Joel and Sheila just so happen to live next to a pair of cops, and at least one of the officers’ suspicions force them into much more dangerous scenarios than tracking human prey.

Uneven as it may be, Barrymore’s turn as a Southern Californian mom — even one instinctively drawn to acquaintances’ necks — will probably be a great branding boost for her wine and makeup lines. But Santa Clarita’s anemic tameness had me wishing that the actress could use that girly ebullience for more creative body horror/wonder. So here’s me putting my wish out into the universe for Barrymore to follow her suitcase to Broad City (where she already has a huge fan in Abbi) so she can splash around in all the bodily fluids she wants, but with a larger point. Ditch the dudes, Drew. They never even held back your hair.