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Comedy meets cannibalism in Netflix's 'Santa Clarita Diet'

In Netflix's horror-comedy "Santa Clarita Diet," Joel and Sheila Hammond (Timothy Olyphant and Drew Barrymore) are realtors that have built a nice, if not routine, life in beautiful suburban California, complete with gossipy neighbors and an eternally ungrateful teenage daughter. That routine is quickly thrown out the window when Sheila begins vomiting an absurd amount, coughs up a strange red ball and falls unconscious.

She wakes up after a few minutes, but lo and behold, she isn't the same as before -- she's, well, dead. What follows are ten half-hour episodes following the Hammonds as they struggle to satisfy Sheila's hunger for human flesh while also searching for a cure to her sudden and inexplicable illness. The episodes are oftentimes gory, frequently absurd and only sometimes funny.

Olyphant and Barrymore have proven themselves accomplished actors in the past, and they certainly give it their all in "Santa Clarita," finding their characters' most basic traits and wringing them for all they're worth. Unfortunately, they aren't worth much. Sheila's new condition removes her impulse control, making her upfront and completely nonchalant about the whole "I kill and eat people" thing. Meanwhile, Joel is a doting husband who does all he can to please his wife while also taking great care to point out every funny detail in a situation ("Honey, we eat people!").

This dynamic is the backbone of the whole show, and, at first, it works well. But as the episode count rises, their incessant wordiness grows tiresome. It's like running into a married couple whose rapport seems charming until fifteen minutes later, when your only wish is to get as far away from their annoying chatter as possible.

Luckily, many of the side characters provide necessary variation, even though they never escape cliche. For example, Skyler Gisondo plays Eric Bemis, a reclusive nerd who helps the Hammond family mainly because of his hardcore crush on aforementioned ungrateful daughter Abby. Gisondo's delivery is humorous, but in terms of character development, he is left out to dry. To make it worse, accomplished and talented comedians/actors like Nathan Fillion, Portia de Rossi, Patton Oswalt and Andy Richter appear for five seconds and disappear as if they were never there.

The main plot of "Santa Clarita Diet" involves finding the cure and cause of Sheila's affliction. Neither problem is adequately solved in season one, although a half-baked story about 16th century Serbia is vomited out (pun intended) to keep the plot rolling. But just as that story begins to pick up about halfway through the season, it is put on the backburner for the sake of increasing the episode count with unnecessary subplots.

"Santa Clarita" is more of a comedy than a horror-comedy, because while there are low-budget blood and guts aplenty, it always feels more gross than scary. For a better example of a zombie-comedy hybrid, look to Starz's "Ash vs. Evil Dead," which successfully utilizes this exact kind of B-movie budget to create genuinely creepy scenes while also staying hilariously cheesy. "Santa Clarita" doesn't really feel creepy or cheesy (not on purpose, at least).

What's most frustrating about this show is how the original charm never quite wears off, even as questionable plot choices are made and the writers make no effort to implement character development. Olyphant and Barrymore can still draw a laugh even as their delivery becomes increasingly predictable, and the guest roles, however brief, are a welcome element of the show. At no point is it actually "bad," but at the same time, I'm hard-pressed to call it "good."

Watching "Santa Clarita Diet," you hope that these creators will come to their senses and that the next episode will finally click, but suddenly, you've run out of episodes to watch. For a show about eating brains, sometimes it feels surprisingly brainless.

(3/5 stars)

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