Review: Santa Clarita Diet S3 blends slapstick, satire with genuine heart

, Netflix’s smart, slyly satiric sitcom about a zombie outbreak in suburban Southern California, has largely flown under the pop culture radar since it debuted in February 2017. And that’s a shame, because it’s easily one of the best half-hour comedies on TV right now. Season 3 brought the same winning blend of satire, snappy dialogue, slapstick, and of course, plenty of zombie-munching gore.

(Some spoilers below.)

The series centers on Joel and Sheila Hammond (Tim Olyphant and Drew Barrymore), married real estate agents in Santa Clarita who find their lives irrevocably altered after Sheila has an extreme upchucking incident while showing a house to prospective clients. She thinks it’s a bad case of food poisoning but soon begins to crave human flesh. The upside: she feels better than she has in years, and her increased libido kick-starts the Hammonds’ previously humdrum sex life into overdrive. Season 1 was a bit uneven, especially in the earlier episodes, but the show found its stride by the end of that first 10-episode run, and both seasons 2 and 3 are sheer bingeable delights.

Mostly, Shiela tries to eat bad people: pedophiles, drug dealers, Nazis, crooked cops, and one lascivious fellow real estate agent named Gary (Nathan Fillion), who aggressively hits on Sheila and suffers for it. Fillion’s character was so beloved by fans, the writers brought him back as a reanimated severed head in season 2. As the couple tries to elude detection, Joel and Sheila investigate how she ended up being zombified in the first place. So far, it involves coughing up a mysterious round organ-like thing (it eventually evolves into a mutant spider ball Sheila nicknames “Mr. Ball-Legs” and keeps as a pet), ancient Serbian texts, and a shipment of bad clams to a local restaurant.

[The show] also has plenty of heart, anchored by Joel and Sheila’s genuine love and commitment to each other.

But for all the gore (usually played for laughs) and the zany, over-the-top elements,  also has plenty of heart, anchored by Joel and Sheila’s genuine love and commitment to each other in the face of some pretty radical changes—not just her gruesome eating habits. In season 3, Joel’s thus-far unconditional love for his high-school sweetheart is pushed near the breaking point when Sheila proposes that she turn him, too, so they can be together forever.

The Hammonds also struggle to remain incognito as more people learn about Sheila’s condition. The super-religious sheriff’s deputy Anne (Natalie Morales) thinks Sheila has been raised from the dead by God, and can’t help sharing the good news with various church members. A disturbed mental patient, Ron (Jonathan Slavin), becomes obsessed with Sheila, begging her to bite him so he can be a zombie too.

Meanwhile, an organization dating back to the Middle Ages called the Knights of Serbia has come to Santa Clarita, intent on wiping out any zombies they might find. So Joel decides to join their ranks to protect Sheila. A hilarious montage where he makes a training video with the help of teenaged next-door neighbor Eric (Skyler Gisondo), recreating bizarre medieval feats to prove his worthiness, is the highlight of the season. (Olyphant has a real gift for physical comedy.)

Gary is still around, too, living in the basement and partnering with Joel and Sheila to get their fledgling business off the ground with the help of an Alexa and a headset. (This time around he’s voiced by Alan Tudyk. The change in voice is explained by Gary’s continued decomposition, which causes part of his throat to rot.) At the local Serbian embassy, an official named Dobrivoje Poplavic (Goran Visnjic) seems intent on tracking down rumors of zombies running wild in SoCal suburbia, with the help of two incompetent henchmen. Then there’s daughter Abby’s (Liv Hewson) ongoing rebellious antics, and an elderly Meals on Wheels recipient named Jean (Linda Lavin), whom Sheila befriends.

Juggling all those crazy subplots is no easy feat, and I admit to wondering mid-season whether the writers—led by series creator Victor Fresco—would be able to stick the landing for the finale. But once again they pulled it off, wrapping up most of the narrative threads and ending on a pretty inventive cliffhanger. That’s a risky move, since there’s no word yet on whether Netflix will renew the series for a fourth season, or whether will become the latest casualty of the streaming network’s budget axe. Here’s hoping we’ll get at least one more season for this vastly entertaining, chronically under-appreciated gem.

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