Watching “Santa Clarita Diet,” I was in a state of disbelief. How on Earth did creator Victor Fresco pull this crazy thing off? Even his best work, including “Better Off Ted” and “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” didn’t quite indicate a mastery of the kind of droll, perverse humor dripping from his new Netflix comedy. The show really should not be as funny and likable as it is, what with it being about an ordinary California wife and mother who becomes a civilized cannibal overnight and must eat human flesh or die.
The cast, too, led by Timothy Olyphant and Drew Barrymore, help to make it all work so entertainingly, and I say that as someone who might have relished Kristen Wiig’s unflattering impression of Barrymore just a little too much. You can feel the actors having a good time, throwing out all the predictable acting reactions and expressions to suit the strangeness of the premise. The story goes to unexpected places — see Mom power-walk with the girls while secretly sipping a flesh smoothie — and the performers seem to be reveling in that capriciousness, especially Olyphant, whose comic timing here is remarkable.
Barrymore and Olyphant are happy couple Sheila and Joel Hammond, working as a realty team and raising daughter Abby (Liv Hewson). While showing a house one day, Sheila vomits all over everything in a scene that, like a few others, is simultaneously funny and stomach-turning. Quickly, she becomes a more outgoing and sexual person, and the next thing you know she’s noshing and gnashing on a man — a despicable man, but still. The show dispenses with the setup quickly, to move onto the more humorous material about how she and her family will cope with this sudden life change. Mommy is undead now, a “Mombie,” as one comic book title has it.
The lack of deep alarm is the joke that keeps on giving on “Santa Clarita Diet,” as Joel, Sheila, and Abby do what they can to keep mom fed, never really thinking about the fact that they’re committing murder or burying the leftover remains of one of her bloody meals. They’re all amoral, but far from dislikable, particularly as they demonstrate their deep loyalty to one another. Together they work to hide the fact that Mom has a supernatural streak, just as the Stephenses on “Bewitched” constantly concealed the fact that Samantha was a witch. But of course the Hammonds are more twisted. It doesn’t help their efforts that, on the cookie-cutter cul de sac where they live, the neighbors on either side of them are cops (played by Ricardo Chavira and Richard T. Jones).
Barrymore nicely balances Sheila’s stone-cold hunger with her kookiness, creating a character who’s both demonic and a sweet airhead. Olyphant makes Joel lovable, hyper, fickle, and, when it really matters, resourceful. Together, they have an appealing energy. “This part right here,” she says pointing at a place on the hand of a corpse she’s eating, “is the human filet.” His response: “The more you know.” And Hewson is a delight, bringing some teen drama into the story line — including a new friendship with a nerdy guy (played sweetly by Skyler Gisondo) who’s crushing on her — without lifting her moves from the CW. Obviously “Santa Clarita Diet” is not for everyone, as it whimsically but grotesquely lampoons suburbia, family, morality, dieting in general, and maybe even paleo diets in particular. But it’s a lighthearted bit of TV that might leave you amused, if not hungry.
SANTA CLARITA DIET
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant, Liv Hewson, Skyler Gisondo, Ricardo Chavira, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Richard T. Jones
On: Netflix, available Friday