Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) spews gallons of vomit all over the new plush carpeting. She’s a real estate agent in the Desperate Housewives–esque suburbs of Santa Clarita, California, and she’s showing a house with her husband and business partner, Joel (Timothy Olyphant). The pair’s job is to sell fantasies: familial bliss, good school districts, laundry chutes. When Sheila covers the master bedroom in vomit as her clients look on, though, she disturbs that quaint domestic fantasy, and not only for the potential buyers. Because after she flees to the bathroom in embarrassment, Sheila dies on its tiled floor and comes back to life—as a zombie.
Zombieism makes Sheila exceedingly aggressive and impulsive, but it doesn’t affect her appearance much, so her condition is fairly inconspicuous. She’s a high-functioning zombie. Sure, she wants to eat people, but she still goes to investor meetings and property showings without fail. In Sheila, zombie meets workaholic, revealing the true preoccupation of Santa Clarita Diet’s first two seasons: not undeath, but the eternal, undying demands of working life. Not even zombification can justify calling in sick.
Work’s oppressiveness takes physical shape in the form of the couple’s boss, Carl (Andy Richter), a sexist man-child. He infuriates Sheila, who chews her nails to keep herself from lashing out and killing him. During a particularly irritating meeting with Carl, Sheila gets carried away with her nail-biting and nearly severs her finger. “Jesus Christ,” Joel says later, when Sheila shows him her dangling index finger. “You’re stress-eating yourself.”
Sheila’s brush with auto-cannibalization prompts a layered examination of contemporary American middle-class life. After seeing Sheila’s finger, Joel rummages through the junk drawer of their kitchen, trying to find something that will help reattach it. In the drawer, he finds a Billy Joel CD, a Blockbuster membership card, a stress ball, and the toe that had previously fallen off of Sheila’s slowly decomposing body. All of the Hammonds’ junk blends together, flesh and otherwise, while outlets for self-care fail: Billy Joel stops making new CDs, Blockbuster goes extinct. And the stress ball? It originated as a marketing item for Sheila and Joel’s business. Printed onto it is a catchy slogan: “You won’t be stressed when you work with the best.” The ball is a stress-reliever born of work, the supreme stressor.
Santa Clarita Diet equates work and zombieism as similarly disempowering. Both rob Sheila of her autonomy, dictating what she should do—woo a client, eat someone—and when she should do it. The show thus resembles much zombie fiction, as the genre has a long tradition of commenting on work. The image of trudging hordes, after all, easily echoes that of sleepwalking 9–5 commuters and mindless thralls of the office.
Santa Clarita Diet sets itself apart from zombie tradition, however, by incorporating an element that popular zombie fiction often neglects: sex. Those who find themselves amid zombie outbreaks usually have better things to do with their time than get it on, like flee and scavenge and barricade. And when people do have sex, it rarely consists of a lighthearted romp—not only because zombies tend to be morose, but also because they represent destruction, and thereby highlight the stakes of production and reproduction. In The Walking Dead, for instance, each potential sexual act must contend with the presence of Judith, a baby, whose existence reminds the other characters to consider the ethical implications of bringing a child into a world that would eat it.
But Santa Clarita Diet is a comedy, albeit a dark one, and it’s not quite apocalyptic—there are only a handful of zombies, as far as the protagonists and audience know—so sex can be carefree. At no point does Sheila or Joel explicitly wonder if Sheila, as a zombie, can get pregnant, or whether, if she can indeed get pregnant, her child would be a zombie. In fact, zombieism encourages rather than limits sex, because Sheila’s undeath makes her hunger for human flesh in more ways than one. In the first seconds of the show’s first episode, before Sheila’s zombification, she refuses Joel’s attempts at initiating sex. “I’m sorry, babe,” she says, “I’m just not really a ‘pound one out’ kind of gal.” But only one episode later, zombie Sheila tells Joel that she “want[s] to hump like a rescue dog at a Rite Aid.”
“Santa Clarita Diet” equates work and zombieism as similarly disempowering.
There’s more than horniness at play: Sheila and Joel really love each other. They love each other so much that they’ve been working together for 20 years; so much that after Sheila loses the ability to eat food that isn’t human flesh, Joel helps her kill people and store their remains for future consumption. He isn’t as eager to satisfy Sheila’s craving for human meat as he is to satisfy her craving for sex, but he is a dutiful husband and helps with both.
Unfortunately, Sheila’s dual cravings prove tricky to juggle. One night, while straddling Joel, Sheila puts his finger in her mouth, and he enjoys the move—until Sheila chomps down on the digit. Joel yelps, and Sheila’s eyes glaze over as she maintains her vise grip on his finger. She ultimately zones back in and relaxes her jaw, shocked by her own loss of control. The incident raises a grim possibility: that Sheila might someday use Joel to satiate the wrong hunger. It doesn’t help allay that anxiety to hear Sheila moan when she eats human meat, or to learn that she has orgasmed “while eating a man’s liver.”
Santa Clarita Diet blurs the personal and the professional, the living and the dead, sex and food, orgasms and great mouthfeel. In doing so, it communicates an immense dissatisfaction. Sheila wants it all, the happy family and the big deals and the freezer full of human body parts in the storage unit, but she is over-stimulated and under-satisfied. She is an avatar of a very specific American experience: the kind of white, upper-middle-class achievement that only produces discontent. She and Joel are not really lacking in anything, but Sheila’s zombieism makes clear how empty it all is. Their life is a faux-utopian cycle of power walks, date nights, and work—and the cycle seems unstoppable.
But the tribulations of Sheila’s zombieism gradually induce an awakening in both Sheila and Joel. After Sheila gets fired from her job due to a zombie-related blackout, Joel expresses his desire to keep working at the firm, explaining that it’s a matter of financial necessity. Sheila mourns the end of their 20-year-old business partnership—but then Joel changes his mind. He shows Sheila a sample business card for a yet-unformed company: Hammond Realty. “I realized I didn’t get into this because I love real estate,” he says. “I got into this because I love you.” Joel wants to create a new company not to make more money, but to continue working with his wife. By removing the boundary between the personal and the professional, Joel and Sheila reclaim control from both work and zombieism, those twin devourers of autonomy.
Delighted with Joel’s decision to leave his job, Sheila says, “Working with you for 20 years wasn’t enough”; to which Joel responds, “Then let’s do 20 more.” They kiss, and Joel asks a typical question: “You wanna go upstairs and do things to each other?”
“Hotcha,” Sheila answers, and they walk upstairs, holding hands, knowing precisely what hunger they’re going to satisfy. Perhaps that clarity will persist into the show’s third season, and the couple will be able to plan around Sheila’s undead needs. Who knows: under the banner of Hammond Realty, Sheila might even allow herself to take a day off if another toe falls off.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.