On first glance, Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet is a sly sitcom about a suburban woman who suddenly develops a craving for human flesh. On a deeper level, however, it might be about narcissism, or unbridled consumerism, or the complicated power dynamics between husband and wife — zombies, after all, can be metaphors for almost anything. Vulture sat down with the show’s creator, Victor Fresco, and stars Drew Barrymore, who plays the zombie in question, and Timothy Olyphant, the zombie’s husband, to find out what Santa Clarita is really about, and how it relates to sitcoms that came before it.
As Sheila transforms into a zombie, things spiral out of control on the show. Was there a limit to how far things would go?
Victor Fresco: We wanted to keep ratcheting it up. I didn’t know at the very beginning exactly where it was going to go at the end. But we knew the markers, like episode five, where Joel gets a little more aggressive. We knew vaguely where it was going. We didn’t know what the end would be, but I knew we wanted to keep dialing up, increasing the stakes. I think, tonally, we want to stay in the same area that we’re in, and we want to keep that relationship intact. So we like to work our way into a tough place and then try to work our way out of it.
Drew Barrymore: Which is like life. How the fuck do you get out of the bag instead of just being the cat in the bag? [She acts out a cat trying to claw its way out of a bag.]
Timothy Olyphant: Oddly reminiscent of a zombie.
DB: Yes, lots of dog ears.
DB: I’m a sound junkie. I have abnormally sensitive ears where I hear everything, so the second I hear some incoming thing that’s gonna stop what we’re [recording on set], I just go, “Woof!” [she puts up her hands like dog ears] then we wait till it passes …
VF: No one on set cares about it except you, me, and the sound guy. And the sound guy is always overridden by production.
I guess that’s part of the challenge of doing a single-camera show like this. You’re not doing it in a studio, with a studio audience.
VF: Yeah, You’ve never done multi-camera, have you? In front of an audience?
TO: No, never.
DB: I’ve been to them.
VF: So I’ve done both, but I’ve done a lot of single camera.
DB: I remember being with Steven Spielberg and [Family Ties creator] Gary David Goldberg and we were walking on the beach to David’s house. He put in a beta or an 8-track type of tape and he showed us his new show, the pilot of Family Ties.
Could you tell that Family Ties was going to be great?
DB: I mean, it looked really fun to me. Then I was really excited because there was a mini-catamaran outside on the beach — that’s like, a 7-year-old or 8-year-old’s attention span. I did feel like I was watching something that was going to be special and important. Then, very quickly, there was this ubiquitous rage over Family Ties. It was awesome.
On Santa Clarita Diet, you’re kind of doing the opposite of Family Ties. You’re pushing against the conventions of a typical sitcom, taking the setup they take for granted to the extreme.
DB: When you think about the generations of TV, I feel proud, because this show feels, to me, current with the times, and how much everybody’s been exposed to in this world. It’s not that crazy and shocking, but it has enough edge that it keeps up with all the craziness that we’ve all accepted, both creatively and in reality. When I hear Victor say it’s a show about people trying to love each other, I love that. That moves me. I have kids, that train can never go off the track. That’s a relationship that no matter what, I will always be in. So I understand that kind of commitment, and therefore I’m intrigued with how you make relationships function.
TO: And she calls me a chatterbox.
DB: No! I can get out a lot in one minute. You would take five minutes to get out what I get out in one minute. I never stop saying words.
TO: I feel like that’s going to be the headline: “I never stop saying words.”
I also want to talk about how the show is operating on a metaphorical level …
TO: Please, Drew, take that one. Let’s see where it goes.
DB: Let him finish the question, Tim. Metaphor, yes …
I’ve read all sorts of different interpretations of the show, that it’s about a husband’s fear of his wife, or how a terrible thing will happen in your life and you will just try to make it ordinary. Did you have any specific interpretations in mind?
TO: I think those are both good, whoever those people are deserve some credit for watching the show I think we made.
DB: I think those are both fun analogies.
VF: I like the different types of metaphors that they bring to it. I think it is about a few things. Unconditional love is a part of that. How does a marriage survive when they know they’re in it forever? When something dramatic happens to it, they work as a team. They’re not against each other. Now, she’s empowered and has this new strength and confidence, but also left unchecked, that’s just pure narcissism. That’s crazy and destructive. I think you can go deeper into another metaphor of zombies as the ultimate narcissists and consumers who consume without thinking. That’s kind of culturally where we are. We’ll eat ourselves out of the planet if we’re not careful.
It’s a double-sided thing, because their love also drags Joel and Sheila into committing murder. Love is great, but murder is not great, to be very inarticulate.
DB: Murder is not great.
TO: That same thing is in the Bible as well, so you’re onto something. Things have to die in order for other things to live — just not necessarily the neighbors. Sometimes it could just be a vegetable, a tree.
DB: Honestly, everyone that they off wasn’t really a good person, so far.
TO: We’re doing the best we can, under the circumstances.
It’s almost like a comedy version of Breaking Bad. The crimes start off small, but then get bigger and bigger.
DB: People have used that reference quite a bit in the last few days, which has been really fun for me, because I love respected shows. I’ll take it.
VF: It’s similar. His life has gone off the rails in Breaking Bad and he shifts into a completely different life.
DB: I’m interested to see what each individual takes from it. I think there’s quite a [few] themes to work with, and clearly, Victor has an intention and a clear vision and is not throwing stuff at the wall and hoping that it sticks. There’s a real thoughtfulness behind the process. But I like anything that also has some interpretation within those boundaries.
TO: I’m interested in what individuals take from it as well, but I want them to keep that to themselves.
You would rather they just watch the show and enjoy?
DB: He’s kidding.
TO: I can only take so many people’s opinions.
DB: Well, you know what they say. Opinions …
VF: Are like …
DB: Assholes. Everyone’s got one.