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'Santa Clarita Diet' surprisingly sweet for its zombie-mom trappings

'Santa Clarita Diet' surprisingly sweet for its zombie-mom trappings
Drew Barrymore is a Southern California housewife turned undead flesh-eater in the Netflix comedy "Santa Clarita Diet." (Saeed Adyani / Netflix)

In the new Netflix comedy "Santa Clarita Diet" (premiering Friday in its 10-episode, first-season entirety), Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant play Sheila and Joel Hammond, a married team of real estate agents living and working in the far suburbs north of Los Angeles.

One day, in the midst of showing a house, Sheila begins to vomit extravagantly, in the process throwing up a small, dark object that might or might not be an organ; she passes out and wakes up dead, but refreshed and energized with a new lease on life.

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There is no explanation for Sheila's condition (a search for one will occupy some of what's to follow) and, unlike most stories about zombies, no epidemic. Civilization is not threatened; the metaphors are not broadly social, and though creator Victor Fresco (the singular ABC corporate sitcom "Better Off Ted") has said that the series grew in part out of an interest in "narcissist culture," the show as executed is less about that than its inverse: It's a comedy, rather, of restraint and cooperation, of loving the seemingly unlovable, of keeping a family together in a situation that logically should tear it apart.

Which is to say, it's rather sweet.

As a story of ordinary people who inadvertently, then purposefully, become murderers, and the contrast of the exceedingly normal and the excessively strange, it bears some resemblance to "Fargo," with which it also shares a formal whimsicality. On the face of it, the premise sounds like a joke about a bad sitcom pitch — "and Mom's a zombie!" (Within the world of the series, there is already a comic book with that premise, "Mombie.") But if the concept does stretch a little thin across the long arc, any randomly selected 10 minutes will show you something good.

Although the jokes hew to certain forms and formulas (weird + deadpan = funny, corpse + unexpected visitor = farce), they do tend to stick their landings. ("Do you remember that dinner we had in Tuscany? I keep thinking how good that waiter would taste right now.") The plotting sometimes sacrifices sense in the name of comedy and provides easy targets you won't particularly mind seeing killed and eaten, but it's tight and propulsive, and because the action takes place over a short period of time, the series never turns into "Variations on a Theme of Zombie Cannibalism." And the performances are charming; characters grow more dimensional over time in ways that can't be predicted from the initial episodes.

This is especially true of Olyphant, who seems at first to be swimming upstream against type, evoking a mildly depressed, somewhat fussy banality nothing in his body or person suggests comes naturally to him; both he and Barrymore, who uses her innate screwy likability to good ends, employ a careful enunciation that underscores the tightness of lives soon to become necessarily reckless —  even as their banter remains familiarly domestic, sometimes passive-aggressive, sometimes deeply affectionate. (She: "All I know is I'm getting hungry." He: "You ate yesterday." She: "Thank you, food police."). That Joel is later allowed to broaden and deepen is structurally part of the point. "I refuse to be defined by the one time I murdered somebody," he will say, and the show, adopting a minor theme, will let him.

As their daughter, Abby, Liv Hewson has some of the dry, sardonic impudence of a 1930s film heroine; she is in some respects the glue of the series and pairs well with nerdy boy-next-door (Skyler Gisondo), who becomes the family's guide to the paranormal. The lead performances are well bolstered by a retinue of guest and recurring players that includes Nathan Fillion, Natalie Morales, Portia de Rossi, Patton Oswalt, Thomas Lennon, and "Drunk History" main man Derek Waters. Ricardo Chavira and Richard T. Jones play the sheriff's deputy and the Santa Monica policeman, who are inconveniently neighbors on either side of the Hammonds in their perhaps metaphorical cul-de-sac. Though sometimes a cul-de-sac is just a cul-de-sac.

A scene from Netflix's "Santa Clarita Diet."
A scene from Netflix's "Santa Clarita Diet." (Saeed Adyani / Netflix)

'Santa Clarita Diet'

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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