There are two scenes in the first episode of Santa Clarita Diet, the new comedy from Better Off Ted creator Victor Fresco, that are so disgusting that thinking about them, more than a week after I watched them, can still make me actively nauseous.
In one, Sheila (Drew Barrymore), a real estate agent who works with her husband, Joel (Timothy Olyphant), begins throwing up during a showing and can't stop: We hear the whole thing, and the camera lingers on the bilious results. Later, after we've learned that this was the process of Sheila turning into a zombie, albeit one who can stave off rot and rigor mortis and keep up a healthy sex drive and sense of spontaneity as long as she's regularly fed, we're treated to a lasciviously gory scene of her chomping down on her first human meal.
I don't like watching disgusting things - I have a tendency to get queasy relatively easily - but it's part of my job. And I can recognize when something gross is happening for a reason. But Santa Clarita Diet is a good reminder that roiling your viewers' stomachs is not always the same thing as eliciting a meaningful reaction. Sometimes disgust is just disgust.
To take a few counterexamples, I didn't enjoy the climax of the duel between Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) and Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) in Game of Thrones, which ended with the former smashing the latter's head into a pulp with a single blow from his enormously powerful fist. And I didn't particularly need to see a dog tearing off Ramsay Bolton's (Iwan Rheon) jaw after Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who had been forced to marry him, defeated him in battle and then executed him by the same means he had used to murder so many others.
But I understood why the show made both of those choices. Martell's death at the moment when he seems to have won the fight is a shocking reversal and a victory for brute force over cleverness. And for Stark to use Bolton's own methods was one of the best possible ways for the show to demonstrate how thoroughly she had been compromised and to undercut the sense that her liberation was an unambiguous victory.
What the vomiting sequence and the sight of Sheila over the body she has ripped open communicate is mostly that the process she's going through is yucky. I suppose there's some minor frisson that Santa Clarita Diet gets from the juxtaposition of a vomit-encrusted bathroom, some really gory entrails, the supposed tidiness of Sheila and Joel's suburban life and the upscale fantasy homes they sell, and her increased sex drive. There's bile and sinew and intestines lying behind all of our desires. But Santa Clarita Diet seems too lightweight to support much true darkness; "the show is offering us a series of barf jokes, not a "Hannibal"-style vivisection of the soul or a Walking Dead-style meditation on the breakdown of society.
Maybe Santa Clarita Diet will get there, or at least someplace a little bit more interesting. But with so much other television to watch, I won't be joining the show on its particular journey. Instead, Santa Clarita Diet will stand as a reminder that the license outlets such as Netflix give to creators, whether it's to make episodes longer or shorter than the standard run time, or to be explicitly sexual, explicitly violent or explicitly disgusting aren't always meaningful. Watching Sheila wander around her kitchen cheerfully eating raw hamburger from a Styrofoam tray is more unsettling than looking at the queasier wreckage of her purging and bingeing.
Season One of Santa Clarita Diet is available on Netflix now