A diet that suits (almost) everybody

How Santa Clarita’s Diet narrative and it’s meanings make a bizarre subject palatable

“A story is not only what you have to say but how you say it. If content is cliché, the telling will be cliché. But if your vision is deep and original, your story design will be unique (…). If the story is innovative then settings, characters and ideas must be equally fresh to fulfil it”. (Robert McKee)

To watch Santa Clarita’s Diet you must to dare yourself.

The show, portrayed as a normal sitcom from it’s title and main actors to the way the scenes are set and the dialogues are written, can sure trick the audiences mind and senses. You might think that you are watching an unpretentious family soap-opera until the first (literal) bite.

For those who didn’t watch it yet, let me explain (and I am already sorry for any spoiler): SCD is a part-horror-part-comedy Netflix series, created by Victor Fresco (the same one from Better Off Ted) and released on February 2017.

The main actors are Timothy Olyphant (most known by his comedic performances in the past), and one of the American’s famous sweetheart, Drew Barrymore (the little girl above, from E.T.). The cast is completed with not-that-much-well-known actors, so lovely Barrymore (today at 41) carries almost the whole serie on her shoulders.

Do you remember this face?

The story (10 episodes on the first season) is about a married couple, Sheila (Barrymore) and Joel (Olyphant), who are real estate agents in Santa Clarita, California.

They have a perfect and normal [American way of] life until Sheila goes through a weird transformation and become a “dead alive” creature.

Of course, she then starts to feed herself on human flesh. Very tasty!

Now that you know what the story is about, it’s good to have in mind that the reviews around the show are generally positive: the cast, the funny jokes and the engaging premise made SCD a serie that you either love or hate. But love is winning so far.

After it’s realising, the advertising campaign sparked heavy reactions in different countries. In Germany, for instance, the posters depicting a human finger sliced up like a curry wurst (a popular German fast food dish) lead the German Advertising Council, a self-regulatory institution, forwarded complaints to Netflix. The ads were banned.

In Brazil, Netflix hired a famous but tacky-cheeky singer (Fábio Jr.) to perform a music clip that was mainly promoted throughout social media. The video was a huge success and got watched more than 300.000 times just on YouTube (the number was from before, for an unknown reason, the video got deleted from Netflix official channel).

The videoclip remains on internet, showing the singer making jokes about the “visceral love” that Sheila and Joel have. The production has a complete normal aesthetic, very white and clean, if not for the fake blood that get smeared all over the set, the band and the main singer. He keeps singing as nothing is happening.

What this two examples of campaign do just reflects the whole narrative of SCD. Santa Clarita’s Diet portrays the “zombieness” of the main character as it is a completely normal human condition. And Netflix keeps doing the same, creating adds and more campaigns that trying to “normalize” the main character issue.

At SCD website, for instance, the narrative plays as Santa Clarita’s Diet is a real and normal “diet” and even publishes recipes, fake testimonials from people who apparently took the same “diet” and pre-made shareable social media .gifs and pictures.

Yes, it does look like a parody of the famous South Beach Diet website.

This is all to engage and also rewarding the audience, not just with the show per se, but beyond it.

The best way to serve an audience is to engage them in meaningful experiences. (…) To engage audiences you must inspire and empower them through storytelling and characters that communicate beliefs and allow them to make messages on their own. (ZEISER, Anne. Transmedia Marketing. CRC Press. 2015. p. 82)
Anitta (a Brazilian singer) got the SCD press kit. And she can't believe that she can eat whoever she wants, whenever she wants on the #SantaClaritaDiet

You might be thinking now why should you keep reading about it or even watching such a weird show that is not meaningful and it is just simple entertainment that plays with a horror and, why not, mainstream, subject? Let me clarify for you, using Robert McKee words:

What, after all, is entertainment? Entertainment is the ritual of sitting in the dark, staring at screen, investing tremendous concentration and energy into what one hopes will be a satisfying, meaningful emotional experience. Any filme that hooks, holds, and pays off the story ritual is entertainment. (McKEE, Robert. Story — Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. 2014. p. 129)

Santa Clarita’s Diet is not an entertained show to be watched in the dark (as in the movie theatres) but certainly creates a ritualistic ceremony for it’s audience. The persuasive power of this particular story is so great that, as McKee defines, “we, as audience, may believe its meaning even if we find it morally repellent”.

And you don’t need be fan of zombie stories to get carried on. The narrative of SCD goes completely away from the normal “zombie” productions that generally relies on uncontrolled epidemics that affect nations and devastated countries. It almost satirize other zombie shows. At this one, the context is intimate and very specific (at least at the first season).

Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer, used a very clear metaphor to explain the show: “It’s like Desperate Housewives meets The Walking Dead”.

The way the family Hammond is portrayed, for example, show a normal American couple and its daughter Abby (Liv Hewson), how they try to keep the appearance in front of the neighbours or even behave in front of their clients with composure and lots of manners. They don’t walk out of the line. They don’t misbehave. They dress up just with formal clothes. They drive an average car. They don’t show instincts or desires.

Well… that is until Sheila died and comes back to life, right in the end of first episode, literally “killing” any surprising. But what has transformation does, supplying the audience with that key information, highly increase the curiosity level for the rest of the show, as the authors Bordwell and Thompson explain:

The spectator's interest can be aroused and manipulated by carefully divulging story information at various points. (…) The plot may arrange cues in ways that withhold information for the sake of curiosity or surprise. Or the plot may supply information in such a way as to create expectations or increase suspense. (BORDWELL, David and THOMPSON, Kristin. Film Art. An Introduction. McGraw Hill. 2010. p. 88)

Before actually starts to eat human flesh, Sheila became a different person. Her character handsel a crazy appetite towards life: she wants more sex, more drinks, a more expensive car. She became a more free-minded and confident woman and a more presence mom. The only detail is that she is actually dead and starts behave as a cannibal.

But, as soon as the family learned how to deal with the odd situation, they start to make brain meatballs with pasta and milkshake with human fingers. And the show then becomes hard to resist.

What the narrative of Santa Clarita's Diet does is to deconstruct the notion of harmonic union while introduces an inexplicable element, supernatural, that changes completely the dynamic that would have a typically perfect and normal American family. From that moment, the ordinary family configuration starts to fall apart — or was readjust, to be more fair with the script. What the story does is play with the true… an odd one.

Even if a story is not literally True, it is a very good representation of what is True because it can weave the relational aspects of the facts with space, time, and values. (SIMMONS, Anette. The Story Factor. Basic Books. 2006. p. 33)

The narrative of SCD is also based on an linear and chronological timeline. At the very first episode, Sheila’s transformation occurs and, from that moment on, the show continues, shaping our understanding of the actions. There is no flashbacks on the plot and every episode correspond to a day in the Hammond's life.

The series resort the absurd as a big triumph to catch the audience attention and raise a question: what is the biggest challenge that a family can surpass to stay together? Because that is the whole idea around the series, and perhaps their theme. They just want to stay together.

Throughout the episodes, the Hammond family need to learn another routine and understand Sheila’s new lifestyle (and diet). They seek for the familiar equilibrium, even living the most hectic situation that they never lived before. And even around the most bizarre and grotesque situations, they stick together. They even use the situation to think deeper about themes as fragility of life, strength of familiar bond, dead and heritage. This kind of subjects are not usual in horror/zombie productions.

Robert Bianco, in a review published in the USA Today, wrote that “at heart, SCD is a comedy about the lengths we’ll go to protect the ones we love and preserve a sense of normalcy, even in the most abnormal situations”. He couldn't be more right.

One of the biggest trumps of Santa Clarita’s Diet narrative is the dynamic between the main actors. They are the agents of cause and effect. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant are very comfortable on their roles. As a protagonist, her character is so vibrant, energetic and spontaneous that it’s impossible to not feel empathy. For Robert McKee standards, the author of Story (2014), that means a lot.

For him, “a story cannot be told about a protagonist who doesn’t want anything, who cannot make decisions, whose actions effect no change at any level”. And for sure, Sheila checks all that boxes: she has a conscious desire, even if sometimes is self-contradictory; she has the capacities to pursue the object of her desire convincingly, she takes us to the limit, “to the boundaries of human experience in depth to reach absolute and irreversible change”.

In the case of Joel (Olyphant), his readiness to help Sheila and to find the cure is also very appealing and he shows love and kindness to her even when she became a killer.

They both accomplish the likability that McKee defines as super important for a story. “We do want them (the protagonists) as friend, family members, or lovers. They have an innate likability and evoke sympathy”.

The scenes where Joel try to buy Sheila a corpse at the city morgue, or when he patiently shave a human body so it’ll be easier for his wife to eat while she sucks the fat off some ribs are just examples of the "delightful" relationship they have.

This connection between the main characters and the bond they create with the audience throughout they true roles are what give the SCD such a powerful (and why not swallowable) narrative. With zombies or not.

Whatever simultaneously connects to something relevant and meaningful to your listeners and gives them a taste [in this case, literally] of who you are, works. (…) A good story simplifies our world into something that we feel like we can understand. Story is so powerful that it behooves us to remind ourselves — we human beings have a weakness for anything that promises to give us answers and do our thinking for us. (SIMMONS, Anette. The Story Factor. Basic Books. 2006. p. 6)

The very last episode — with the couple in real trouble — left the audience starving for more. And looks like the city of Santa Clarita will not remain calm. At least is what is being promised for the next season (confirmed for 2018 right when this article was being written):

  • This article was published as an assignment for Visual Narratives, in Master in Visual and Digital Media (MVDM OCT16), at IE School of Human Science and Technology, in Madrid (Spain).


BORDWELL, David and THOMPSON, Kristin. Film Art. An Introduction. McGraw Hill. 2010

MCKEE, Robert. Story — Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. Methuen. 2014

SIMMONS, Annette. The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling. Basic Books. 2006

ZEISER, Anne. Transmedia Marketing — from film and tv to games and digital media. CRC Press. 2015

Santa Clarita Diet website http://santaclaritadiet.com/

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