Santa Clarita Diet starts off as a fairly run-of-the-mill half-hour comedy. Husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) tries to have sex with wife Sheila (Drew Barrymore), who rejects him. They go off to their jobs as realtors in their cookie-cutter California suburb. Then Sheila starts uncontrollably throwing up in a house they’re showing. Then she dies. Then she… wakes up, hungry for raw meat and sex. Oh, and she doesn’t have a heartbeat. Meet undead Sheila.
Creator Victor Fresco’s past writing on similarly off-kilter family comedies ALF and Dinosaurs prepared him for crafting a surreal series like Santa Clarita Diet — which eventually sees Sheila and Joel murdering peopel to feed her growing appetite — from the ground up.
“Both of those were larger-than-life premises, big swings,” Fresco tells EW. “I get tired of watching shows about a family and the big change that happens to them is one of the parents moves in or something like that. As a writer, you just try to do something that you feel is going to be really fun for you to write, and this felt like — and was — fun to write.”
Fresco’s also the guy behind Better Off Ted, an ABC series that ran from 2009 to 2010 about the employees at an immoral corporation that specializes in ridiculous, over-the-top inventions. Both shows present dark humor in a bubbly package, though Fresco argues Santa Clarita Diet isn’t as dark as its subject matter might make it seem.
“I think there’s a life-affirming quality to it, because Sheila and Joel’s relationship is strong at the core,” Fresco says. “It shows that love conquers all, which is just a nice feeling that I sometimes have when I watch television or go through life. If there’s enough love at the core of a relationship, it can survive anything.”
Read on for more about why Fresco wanted Joel and Sheila to have a refreshingly healthy marriage, how he cast its stars, and what Barrymore’s actually noshing on in those dinner scenes. Santa Clarita Diet‘s entire first season is now streaming on Netflix.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the process of coming up with this concept?
VICTOR FRESCO: It came from two places: One is, how can I do a family show with an interesting approach that we haven’t seen before? What makes it a little different than just a family living in the suburbs dealing with everyday problems? This was trying to give them a giant problem, but then to also ground it in a real way and try to see what effect it would have on a relationship. So I started with this idea that they had this unconditional love for each other, that it’s not going anywhere, they’ve been together forever. That’s solid at its core. And then how do you navigate a relationship when something giant has dropped in the relationship’s lap?
The other thing that I was interested in was narcissism. It just struck me when I started to think about the undead that the undead are the ultimate narcissists. They want what they want when they want it and will do anything to just have what they want and don’t care about other people’s needs. Generally, that means they eat people. In this case, her id is activated in all kinds of different ways. How does she adjust to getting what she wants all the time while staying in a relationship?
Did you ever consider making them have an unhappy relationship or was it important for them to be a solid couple?
I did, at one point, think, would they stay in the relationship? Or was one of them thinking about leaving it? And to me, I guess I’m a romantic. I guess, in a way, this is a romantic piece. I like watching relationships like that. And I think that’s real, that people can fall in love for life, and that the relationship’s core love is unquestioned. There’s no right and wrong way to do these things; I personally would rather watch and write that kind of love and then the challenges from the outside coming in and how do we navigate this together as a team rather than, are we a team? So I started with the premise, that yes, they will always be a team like families are a team.
Why Santa Clarita?
I grew up in the valley, San Fernando Valley, so that’s familiar ground to me. I wanted it to be in a middle-class, working-class suburb, which is really what Santa Clarita is. They’re not rich people that live there; it’s teachers and cops and firefighters, and I wanted that kind of environment because I didn’t want them to have wealth, I wanted them to be middle-class. And that middle class has kind of been pushed out of L.A. all the way up to there to be able to buy a house. Also, the planned community and the organization of that community, which I think plays well against the complete chaos that happens with our couple, I just like how perfectly groomed the place is. And their lives are also perfectly groomed until this event happens, and then it goes off the rails, and it just was a fun area to juxtapose with this kind of energy.
And why did you choose to have them work in real estate?
It gets them out into the world. This is going to sound like I’m critical of realtors, but I like the forced friendliness of realtors. They have to present as everything’s great and they’re so happy when they’re showing a house or with a client, and I just kind of like that forced energy and joy — which, by the way, none of us, I don’t think, really feel, but we can put on when we need to. I liked seeing them having to do that.
As a footnote, when I first met with Drew, she loved the fact that she could play a realtor. She apparently likes going to look at houses, and she watches shows about flipping houses, and so that was just a side note that she really liked that world. It’s such a funny thing to latch onto.
RELATED: Timothy Olyphant compares Santa Clarita Diet to ALF
Drew and Timothy are so good at inhabiting that perky persona. How did you cast them?
Drew was a great prototype for this because we wanted somebody who we would root for, and obviously, they’re doing intense stuff. Drew is killing people. But you still want to feel sympathetic and be on her side as she navigates this, and so Drew is just such a delightful, joyful, positive person who you really do root for.
Tim, that name came out of Netflix, and I loved Tim. Deadwood was probably my favorite show ever, and I love Justified. He does play much more of a badass kind of character than I was originally imaging for this. But I had worked for him years ago on My Name Is Earl, and I saw him do The Grinder, and when you know him personally, he’s much more like this character that he’s playing than like the bad-ass, stoic guys that he has played. And he is also somebody who is a great actor. He’s one of those actors, like Drew, who can do comedy and drama, so that’s always appealing.
Portia de Rossi shows up, which was a fun nod to Better Off Ted fans. Did you write that character with her in mind?
I love Portia, and I just had such a great experience with her on Ted. She’s so delightful and funny and just wonderful to work with. We knew that we were going to have a character like that come in at the end, and so we aimed it toward Portia, and early in the process, she said she’d be happy to do that. That Veronica character that she plays on Ted, I felt like I wasn’t finished with that character yet when that show ended. So thankfully, Portia was up for doing that type of character again for us. It was written for her.
Santa Clarita Diet gets pretty disgusting at some points. Were you afraid of turning anyone off with that? Where did you draw the line with it, if you drew a line at all?
[Laughs] At times, I felt like, god, I’m not sure that we’re getting gory enough. Is there enough violence in it? [Laughs.] I think we are now in a universe with television where’s there’s so much gore and violence on, and I guess we’re not used to seeing it in comedy as much. I’m actually pretty squeamish about that stuff. I don’t watch a lot of horror; I don’t gravitate toward it. So my own lines are just like, what would I watch? How graphic would it be for me to be turned off by it? And we didn’t cross that line, for me.
What is she actually eating during those scenes?
All kinds of things: beet paste put through a hamburger grinder so it looks like hamburger meat. Some of the snappier, tendon things are gummy bear material that can stretch out and snap, and then we do sound work that helps us. She was eating fish for some of it, like raw sushi. I think that snail was actually chocolate. It was a real snail, a working snail, who had a name I can’t remember, like Ben or something. Then, of course, we do it on the cut because we don’t want to harm a snail, so when she pops it in her mouth, then it’s a chocolate snail that she’s eating.
So Ben had his big moment.
He did! And he did great. He behaved. He just sat there waiting for his close-up. And then Drew was a good sport. She put him all the way into her mouth and then we cut there, but she is not squeamish, which is great because she is called upon to do a lot of intense stuff. She never has an issue with it.
I know you probably can’t answer this, but is there a cure?
[Laughs] I can’t answer that. Well, she’s dead. And so there’s no cure for death. She can’t become alive again. We know that. And I think we say that deeper in the run, what they can do is stop the symptoms from progressing so she can continue to be the person she is but without getting worse. So her choices are to deteriorate, turn into a mindless undead person who they have to kill one day, or who will run amok, or kind of stay in her current condition, which I think is what they’re striving to do.