Written for The i Paper.
Santa Clarita Diet is back on Netflix with its second season and I could not be happier to see one of my favourite couples return. This is a show where the protagonists kill people, yet it’s also one of the best depictions of a healthy relationship I’ve ever seen on TV. Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Sheila Hallmond (Drew Barrymore) are California real estate agents. After throwing up copious amounts of green goo on the pristine carpet of a show home, Sheila casually turns from a timid, people-pleasing human to a sassy, flesh-eating zombie. Sheila quickly embraces her zombie life, and is happier and more confident than ever. Even when she begins to realise the implications of her predicament she refuses to reign herself in completely. She feels powerful and she is powerful. When things get out of hand she takes responsibility, and doesn’t let not being technically alive absolve her from her actions. She may be a killing machine but she kills responsibly.
Now that Sheila is a zombie her aversion to murder is somewhat lessened but for Joel, a mere mortal, his morals are less easily squashed. As they go from being a middle class couple that enjoys nice dinners in restaurants to hunting their own dinner, they navigate this new chapter of their relationship with love and support. Shelia’s new penchant for human flesh is, understandably, a lot for the couple to take in but together Sheila and Joel do their best to handle the challenges together. At first, Joel struggles to keep up with his wife on their murdering sprees. It’s just not his thing – he’s pretty squeamish. He expresses his discomfort to Sheila and they have a heartfelt discussion about the changes in their life and work towards a compromise. Sheila agrees to take certain precautions to ensure her safety when out procuring her dinner so Joel can stay home. Joel misses the old version of his life where things were boring but comfortable, but as he starts to see how happy and free his wife is he quickly comes around. After reflecting on his feelings and earlier conversation with Sheila he decides that it’s more important to him that he be with her every step of the way. Joel confesses his change of heart and a new compromise is made where it’s understood that while Joel will accompany and support Sheila, he will not be the one to do the actual murdering. Although he is intimidated by Sheila’s sudden lust for life (and blood) he endeavours to support her no matter what, even if it means watching her eat a 250lb dead man or driving out to the desert to bury yet another body. Whenever he shows resentment or bitterness about their situation, it’s usually driven by the fear of losing her. He so desperately wants her to survive even as her decaying body begins to slowly fail her.
Sure, the show is about zombies, murder and cannibalism, but Santa Clarita Diet also gently challenges aspects of toxic masculinity and is a great example of a supportive and playful relationship. The protagonists constantly negotiate, compromise and set fair boundaries when things get hard, instead of resorting to the petty behaviour that drives so many TV couples. It’s a funny and progressive show despite the gory subject manner. The bar may be low for men, and Drew Barrymore’s Sheila is the true feminist in this show, but Joel is the sort of male character we rarely get to see. A husband and father who is allowed to be soft without being considered weak. He loves his wife immensely and his biggest fear, other than losing her, is the thought of her feeling alone. In one scene where Joel is challenged to a fight, he chooses to walk away. He calmly states that he has nothing to prove and violence isn’t the answer (unless it’s to feed his hangry wife. That’s totally different.) Despite his wife now inhabiting the more traditional traits of masculinity, not once does Joel feel threatened. Sheila may now be stronger, quicker and more assertive than him there is no posturing from Joel, he doesn’t spend his time trying to convince everyone that he is the alpha. It’s clear to see that their relationship is built on mutual respect.
While it’s easy to dwell on the couples homicidal tendencies, we could all learn something from Joel and Sheila. They know relationships aren’t easy but are willing to put in the work because they love and respect each other. They show that communication is key and being vulnerable is OK.