'Santa Clarita Diet' Is Netflix's Junk Food

On Sunday, I watched a realtor Drew Barrymore was portraying throw up buckets (and buckets) of vomit during the premiere of the “Santa Clarita Diet.” A few minutes later, she first bit off the fingers of a swarmy co-worker and then ate him entirely. Her husband, aghast, came upon the scene just before she was going to dig into the fellow’s intestines.

I don’t know if I could say, “Well, he had it coming!” but as I watched this Netflix zombie sitcom that began earlier this month, I once again realized, it’s what we have coming. The more streaming service competition revs up, the lower they’ll all reach to achieve scale. 

Since Netflix is the undisputed king of the streaming empire, I thought it would be more resistant. It’s not just “Santa Clarita Diet” that makes me realize I’m wrong, but it supports my conclusion.

It’s hard to argue that an un-dead sitcom that features voluminous vomit and a well-known movie star chomping on flesh and raw hamburger meat means Netflix is pandering to a broader base of viewers. But the high-mindedness Netflix once could exploit is now being fortified with stuff that’s a lot lower on the prestige-o-meter — and scores high on the buzz-o-meter.



The service is doing a little bit of a balancing act, adding low-brow programs wrapped in higher-browed trappings — the presence of Barrymore, a popular real-live movie star.

A Washington Post review says: “ ‘Santa Clarita Diet’ seems too lightweight to support much true darkness; the show is offering us a series of barf jokes,” and the critic concludes that the series “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.” 

This is a comedy from Victor Fresco, a veteran TV writer and producer who details the nonsense of network television in a fun new podcast series, Dead Pilots Society, in which others like Fresco detail their network horror stories just before a cast of actors does a table read of the pilot some network messed up.

In the podcast, Fresco used as a counterpoint, as many before him have, the liberating Netflix, which in his telling had few questions about his latest project.

Sadly, “Santa Clarita Diet” proves writers need the push-back. Fresco told The Hollywood Reporter he fell in love with the Netflix way, and says in THR’s words, was excited that he could have Barrymore “eat as many body parts on screen as she wanted.”

Says Fresco: "If this was a network show, then there's always the funny standards and practices notes about how many times you can say 'balls,' or, 'let's not have her eat this part of this person. There was never anything that came through that said we couldn't do something."

That’s often a good thing, of course.

But the streaming reality, I’m afraid, will become another race to the bottom. There are so many people, places and things racing down there!

Joel Espelien opined for The Diffusion Group that TV Everywhere apps and other streaming services have made Netflix just another pretty face in the crowd. “Unfortunately for Netflix, TV apps have commoditized, meaning the loss of a key competitive advantage, as it is no longer the only one with ‘shelf space’ on the home screen of these connected devices,” he wrote.

He continues, “Yet another example of Netflix losing key early advantages is the fact that legacy providers have adapted their shows to the online environment. Nearly all new TV shows are serialized, with the standalone episode having gone the way of the dodo bird. Legacy providers typically post new shows weekly as they air on live linear (rather than all at once), but once posted that distinction evaporates.”

And so Netflix, as fat and happy as it is, and committed to spending $6 billion this year on programming, is also feeling the competitive heat it surely knew was coming.

As I’ve argued before, in the content business, success tends to make the overall product a little less than it was.

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