Robert McKee’s “Works/Doesn’t Work” Review


Created by Victor Fresco

It Works. (Spoiler Alert!)

SANTA CLARITA DIET is 21st century Comedy of Manners. If Oscar Wilde diddled Noel Coward (or the other way round), this show would be their great great grandchild.

Comedy of Manners satirizes a particular society—most often the upper middle class. For this series, Creator/Showrunner Victor Fresco turns cannibalism into a fad diet so he can smack the smirk off California professionals, starting with realtors. He then pushes their obsession with longevity to zombie-fication, and with that, gives his co-protagonists license to murder a bad person in virtually every episode.

This premise raises two questions:

1. How to manage the viewers’ moral emotions so that they don’t turn against the voraciously undead protagonist?

2. How to keep blood-spattered violence from killing the laughs?

The answer to the first question begins with casting. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant are instantly loveable. As Sheila and Joel, high school sweethearts in their 20+ th year of marriage, still deeply and devotedly in love, their zany charm wins us to their side, no matter how heinous their deeds. Barrymore and Olyphant have become a graceful team of high wire performers, winging verbal wit through the air the way the Williams’ sisters serve and volley.

As to the second question, the primal convention of comedy states: Never cause pain. So when Sheila rips the throat out of her victims, why don’t we wince? What makes us feel it’s okay to laugh instead?

Answer: Exaggerated style. Comic mood calls for bright light and vibrant color, so the episodes always stage their violence in crystalline California sunshine. The actors then play their killing scenes at or over the top—eyes wide, gestures flying, blood geysering like Old Faithful. But most of all, to counterpoint the mayhem, the writers give the actors brilliant understated, sarcastic, off-the-wall dialogue—the very things you should never say in the midst of murder.

When FRASIER closed shop, I wondered if I’d ever enjoy prancing, high wit dialogue in a sit-com again, but here it is, on tiptoe. SANTA CLARITA DIET offers marvelous comic relief from our boiling-point political, racial, and gender divided world.

Master the conventions of the genre at McKee’s COMEDY Day!

October 13, 2018

(Part of the Los Angeles GENRE Festival)