Photo: Netflix

Santa Clarita Diet was already off to a solid start, but episode four, “The Farting Sex Tourist,” was its first really stellar episode. It sets up a couple really intriguing storylines, plus starts to answer a few questions that we’ve had since the premiere.

In an effort to research what is going on with his wife, Joel (Timothy Olyphant) has been visiting occult bookstores. He finally hits the jackpot at one where he sees art on the wall depicting Sheila’s experience—the vomiting, the red chunk she threw up, and the whole turning into a zombie thing.

The Hammonds don’t know what it means yet, but the art is hundreds of years old and also Serbian, so it’s going to require a bit of research before they can figure out what it might mean for their situation. As luck would have it Principal Novak (Thomas Lennon) is Serbian. Unfortunately, he is a bit of a jerk. Sheila basically tells him where he can stick it, and now getting him to help them may prove difficult.

Mr. Novak’s biggest problem is that he calls the Hammonds in to talk about Abby (Liv Hewson) ditching school and acts like the biggest concern is the corrupting influence she’s having on Eric Bemis (Skyler Gisondo). See, Eric is a straight-A genius kid who never gets in trouble, and Abby is just kind of there. She’s not a bad student or a discipline problem, but the principal doesn’t see her as anything special. Which Sheila and Joel obviously take umbrage with. Let’s just say Novak is lucky Sheila didn’t decide to put his insides on the outside, but he gets off with a warning about cutting her kid some slack or Sheila the realtor will make his life hell (possibly by selling his house).

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Meanwhile, Joel manages to get to the heart of Abby’s latest acting out: She’s not handling her mom turning into a zombie very well, and she’s worried that Sheila isn’t really her mom anymore. It was actually kind of heartbreaking when Abby asks Joel, “Did mom die when mom died?”, which is a legitimate concern. Sheila is definitely not acting like her normal self. However, it feels more like Sheila is herself; she’s just turned up to 11.

Sheila obviously still loves her family, she is just now having to balance that with also caring heavily about her baser instincts, something that most parents (the good ones) don’t do. There’s no room for that when you have to be an adult and pay a mortgage and raise a kid. So it is naturally throwing Abby for a total loop and making her question if her mother still loves her and is even still her mother.

And on a totally unrelated note, at the end of the episode, nosy neighbor Dan (Ricardo Chavira) finds one of Gary’s fingers in the Hammonds’ backyard. Ruh roh. But also: Yes! It’s just the icing on the cake of what makes episode 4 the strongest episode so far. If we were trying to convince someone who had never heard of Santa Clarita Diet to give it a try, episode 4 is definitely the watershed episode we would tell them to watch before they decide.

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The first three episodes have been a lot of fun, but comedies cannot subsist on laughs alone. The best ones find the emotional beats and, in the right kind of comedy, the high-tension stakes as well. Santa Clarita Diet just delivered both things in spades in “The Farting Sex Tourist,” giving viewers some tender moments with the Hammonds while also launching two plots for the second act of the season: What’s the deal with Sheila becoming a zombie, and what does the Serbian art mean? And what is Dan going to do with the highly suspicious digit he just found in their backyard?

Stray observations

  • The show is really doing a nice job of establishing the supporting characters. All of the Hammonds’ neighbors are weird and hilarious in their own ways and most of them are being fleshed out as more than stock characters. We could do with a little more from Dan than just “I’m a hardass cop” all the time, but maybe that’s coming later in the season.
  • “She’s not going to use half the stuff they teach in there and you NEVER cared about trigonometry. The only triangle you were interested in was the one in my pants.”
  • “I know you want to do whatever you want now, but I’m not sure the family can survive it.” This is another great line in addition to Abby wondering if mom died when mom died. Sheila has to rein it in if she cares about her family at all, which is another way Santa Clarita Diet is so atypical from the usual zombie fare. It reminds us of how Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Oz (Seth Green) would refer to becoming a werewolf as his “furry little problem.” He was a fairly normal dude who just had to learn how to deal with an unusual problem. Same goes for Sheila, and it’s nice to see that she wants to try.

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