Death and cannibalism are two of the darkest themes you could imagine — but both The Good Place and Santa Clarita Diet manage to explore them thoroughly with heart and hilarity.
When confronted with the concept of a show about cannibalism or a show about death, your mind wouldn’t immediately assume comedy. But like many great shows before it, both Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet and NBC’s The Good Place have taken on heavy concepts and turned them into shows that are both lighthearted and full of heart.
Santa Clarita Diet stands out for its juxtaposition of comedy and gore. Following a suburban family whose mother suddenly becomes a zombie, it’s full of bloody murders, violent attacks, and even (gag) human hairballs.
And while The Good Place isn’t quite gory (though their take on the Trolley Problem did toe the line), it tackles some heavy themes head-on as Eleanor, having been a truly horrible person, finds herself in an afterworld that is full of ethical dilemmas and the possibility of eternal torture.
So how do these shows manage to be so openly dark, but feel lighthearted all the same?
Santa Clarita Diet’s unique combination of cheery humor with truly stomach-churning scenes of Sheila eating someone’s innards, make for a family show that isn’t afraid to go somewhere scary (and gross). The Good Place’s unapologetic randomness keeps every episode fresh, even though we’re ultimately worried about its characters’ fates — both physically and morally.
But more than that, the absurdity of each show’s premise gives space for these characters to truly shine. Ethical questions of right and wrong are often vessels for a more real, more personal question: in Sheila’s case, how human am I? and in Eleanor’s, how can I be better?
These are more relatable questions than how can we make sure we don’t go to prison for killing and eating people. They resonate with us because they’re issues we confront on a daily basis. And while seeing them on screen could prove exhausting if we were to see yet another suburban family dealing with them in an ordinary world, the drama, blood and comedy of this alternate reality — whether it’s Santa Clarita or the afterlife — keeps our eyes glued to the screen the whole time, and still feels like an escape from everyday monotony.
The extremes the premise leads the characters to is what, oddly enough, keeps the comedy from becoming vapid and superficial. It allows for glimpses at deeper societal issues while forcing writers to keep it witty and sharp, and so we get to see how philanthropy is commodified for the rich in The Good Place, and how sexism operates in the workplace in Santa Clarita Diet, without the story ever getting preachy — rather, it manages to normalize conversation around these issues and getting that conversation to our ears in the most effective way: laughter.
In both these shows, commitment is to character development over plot (although the plot is still relatively followable), and emotions are more important than the issues themselves. It allows us to enjoy each episode without getting emotionally exhausted. And that helps us suspend our disbelief just enough to glimpse the heart of each episode.
Once in a while, it’s nice to get a break from the darkness of real-world news to immerse ourselves in a show that makes us laugh with characters we adore. And even though it’s great comedy, it isn’t empty comedy.
Santa Clarita Diet and The Good Place are giving us profound stories about people striving to be better in difficult situations — but why settle for anything less than wickedly funny comedy? You can have your cake and eat it too.