‘Santa Clarita Diet’ Perfectly Captures the Only‑Child Family Dynamic
The fictional threesome is an inseparable team.
When Santa Clarita Diet hit Netflix last year, it was lauded as one of the few TV shows to depict a strong, realistic married couple. Drew Barrymore’s energetic, impulsive zombie Sheila is the perfect complement to Timothy Olyphant’s bemused, up-for-anything Joel. The recently released second season reveals that the show also quietly excels at its portrayal of Joel and Sheila Hammond’s relationship with their only daughter, Abby.
While Santa Clarita Diet knowingly plays into a lot of typical suburban, American family tropes (it’s not set in Santa Clarita for no reason), the show eschews the two-child family stereotype. In fact, this may be one of the few existing shows about a two-parent only-child family.
There’s no denying that large families appeal to TV audiences – they’re fun to watch, they afford multiple storylines, they make viewers feel good about “the power of family.” But there’s something to be said about the power of the only-child family, too. And Santa Clarita Diet does a pretty good job of saying it. (Spoilers ahead.)
When the new season begins, Joel and Sheila are a few weeks into discovering that Sheila is a zombie. Her condition and impulse control are both getting worse, so she’s voluntarily chained up in the basement. Joel is trapped in a psych ward after an incident with Abby’s school principal, so the responsibility of taking care of Sheila is on teenager Abby. “Stop chewing the post,” Abby says to her mother while visiting her in the basement. “It holds up the whole fucking house.”
This instance is a good example of something every only child learns: When your parents are in a vulnerable position, older, or otherwise indisposed, all of the responsibility to help them falls on you. You can’t split up duties, nor can you consult or get advice from a sibling. Only children are often prepared to take charge of their parents in tough times — because there’s no one else to fall back on.
Studies are increasingly finding many of the stereotypes associated with only children — selfishness, aggressiveness, being maladjusted — to be false. In fact, research suggests that one of the sole ways only children differ is that they tend to be more intelligent. (More one-on-one time with parents leads to higher education levels, test scores, and levels of achievement.) Abby is self-assured, able to take control, and comfortable with telling her parents what to do, when it’s necessary.
Even if the power dynamic isn’t reversed between parents and child, it can still be relatively egalitarian. Conversations between the three members of an only-child family might place more value on what the child has to say, simply because the family is smaller. It comes to something as simple as deciding what to do for dinner, where the only child could be the tie-breaking vote. In Santa Clarita Diet, the Hammonds joke around together, with child teasing parent just as much as parent teases child. Abby often winds Joel up: at one point, she says, “I love you very much” to abruptly end a playful argument, much to Joel’s bewilderment — but Sheila calls her out immediately.
The Hammonds are a small family, so they know each other well, and know how to work as a team. At the start of the season, some of their biggest problems arise when they’re not communicating. Abby goes on a mission to retrieve Serbian bile (it’s a zombie show, after all) without telling her parents, but its Serbian owner stalks her home. When Sheila kills him on impulse, Joel returns with bile he retrieved from a morgue, revealing that the whole fiasco could have been avoided had they simply been in contact.
More problems arise for the trio when Sheila and Joel tackle their issues without telling Abby, who often has her own ideas on how to help them. Though they try to leave her out in a bid to protect her, this often backfires. When Abby’s best friend, Eric, suggests that they tell her parents before they attempt a break-in, she says, “I don’t do that anymore.”
Later in the season, however, the Hammonds start communicating more. Abby tells her parents, “Last night, I saw you swallow a man’s tongue like an oyster. Don’t you think it’s a bit ridiculous for us to keep lying to each other?” When the family plans their schemes together, and Joel and Sheila split up their tasks with Abby — this is when the trio is at their most unstoppable.
When the Hammonds successfully trick Principal Novak into thinking he snapped Sheila’s finger off, thereby making him revoke Abby’s expulsion, Santa Clarita Diet presents us with one of the most joyous minutes of television in 2018. The Hammonds have decided to be honest with each other, and in that process, have realized that they’re always better off working together. The trio dance in front of their car in the middle of the road while plotting their way through the disasters on hand — as Joel puts it, “The Hammonds! Gettin’ shit done.”
Today, around 20% of American families have an only child. Beyond China, where one-child families were a state policy for decades, the UK and Australia are seeing one-child families become the norm; even India is now courting the Double Income, Single Kid family model. There need to be more shows out there to reflect that, and simultaneously shatter the false stereotypes associated with the dreaded “Only Child Syndrome.” Santa Clarita Diet is one of the first to show there’s more to only-child families than a spoiled, bratty kid; there can be an unparalleled closeness within them. In fact, according to Santa Clarita Diet, if you have a strong enough one-child family, you could get away anything — even murder.
Urvija Banerji is the Features Editor at The Swaddle, and has previously written for Rolling Stone India and Atlas Obscura. When she's not writing, she can be found in her kitchen, painting, cooking, picking fights online, and consuming large amounts of coffee (often concurrently).