What lurks behind the front door of the perfect suburban residence has provided a wealth of inspiration for television, film, and literature. The well-manicured lawn, the white picket fence — the housing equivalent of a curated Instagram feed. These are the aspects that are on display, but nothing is ever quite as it seems. The twitch of a curtain means someone is watching. The home is a sanctuary that can get penetrated at any time. Paranoia begets paranoia. Horror is one genre that has taken this notion of suburbia and run with it, from episodes of The Twilight Zone to Halloween.
A model home doesn’t mean model living. Sometimes the perfect family setup is the cover, and sometimes the perfect family is brought closer together by the very thing that threatens to crush this conformity. The Americans and Santa Clarita Diet aren’t similar on the surface, but if you look closer and step behind closed doors, you will see that the spy thriller and zombie comedy are not all that different. Horror permeates each residence; the home is both haven and the scene of the crime.
High school sweethearts married for 19 years, Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel Hammond (Timothy Olyphant) are the picture of domestic bliss on Santa Clarita Diet. Together they sell the American Dream as real estate agents, and they appear to have it all, until Sheila throws up her entire body weight in the master bathroom of one of these properties, dies, and then comes back as a zombie. Joel and Sheila have been a team throughout most of their lives, and Sheila’s new zombie status does not change that.
This is not your Romero-style undead creature, motivated by nothing but a hunger for flesh and blood without the ability to articulate beyond groans. Instead, Sheila pretty much looks and sounds the same, but as with traditional zombies, she is in part driven by her appetite. Her id is in control, which means she has little self-restraint. This leads to some very awkward and bloody situations.
On The Americans, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are also the picture-perfect family, with two kids and their own travel agency. But this union was not organic, even if it turned into love.
Technically they weren’t even married until Season 5, when a secret ceremony made it official. Instead, their marriage is part of a deep-cover KGB operation to pose as ordinary American citizens in the U.S. And what can be more ordinary than suburban living?
In the final season of The Americans, Philip had pretty much retired as a spy. The weight of this profession, including a very high body count, became unbearable — he was breaking from the inside out. But that doesn’t mean Philip won’t drop everything to help his wife when she needs him.
Traditional marriage vows underscore the topsy-turvy nature of a long-term committed relationship — for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health (Joel and Sheila are obviously ignoring "'til death do us part," what with the whole zombie thing). Trust, compromise, and teamwork are all vital. What both couples discover while dealing with their various bloody tasks is that they are better when doing these activities together. This is highly relatable to an audience of both shows. We might not know what it is like to be a spy or a flesh-eating zombie, but the benefits of a supportive partner are universal.
Going it alone might seem like a way to save the other from having to deal with painful consequences — whether it is finding someone to eat or the long list of casualties in an ideological war — but ultimately working as a couple is a benefit. In the Season 5 finale of The Americans, Elizabeth told Tuan (Ivan Mok), a teen operative, that he wasn’t going to make it if he continued to work alone, but she didn’t listen to her own advice.
The Americans never shied away from showing the horrors of a covert war. This is not a spy world filled with martinis and glamorous frocks. Watching through fingers is something I have done on numerous occasions. Couple activities include stuffing a body into a suitcase. A family trip to a theme park ends with a grim discovery of their spy comrades dead in their motel room. This is the show that had a tooth extraction scene — minus any pain meds — shot like a sex scene to highlight the level of intimacy and trust between the central couple. A grand romantic gesture in this ‘80s-set drama is not a boombox held over a head, but the dismemberment of a former colleague.
The latter takes place in the Season 6 episode “Harvest,” when Philip comes out of spy retirement to help with a high-risk job, one with very little chance of succeeding. It goes wrong, but in order to protect their cover Philip makes a grisly decision to remove anything that might identify Marilyn (Amy Tribbey) as part of Elizabeth’s team. It probably sounds weird to refer to this as an act of love, but in this world Philip grabbing the ax is a sign of his commitment. It is awful, but as the couple locks eyes there is a deep understanding of what Philip would do for his wife. For some, it is a bouquet of flowers or a remembered anniversary. On The Americans, a sign of love is at-home dentistry or knowing when to use an ax.
Philip left this KGB world, but his training kicks in as soon as he needs it to, because he is an expert in his field. The same cannot be said for Joel on Santa Clarita Diet. He is a licensed realtor, not an assassin. What he lacks in experience and remaining calm under pressure, Joel makes up for in the lengths he will go to in order to defend his family. This includes killing next-door neighbor Dan (Ricardo Chavira) because he is blackmailing them. Dan happens to work in the sheriff’s department, while Joel and Sheila's other neighbor, Rick (Richard T. Jones), is a cop. Law enforcement officers have to live somewhere. Philip and Elizabeth also have to deal with this issue when FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moves in across the street in the Americans pilot. In suburbia, danger lurks in all corners, even from those who are meant to protect and serve.
Secrets bubble under the surface. After someone was going to attack their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) in the Season 2 premiere of Santa Clarita Diet, Sheila’s impulse control issues got the better of her and she went into full protective mother mode.“No family is perfect,” Joel says, while cleaning up the resulting bloody and body-part-covered kitchen.
Abby isn’t the only one to witness her mother in action. On The Americans, Paige (Holly Taylor) found out just how deadly her mother could be in the Season 4 episode “Dinner for Seven,” in which they were threatened by two men in a parking lot. One ends up with his own knife stuck in his throat. In the final season, Elizabeth stabs another guy in the neck after he has taken Paige’s fake college ID so he can score a date out of her. In horror, women are often the victims of violence or sexual assault. On The Americans and Santa Clarita Diet, the table has turned.
Both Abby and Paige demand to know the truth from their parents — they have agency. Previously I have noted The Americans-as-horror with an examination of Paige as the Final Girl. She even dresses the part. Philip and Elizabeth have been called monstrous for their actions, which Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) believes has impacted Paige’s soul. The Jennings home doesn’t have an exorcism, but in the scene where Philip and Elizabeth read Pastor Tim’s work, they are bathed in red light in their makeshift darkroom, giving the air of a demonic setting. It looks like an outtake from Red Dragon.
Finding out your mom is a zombie or your parents are spies is going to have an emotional impact. Both teen daughters experience a level of turmoil at these revelations. It is a more extreme version of realizing your parents are human too — or, in Abby's case, finding out her mom is no longer human.
Abby gets into trouble at school when she hits another student, Christian (Matt Shively), in the face with a tray in the cafeteria as retribution for Christian humiliating his ex-girlfriend online. Meanwhile, on The Americans, Paige uses the fight training her mom has been showing her to lay out a creepy dude in a bar.
Joel and Philip are presented as the more sensitive of the couples, whereas Elizabeth and Sheila are given the roles that would typically be associated with a male character. Elizabeth has always been the staunch one when it comes to her position as a KGB agent, and Sheila has been emboldened by her zombie status. In the Santa Clarita Diet pilot, Sheila notes that she would like to be bolder. It doesn’t take a genie to grant this wish.
Stakes on Santa Clarita Diet and The Americans are global, with the threat of a zombie outbreak and nuclear war (we know the outcome of the Cold War; these characters don’t). But it is the personal stakes and portrayal of family dynamics in which both truly shine. Sheila is a literal monster, while Philip and Elizabeth have committed monstrous acts. And yet the Jennings and Hammond family unit needs to be protected at all costs. A zombie comedy and a prestige spy drama have a lot more in common than the premise of either would suggest. You just never really know what goes on behind a closed door of the perfect suburban home.