When white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 to protest the removal of the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee, real life was colliding with filming on the set of Santa Clarita Diet.
The cast and crew of the Netflix show were filming Episode 5 of their second season. And the irony was not lost on the actors that in the episode, “Going Pre-med,” Drew Barrymore's undead zombie character, Sheila Hammond, and her husband Joel Hammond (Timothy Olyphant) kill two Nazis so that she can eat them and sustain herself.
“It would be happening in real time on television in our trailers as we were walking to set to shoot,” Barrymore told BuzzFeed News about watching the events surrounding the Unite the Right rally unfold while filming the Nazi scenes. “We would get the scripts and I’d be like, ‘There’s no way we’re going to get away with this.’”
But Victor Fresco, the show's creator, told BuzzFeed News that the Nazi storyline in Season 2, which premiered last week, was not a response to what was happening at the time, although it was shocking to shoot Episode 5 during the events of Charlottesville.
“In a bad way, I think Nazis have become more mainstream now in a way we never anticipated,” Fresco said. “I hadn’t ever been in this situation and I wasn’t sure what it meant for us, but I didn’t think it was a good development for the country that Nazis were referred to as, ‘Some of them are very fine people.’”
In the aftermath of the Unite the Rally violence that left one counterprotester dead, President Trump defended the white nationalists and instead blamed the far left for the clashes.
In the past couple of years, these kinds of moral quandaries have transcended scripted television series and become a highly debated topic. In January 2017, a video of alt-right white nationalist leader Richard Spencer getting punched in the face at a protest against Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration went viral. The video sparked a conversation about the ethics of punching Nazis, leading to dozens of headlines that included “The Nazi-Puncher's Dilemma,” “We Asked an Ethicist if It's OK to Punch Nazis in the Face,” and “Attack on Alt-Right Leader Has Internet Asking: Is It OK to Punch a Nazi?”
Fresco said Sheila killing a Nazi on Santa Clarita Diet is actually a callback to the first season of the show when the couple agrees that if they’re going to kill people, they want their victims to be “inherently bad.”
“They joke about this idea about killing a young, single Hitler and how he would be the perfect person,” Fresco said. “They think, ‘No one would miss him, because he’s single. If we could stop Hitler from being Hitler, wouldn’t that be a great thing to do to the world?’”
The showrunner said it was initially just an “interesting philosophical argument” until the characters actually come across a Nazi in Season 2.
“They think, ‘We have to kill somebody here, and look what fate has delivered to us: our young, single Hitler,’” he said.
According to Fresco, part of the fun of the show is going to a place where this theoretical predicament meets reality. There’s a sense of urgency beyond these situational questions because the characters are in positions where they have to make decisions — Sheila’s survival is contingent upon them.
“It’s not just a philosophy class,” Fresco said. “They’re going to have to make decisions.”
Barrymore said Sheila and Joel definitely question their moral compasses in Season 2, but she thinks the characters are also careful about who they decide to kill and try to only select “people who the world would be better without.”
“They’re not out to kill random innocent people,” Barrymore said. “They’re thinking, ‘If we have to do this now, and this is the new normal, how can we take people off the planet that are making the planet a worse place?'"
Besides, when it comes to Nazis, Olyphant joked, "It’s hard to root for ‘em, let’s be honest."
While the ethics of punching Nazis in real life was an argued topic, the Santa Clarita Diet creator doesn’t think there’s any question about whether it’s OK for Sheila’s character to eat one.
“I feel like we’re still on the right side of history, whether that was going to happen in Charlottesville or not,” Fresco said. “On the show, we have to kill somebody. So if we can find the young, single Hitlers of the world, maybe they’re not the wrong people to have to get rid of.”