It’s almost too neat that zombies—those shambling inevitabilities—are such a hard monster for pop culture to shake: If their usefulness as an unstoppable force of horror ever wears out, they make an awfully handy case study in loss. Last year, The Returned used the undead to excellent effect as both character studies and catalysts for old grief in a town that was a pressure-cooker of catharsis. The first season of In The Flesh functioned on a similar premise as a small-town drama cloaked in the supernatural, but the mystery of its undead stayed much closer to home. Theirs wasn’t so much “How did they?” as the simpler, aching, “What now?”
Kieren “Ren” Walker (Luke Newberry) and fellow sufferers of a zombification outbreak (termed “partially deceased syndrome,” or PDS) spent the first series trying to come to terms with themselves, the neighbors they had terrorized while “rabid,” and who they were in the aftermath. On a micro level, it was a heartbreaking portrait of Ren’s family as they tried to adjust to an unexpected and often-painful second chance; Ren’s suicide had created layers of disconnect that his family lacked the emotional vocabulary to address. On a macro level, the show used its painstaking world-building as a litmus test for the ways in which communities try—and sometimes fail—to recover from disaster. (One of the grace notes of the season involved explaining to hopeful parents that the movies were wrong about the infected springing up again; those who had been killed were just gone.) Add in a prejudiced Human Volunteer Force militia, a shady vicar, and a once-tragic love affair between Kieren and undead schoolmate Rick (David Walmsley), and In The Flesh became an examination of the relative power of loss and second chances, and the fine line that separates tragedy from reconciliation.
Despite being deliberately paced, the first three-hour season kept a tight focus, moving more inward than forward; though it had the trappings of a zombie story, at heart it was a character study of Ren and his community each struggling to come to terms. Though the first season’s essential drama remains unchanged as the show returns to Roarton, creator Dominic Mitchell has twice the episodes to play with in the second season, and it shows. The world is bigger, the characters more plentiful, and the struggles more involved; with undead saviors and shady politics creeping into the city limits, Ren’s struggle for a new identity has just begun.
At the beginning of the season premiere (which picks up several months after the first-season finale), life in Roarton has achieved the loaded equilibrium of a small town, for better and for worse. The vicar’s congregation of anti-PDS hardliners has dwindled to a handful as the village becomes even-keeled, but Ren’s job at the pub is still punctuated by people flinching from him. And Ren’s family thankfully remains a centerpiece of the series: in particular, his parents are realized with aching detail by Steve Cooper and Marie Critchley, seamlessly easing past the brittle heartbreak of Ren’s return into a family unit that’s doing its best. Ren’s relative comfort at home is a striking contrast from last season, and there’s something particularly heartening about little family spats about dad jeans and their clunky advice framed in ham-handed therapy terms. (“I’m just expressing my honest feelings about the emotional situation.”)
But thanks to the six-hour order, there’s no shortage of subplots for the many returning faces, all of which still smartly stay close to the community hearth. Ren’s sister Jem (Harriet Cains) finds herself negotiating a new school; forcibly-free-spirited Amy (Emily Bevan) returns to town with her beau, Simon (Emmett J. Scanlan), who claims to be an apostle of the Undead Prophet despite an affect suggesting a college boyfriend who really enjoyed Ayn Rand. Militia vet Gary (Kevin Sutton) struggles with his prejudices and usually loses, with volatile results. And this season, Wunmi Mosaku brings sinister politeness to conservative MP Maxine Martin, who comes to town on an anti-PDS platform only to discover that the town’s as unimpressed with her as with its undead.
Of course, though the world gets wider, Roarton maintains its knife’s edge of being insulating and stifling, and Mitchell delights in the minutiae of this everyday zombie pragmatism—travel guides have sections on PDS-friendly hostels, hospitals are well stocked with human-eye contact lenses and patronizing questions. He also recognizes the inherent streak of dark comedy that comes with, say, being unable to ever escape your undead mother-in-law. However, with something as susceptible to allegorical readings as the zombie, it’s hard not to map them against something, particularly given explicit issues of prejudice and passing, carrying the weight of representation against “extremist” factions, and staging sit-ins at the pub for the right to be served without flesh-colored makeup on. (In one of the show’s subtlest effects, the flatly false makeup of PDS suffers highlights the pallor of the living, who tend to be clammier and leached of more color than the undead even at their corpse-iest.) Overall, the world-building here feels like a general hat-tip to intolerance in the face of the unknown rather than a particularly pointed metaphor for, say, a stigmatized illness. But there’s a tendency toward thematic murk when characters painting the Other as monstrous are referring to actual monsters. (MP Martin’s “hate speech” video claims the undead are one dose of medication away from being a danger, an inflammatory statement the show proves to be true—the True Blood school of social commentary.)
But one suspects that for Mitchell, such metaphorical readings might not be a preoccupation. In The Flesh works beautifully as a drama taken at supernatural face value, in which a family tries to make the most of a second chance, coming back from the dead to the same old small town hardly seems worth it sometimes, and a boy at school tries to decide if it’s worth acting on a crush when he’ll still be 16 when she’s 60. But In The Flesh might end up working best with the image of zombies as loss: As the undead try to carve out second lives, Roarton splits into those who try to understand grief and those who can’t, imbuing even the most hateful residents with the hypocritical but deeply human pang of maybe hating those who came back because none was the one you missed the most. Of all the seeds planted in the premiere, this one’s primed to grow into the most poignant season.
Created by: Dominic Mitchell
Starring: Luke Newberry, Amy Dyer, Harriet Cains, and Wunmi Mosaku
Returns: Saturday at 10 p.m. on BBC America
Format: Hour-long drama
Season premiere watched for review