In The Flesh debuts tonight on BBC America at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Zombies are perennial monsters, largely because they’re a walking symbol for whatever ails you. (Also they’re cheaper than good werewolf makeup.) They’ve skirted overexposure, but it’s hard to deny their usefulness: Suburbanization? Nihilism? Man’s inhumanity to man? Zombies bring it to your door.
And even with media over-saturation in the last decade (or three), new zombie projects appear by the dozens every year, a testament to the monsters’ pop-culture elasticity. Their unstoppable march, their endless appetites, and the tragedy of knowing that, should they ever succeed in finally eating every last brain, they’ll starve to death in an abandoned world: Those shuffling and/or sprinting hordes are equally doom and doomed.
Which brings us to the American première of In The Flesh.
This three-episode miniseries by playwright Dominic Mitchell follows Ren Walker, a “Partially Deceased Syndrome” sufferer rounded up in the wake of The Rising. He’s been detoxed and medicated, and is headed unwillingly to the world outside. But his greatest fear isn’t that his village is still patrolled by members of the Human Volunteer Force militia, to which his own sister belongs—it’s that he’ll have to live at all. He’d been six feet under after slitting his wrists. Facing the families of people he killed pales in comparison to getting through dinner at home.
In The Flesh approaches the zombie angle simultaneously swinging wide and playing tight. Zombies are generic unwelcome outsiders, subject to the hatred of petty tyrants, so we get segregated pubs, “passing” makeup, and marked doors to cover the symbolic bases. There are feints at mirroring mental illness—issues of culpability versus awareness come up, PDS sufferers take meds, and they’re more informed than local health-care—though a character’s diabetes gets equal screen time. Its primary service is literal, a supernatural springboard to explore the hopes and terrors of second chances.
The series is at its most insightful observing the minutiae of people’s attempts to connect after devastation. In a house covered in Ren’s uncanny-valley family portraits, he tries to rebuild a life he didn’t want without alerting his enemies that he exists. Well-meaning Sue (Marie Critchley) and Steve (Steve Cooper) provide dinner-table tension more strained from Ren’s “departure” than his current undeadness, and his mother’s insistence that he pretend to eat starts out awkward, rounds black humor, and becomes illustrative of their halting courtship of an imaginary norm. (Constantly babysat by a nervous parent, Ren stares down a pile of board games. His father’s pick? Life. Good one, Dad.) Glaring at all this from doorways is his sister Jem, who understands Ren almost too well, all out shits to give about what he is so long as she can hate him to his face.
Luke Newberry makes Ren’s isolation palpable enough that you almost welcome Amy, his erstwhile hunting partner and television’s only Manic Pixie Dream Zombie (I hope). At least most of her life-embracing clichés—cue amusement-park montage—provide sly humor. And though her confrontational makeup-free lifestyle stirs tensions with the HVF, it’s the kind of support Ren’s been lacking. Things are looking up. Then Ren’s undead, closeted ex walks in. (Sad trombone? Theremin? What musical instrument goes with every emotion at once?)
If you think misunderstood outsiders in an insular town spells trouble, you’d be right. That’s why we’re here. The series returns again and again to revenge and amends; how little of either will alter lives, how they affect ethical inertia, the ultimate impossibility of ever achieving either. It’s a bittersweet landscape for characters who are, largely, flawed but trying. We see awkward support groups, pub nights, memorial services. It makes the moments of brutal violence that much more horrific, particularly for Ren, who’s in the line of fire, and fixated on his similar brutality to the last person he killed.
The series sometimes falters in balancing its nuances with its visceral horror. Bill, HVF leader, father to undead Rick, and righteous community pillar, never quite engages. He gets a few spectacular moments of hypocrisy, but quickly returns to wielding guns and Bible verses to remind you he’s an untrustworthy zealot. More mustache-twisting still is the vicar (a creepy vicar? In British horror? You don’t say!). They’re cutouts amid subtler, engaging antagonists soaking in the banalities of evil—like Philip, council secretary, busybody, and segregationist valet who pauses his exit from a tryst with an undead to order her not to damage his reputation. He immediately runs into his mom.
Still, In The Flesh is a thoughtful, contemplative take on zombie mythos, and an exploration of the imperfect negotiation of second chances between imperfect people. Some threads get closure, but not everything wraps cleanly, and that rings true; friends pass in and out of one’s lives and afterlives, some burning errands seem forcibly unfinished, and sometimes you hang your hopes on something you know will never happen; you take whatever happiness you can get.
A second series has reportedly been greenlit, which might close some subplots more definitely, but there’s appreciable novelty in a zombie project where entropy doesn’t fall out in expected ways. This is a show about about the minutiae of life and death in a world in which death isn’t always the last stop; an unresolved finale seems a fitting end.
- Harriet Cains, as secretly terrified outwardly hostile teenager Jem, delivers some of the best eyerolls I’ve seen on TV this year. Liz Lemon would be proud.
- Ren’s world is one well-versed in zombie lore, which makes it that much more wrenching to explain to a grieving family that those bitten by zombies just die, and their child really isn’t coming home.
- There are some nice moments of self-aware humor about indie zombies. When Ren and Amy are mid-amusement park, there’s a two-shot on the swings, Ren sitting glumly as Amy glories in the breeze. It’s a fun-house recreation of 500 Days Of Summer until Amy, tossing her hair, asks rhetorically: “You know what the living are really afraid of?” Ren, totally over this date: “Us.”