The two-hour premiere of Survivors airs tonight at 8 p.m. on BBC America.
Survivors, the latest British import on BBC America, pushes too many of my personal interest buttons to dismiss it entirely, but at the same time, it would probably strike me as a lot better series if it didn't seem so derivative of so many other post-apocalyptic works released in the last 10 years or so. It wants to be a grand, sprawling story, the definitive TV take on the end of all things. And while the first episode (which is 90 minutes long and has been expanded to a two-hour slot for the U.S. debut) plays around with the conventions of the genre in some interesting ways, it eventually just settles into those conventions it seems to be trying to subvert. There are lots of good scenes and performances and storylines in the first season of Survivors (which I've seen all of the episodes for), but too much of it is coasting off the successes of previous storylines in the same sort of universes. On the other hand, if you like post-apocalyptic stuff, you'll probably like this, so that gets it a mild recommendation for all the Stand fans out there.
I should admit upfront that I really do love post-apocalyptic stories. Even when I can point out how similar they are to prior post-apocalyptic stories, I like the vague ritual there is to a story like this. All of them start out with the characters dealing with personal problems while some sort of news story about how there's a new virus or a crisis between the U.S. and some other superpower or a strange light in the sky above Mexico City plays on, basically ignored. From there, of course, the news story grows to become the only thing anyone can pay any attention to, as the world slowly descends into chaos. Then, we've got the survivors banding together, trying to build a new society. Add marauders, mutants, zombies and fascist takeovers as necessary, along with any form of social commentary you deem necessary. Rinse. Repeat.
In a lot of ways, I'm surprised the definitive TV post-apocalyptic drama hasn't been created yet. I suppose it's a function of the fact that TV tends to try to put a positive spin on most everything, to keep the viewers coming back. The post-apocalyptic shows that have succeeded tend to be ones that put a spin on things that makes them not so post-apocalyptic. Lost, for instance, is pretty much a show that has all of the post-apocalyptic tropes without ever being post-apocalyptic. The one very successful post-apocalyptic show I can think of, Battlestar Galactica, was shunted off to a cable network and was never a huge ratings hit. (And, for the record, I liked moments in Jericho, but I never thought it gelled as a series, despite the passion of its fans.)
The best thing Survivors seems to have going for it in its early portions is a sense that it knows all of the post-apocalyptic cliches. It's going to fulfill them, it seems to say, but it's going to play around with them for a little while. The first episode, in particular, toys intriguingly with the audience in the first half hour or so. It introduces a boatload of characters, including people you'll have seen other times if you've ever watched British television, but then it shows absolutely no remorse about killing some of them off. The people you expect to make it to the final number of survivors are not necessarily going to make it there. Some of them do. Some of them die. It's one of the best things the show has going for it.
The temptation in post-apocalyptic drama is to make the unfolding of the end of all things the most interesting part of what happens. (I'm rather convinced the success of the Left Behind books hinged on the fact that the strictest interpretations of Biblical end times theories lead to an apocalypse that is just always going on, which meant that those books, for their fans, were basically one, long scene of the world ending over and over.) Survivors, sadly, falls into these pitfalls, as the first episode eventually gets past the scenes of people crowding hospitals, government officials trying to manage public panic and people cradling their dying loved ones and ends up focusing on … people wandering around a post-apocalyptic United Kingdom.
It's here that the momentum of the pilot sags a bit, simply because the series can't find anything new to do with this material. The slow coming together of a band of survivors is pretty standard in this sort of story, and Survivors dispatches with bringing together the characters more quickly than I thought it might, but there's just no way to avoid the fact that there have been enough post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows and books in the last few years to make basically none of this as enthralling as it could be. Scenes of people in abandoned, crumbling cityscapes were a lot more arresting in 28 Days Later and I Am Legend. There's nothing the series can do to combat that unfortunate sense of deja vu.
Or, perhaps, it could have combated that sense by creating truly intriguing characters who are dealing with the end of things. Instead, it mostly settles for a bunch of post-apocalyptic standard types. There's a mother longing to find her son (whom she's certain is still alive) and evolving into a matriarch for a band of people who want to restore a just society. There's a government official who ends up pushed too far. There are tough guys whose hearts are warmed by little kids and kids who prove preternaturally ready to deal with real life when their parents die and doctors who have to shove off the fact that so many people died under their care to help others. It's all standard stuff. Too standard, in fact, and it ends up making the series seem a little more been-there, done-that than it should feel.
On the other hand, there are some haunting moments both early and late in the first episode, and there are some truly moving storylines as the series progresses. There's also an impressive amount of world-building going on in the first season, and for every episode where a major plotline involves building a chicken coop (seriously), there are also some frank, if cliched, looks at just what it will take to make society regroup. The cast is also sturdy, if not truly exceptional, and there's one genuinely terrific performance here from Paterson Joseph as a somewhat mysterious man who throws in with our gang of survivors. Survivors does what it does pretty well. You just have to decide if what it does is unique enough (or solidly enough in a preferred genre) to make it worth your time.
- The grade is just for the premiere, which, as mentioned, starts and ends well but has a rather dull midsection. I'm prepared to write up weekly reviews of this as it goes on, so if this series sparks any interest, please let us know. Not like I have anything else to do on Saturdays. And if you don't like post-apocalyptic stuff, subtract a couple grade points - maybe down to a C - because I clearly cannot be trusted with this genre.
- The BBC orchestra is very, very good, but it has the tendency of underlining every point in BBC dramas a little too heavily. Survivors, in particular, could do with some restraint, so not every action scene sounds like it was scored by a Leroy Anderson Christmas album.
- Nice touch: The soundscape for this series just SOUNDS like what the end of the world might sound like. It's obviously heavily influenced by Children of Men with its natural sounds and chirping birds, but that's not a bad influence to crib from.