Although it hasn’t exactly been a breakthrough stateside, “In the Flesh,” the three-part zombie apocalypse drama that first aired on the BBC, is one of the most delicate and intelligent shows you could watch this year.
With the drama currently wrapping up its second series (fancy British speak for “seasons”) on BBC America, it’s unfortunate that it has yet to achieve the kind of hype the network’s “Orphan Black” has received. “Orphan Black” is great and all, but to see “In the Flesh” falling through the cracks is a real shame.
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English actor Luke Newberry stars as Kieren “Ren” Walker, a fragile teenager who committed suicide following the death of his best friend, Rick. But, because the show takes place in a zombified world, Ren comes back to life — kind of. He comes back as a sufferer of PDS, Partially-Deceased Syndrome. He’s paper white, doesn’t have pupils and has to be injected with some sort of medication to keep him from becoming a full on rabid, groaning creature. Otherwise, he’s pretty human.
In the first series, Ren has just returned home from a PDS institution and must face the wrath of a community of PDS-haters. His parents, happy to have him back, keep him locked up at home, while his sister, still angry about his death, has joined a local militia dedicated to hunting down the PDS-afflicted. Things become more complicated when Rick returns, too.
What’s distinguishable and remarkable about “In the Flesh” is how it defies genre. It’s not a violent or really grotesque look at the creatures (a la “The Walking Dead”), but an insightful portrait of prejudice, guilt and adolescence. This is how you do the supernatural.
Back when they were alive, Ren and Rick had a romantic relationship. The show implicitly suggests this, never fully delving into the boys’ past together. All we know is that when Rick’s father found out, he sent his son to Iraq to “man him up.” The creators’ decision to keep details about the relationship vague was a clever decision. Not only does it keep us on our toes, but it also allows the miniseries to be more than “a gay show.” After all, “In the Flesh” is about zombies — not exactly told in a traditional way — but still the central focus of the miniseries.
Nevertheless, Rick’s return is accompanied by a whole new set of issues. He has to deal with the pressures of a father who not only refuses to acknowledge that his son has PDS, but that his son might be in love with someone of the same sex. To top it all off, the weight of Ren’s death drives him with guilt.
PDS and the backlash it receives in the community is obviously referential to the prejudices surrounding homosexuality. Ren and Rick were dehumanized before they were dead, and have now found themselves in a similar situation. But the show is careful not to make these themes its mission.
“In the Flesh” handles this all so seamlessly, never becoming melodramatic or predictable. Yes, these are familiar issues many viewers face today, but the show knows how to approach them in a natural way. This is in part due to the subdued, but rich performances, but it’s also a testament to the writing. There are no abrupt confrontations, absurd declarations of love or anything of the sort. “In the Flesh” is subtle, preferring to build tension in the quiet moments, not the people-eating ones.
For example, there’s a scene in the first season that takes place in a car. It’s the first real conversation between Ren and Rick after they’ve returned. It’s a tense discussion, a recap of all that has happened between the two boys, but it is by no means explosive. “In the Flesh” knows how to treat its subjects.
Speaking of, there’s one other character who deserves a shoutout — perhaps one of the best TV
characters around these days. Ren makes a fellow PDS friend, Amy Dyer, who, in her human form, died from Leukemia. She’s proud of her new identity, blunt about her inability to eat food (in a great dinner moment with Ren’s family) and refuses to wear the makeup and contact lenses that are supposed to help her blend in. She’s fun, honest, grateful to be “alive” and is the perfect balance to Ren’s passivity.
Fortunately the show has resonated enough with audiences for it to last into its second series (bringing on a bunch of new conflicts), but with the latest adventures now coming to a close, it’s important to take a look at a series that really gets what it’s like to be “othered.”
“In the Flesh” airs Saturdays at 11pm on BBC America.