The first thing that perks up your ears is the British voiceover. While we certainly live in a time where BBC series are tracked as closely in the States as across the pond — “Downton Abbey,” “Sherlock,” “Luther,” need I go on? – it’s still a bit surprising (and quite welcome) to hear a Brit’s voice talking you through the premise of a broadcast series featuring big, all-American names like Rob Lowe and Jenna Fischer. But as Matthew Baynton explains when and how the world is about to come to an end over the opening credits of “You, Me and the Apocalypse,” you start to pick up on more welcome alterations to the broadcast standards. And ever so slowly, this new series wins you over — even though you never know quite what to call it.
For one, that opening title sequence with the voiceover? It changes every episode. The images of a world in panic as a comet speeds toward Earth remain the same, but what Baynton — as Jamie, a bank manager wrongly accused of being the world’s most dangerous cyber terrorist — is saying is constantly changing. While far from revolutionary, it does represent one of many subtle shifts that add up to a feeling of individualism for “You, Me and the Apocalypse”; a series officially described as a “comedic drama,” which therein brings up another quirky characteristic. What genre, exactly, is this show?
By TV Academy standards (for the Emmys), it’s clearly a drama because it’s longer than 30 minutes (around 42 minutes, technically, but an hour long with commercials). And there are a plethora of dramatic storylines: Jamie is on a quest for his missing wife, which leads him to seeking out his biological mother who gave him up as a baby and leaving behind his adopted mother as he goes looking for other loved ones. Meanwhile, Fischer’s character, Rhonda, has wound up in prison while protecting her son, Scotty (Kyle Soller). Scotty is responsible for coming up with a plan to save humanity (even though it can’t be done) and Rob Lowe’s priest, Father Jude, is tasked with disproving the many messianic claims brought about by the impending end of mankind. And the clock is ticking on all of these journeys, making each decision, each day, each episode all the more dramatic.
But it — and a few other aspects — make the show something like a thriller, as well. A ticking clock certainly has that effect, but so do the mysterious backstories provided to many of these characters. Without getting too spoiler-y, Jamie’s search for his wife isn’t the only question he needs answered before the world ends, and Father Jude’s mission to disprove false claims of sainthood may hit a few snags in unexpected places. (It should also be pointed out that not only is Lowe a supporting character in this series — as is the case with an ensemble — but his character serves as support to Sister Celine, played by Gaia Scodellaro.) Throw in some mysterious agents who are up to something probably not “X-Files”-related (but maybe?), and you’ve got yourself one heckuva mystery!
Well, technically, there are a lot of mysteries, but in our own quest to identify what category “You, Me and the Apocalypse” should fall under, we also cannot forget just how comical the series can be. For as seriously as it takes its premise — often dipping into dark emotional territory and even busting out some rare but gruesome violence — creator Iain Hollands keeps the overall tone fairly balanced, carefully utilizing comedy in small, efficient doses that somehow make whole episodes feel fun, if not overtly funny.
Some of the credit for that goes to the actors. Lowe has proven over the years he has a deft ear for nuance, repeatedly finding drama in comedy and vice versa. He continues that hot streak here, providing a spark of life to the pilot (from a humor standpoint) and knocking us back in a dramatic encounter with a suicidal abuse victim later on. Fischer sheds a lot of her Pam Beasley baggage as well, playing into expectations as a prototypical mother figure only to reverse them as her increasingly absurd predicaments demand.
Yet it’s the fresh talent that really stands out. Scodellaro — an Italian immigrant who returned home to pursue acting before landing this role — goes toe to toe with Lowe in every scene, often not only out-looking him (it’s quite the contest of “Who’s Prettiest?” each time these two share the screen) but occasionally proving to be the more interesting performer. Soler does a fine job, as well, and it’s nice to see former “Leftovers” star Paterson Joseph (Holy Wayne) get some more exposure.
The real breakout (for American audiences, anyway) is Baynton. Tasked with double duty, an accent, opposite personalities and carrying a series, Baynton doesn’t fall into the easy traps of trying too hard. He lets a lot of the writing speak for itself, while contributing just enough edge where after five episodes you’d swear two separate performers were playing each role. Moreover, he’s as oddly unique and likable as the show itself, showing he’s got an older actor’s awareness of not just the part he’s playing, but the role he’s serving for the show as a whole.
This feat is even more impressive because, as we’ve mentioned once or twice before, the general tone of “You, Me and the Apocalypse” is a tough one to nail down. The thrilling and comedic drama packed with intriguing mysteries isn’t exactly a bold new foray for television — the motivations and complexities are complex for broadcast, but not cable or streaming services — but it is a uniquely appealing show on its own. Individuals will find varying facets to admire and attach to, but perhaps the biggest credit that can be given to “You, Me and the Apocalypse” (assuming it’s a hit) is that it’s helping break down expectations for what can be found on broadcast television. Comedy or drama, stars or non-stars, half-hour or an hour, the show doesn’t fit snugly into a preexisting mold, and that’s always a plus. So call it whatever you like: It’s still good, no matter what.