"In the Flesh," the three-part supernatural miniseries premiering on BBC American tonight, June 6, at 10pm, begins with a scene that recalls a famous entry in the zombie movie canon -- "Dawn of the Dead," when a group of survivors initially takes giddy joy in the post-apocalyptic freedom they have to enjoy the contents of an entire empty mall. Society may be crumbling, but you don't have to pay! There's a girl in a cavernous supermarket, half-stocked supermarket helping herself to junk food while exchanging banter with someone on a walkie talkie. She takes advantage of the abandoned space to glide down the aisle on a shopping cart, only to run into two members of the undead munching on a corpse.
And then we see that this is a glimpse of the past, and not from the memory of the girl. It's from one of the zombies, a teenage boy named Kieran Walker (Luke Newberry), who's being prepared for his return to society. The era of brain-eating is over -- order has been restored and the walking dead are being treated with neurochemical injections that have restored them to something like normality, with all the remorse and distress that comes with it. (Not making it any easier is the fact that the drugs provoke vivid flashbacks to atrocities committed during what's been labeled "The Rising.") Created and written by playwright Dominic Mitchell, "In the Flesh" is an introspective, intelligent drama that actually manages to mine new territory in the well-explored zombie genre -- reanimation as PTSD. The dead have returned to (something like) life (the government program managing the undead insists they refer to themselves as sufferers of "Partially Deceased Syndrome"), but the return to sanity and subsequent grappling with what they did and how survivors feel about them may be more wrenching.
"In the Flesh" directly engages with what can be one of the most maddening tropes of a typical zombie installment -- the insistence by certain foolishly sentimental characters that chopping up the undead is murder, that there's a chance their minds and memories are intact, that they might be brought back. That's actually what's happened in this series, and the people who treated the walking dead like monsters to be destroyed -- the types who would be the heroes of a typical horror movie -- look like the bad guys from this perspective. They're the threats to Kiernan, a tremulous character who is returned to his home town, Roarton, a reactionary enclave filled with people who continue to act militant and who refuse to believe PDS sufferers should be integrated back into the world. One of these is Kiernan's younger sister Jem (Harriet Cains), whose teenage angst, rage and grief at how her brother died and membership in the increasingly irrelevant and scary Human Volunteer Force combine to make her a force of emotional chaos. His parents, meanwhile, try to act like everything's as it was while dealing with the reality that the majority of their town would gladly lynch their newly returned son.
There's a lot of thematic richness to be explored in this scenario -- a little too much, perhaps, for "In the Flesh" to manage in its current runtime with themes of zombie-fueled religious fervor, homophobia, conformity, returning from the military and class resentment. But the series' strength is the way that it contains these threads without making the return of the dead into a direct parallel for one of them -- it's grounded in small details, like the makeup and contacts the PDS afflicted wear to make themselves look normal, like the pub owner taking down the sign saying that HVF members drink for free. It lays out its ideas about what characters who'd temporarily become the stuff of nightmares, only to become aware again, might feel with careful clarity, including their self-justification that they would have rotted away if they hadn't eaten the living. And, being set in a claustrophobic small town, it has the feel less of a story about a mass disaster and more of one of the aftermath of war, and how difficult it can be for people on both sides to adjust to a time of peace, lingering trauma coloring all of their behavior and for some, amplifying the issues they already had.
"In the Flesh" which comes to the U.S. after airing in the U.K. in March, will air on BBC America over three nights, with parts two and three scheduled for Friday, June 7 and Saturday, June 8. A second, longer season has been commissioned by the BBC for 2014.