Netflix’s ‘Daybreak’ Is a Very Different Kind of High School Zombie Show

One of the platform’s most egregious one-and-done cancellations, this winking approach to survival had plenty of energy and laughs still left in the tank.
Ursula Coyote/Netflix

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch ‘Daybreak: Netflix

Part of what made “Daybreak” an enjoyable season of TV is that it mostly put its zombies in the background. The Netflix adaptation of the Brian Ralph graphic novel certainly had other things on its mind: fourth-wall breaks, telestrated maps, and a few other devices noted here. It’s set in a not-too-distant world where a sophisticated explosive bioweapon has targeted adults, leaving kids unaffected (unless you count the destruction of buildings and the layer of washed-out permadust covering nearly everything in sight). In “Daybreak,” the only zombies are the former parents and teachers and authority figures, grown people reduced to muttering “ghoulies” who just amble around muttering unless they’re provoked.

If the high-school characters in “Daybreak” see themselves as the star of their own story, it’s because they’re pretty much right. But for a world without parents, “Anna” this most definitely is not.

It’s even more baffling in retrospect that a high school story like this one, with rival groups trying to control territory in the post-nuclear explosion wastelands of Glendale, didn’t get more of a Netflix boost. Maybe splitting the difference between survival tale and supersized meta teen comedy left both potential audiences underserved, leading Netflix to cancel the series in late 2019, mere months after it was released. But it’s also disappointing knowing that balance is what made the show worth watching in the first place.

Your narrator and guide through the irradiated remains of the eastern LA neighborhood is Josh Wheeler (Colin Ford), a handsome loner trudging around the surroundings of his old high school in search of his girlfriend Sam (Sophie Simnett), missing since a series of bombs leveled most of LA proper. At the start of the series, he quickly crosses path with Wesley Fists (Austin Crude), a former athlete and current samurai enthusiast, and Sam’s pyro younger sister Angelica (Alyvia Alyn Lind). Their trio forms the backbone of the series, with the show passing narrative duties between the three of them like a nuked hot potato.

“Daybreak” is coy with some of these characters’ backstory details (though after a rewatch of the pilot, the clues are all pretty much there if you know where to look), but a majority of the show is not concerned with mystery. If there are discoveries to be made, the varied, purposely frenetic pace of the details being hurled the audience’s way keeps things moving even when its characters are stuck. Sure there’s dialogue that could be too cutesy and referential to some, but overall maintains a pretty impressive balance. After almost two full season’s worth of “Euphoria,” it actually slides nicely into a retroactive hybrid parody-homage mode.

That momentum gets carried along by a structure that feeds the idea that there’s never a guarantee of what’s coming next. Even though the show is clearly drawing on film references (a “Fury Road” rig that swaps in the “Monday Night Football” theme for the Doof Warrior, breezy rom-com montages that play out in flashbacks, the very presence of Matthew Broderick) the “[fill in the blank]-hour movie” approach isn’t the road that “Daybreak” opts for. These teenagers may be  discovering the consequences of responsibilities, yet “Daybreak” finds a certain freedom in not having to be locked in to a specific location or POV.

There’s the overall feeling that “Daybreak” is deliciously putting its cake on a grand pedestal and chowing down on it like one of the ravenous parents these teens are trying to avoid. As the principal of what used to be the local high school, Broderick is playing on his public persona like a virtuoso on a vintage instrument. Ford takes the “Ferris Bueller” DNA (this show had the crown before “South Side” grabbed it last year) and adds in his own brand of charm. Crute’s moment in the spotlight might be the season’s best episode. The parade of other kids caught up in this web of outliving and outlasting is dotted with memorable performances like Jeanté Godlock’s, who makes for a perfect second-in-command in the powerful army of jocks.

You can find a spoiler-filled discussion of some Season 2 plans and inklings that never came to fruition here. For now, “Daybreak” still exists as the perfect zombie story palate cleanser, one that used a different set of weapons to fight the undead.

Missed any other outputs from Recommendation Machine? You can read every past version here.

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