Why you should watch IN THE FLESH (BBC Three, May)

Doctor: Why wouldn’t your parents want to see you?

Kieren: Because I am a zombie……and I killed people.

Doctor: No. Kieren, what are you?…..Look at me….You are…..

Kieren: I am a partially deceased syndrome sufferer.

Doctor: And….

Kieren:…..and what I did in my untreated state was not my fault.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLDMqDlrMKo

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 In TV-land at the moment, we live in a world of endless US dramas that run for 7 series of 20 shows each with no guarantee that plot lines will ever pay off, no guarantee that the characters will ever develop and no guarantee that producing good drama was higher on the show-runner’s list of priorities than filling airtime, spending the whole budget and nabbing some movie star “talent”. If you want to go along with that, then fine. However, the alternative to watching a good idea watered down into 40 hours of television is to watch pretty much the same idea condensed into a reasonable time period, into a film or that most noble and old-fashioned ideas – a British style drama with less than 10 episodes in the season. A relic of a time when airtime was allotted based on the amount of material you had written and is everyone at the channel read it and thought it was spiffing.

But what if it gets cancelled?

Who cares?

Do you watch TV to see good TV or are you just killing time as a fan, a follower, a zombie?

In May, the second season of In the Flesh airs and you should watch it. If you’ll watch godawful US shows for upteen hours, you literally we (David Mitchell namesake and lookalike) Dominic Mitchell the six hours he has been given to tell his story (plus the three it will take to watch the first season if you missed that). With the possible exception of Charlie Brooker‘s Black MirrorIn the Flesh  might just have been the smartest and most well written TV drama of last year.

So, Zombies. Been done, huh?

No, not like this.

In The Flesh isn’t about a zombie plague or epidemic. It isn’t about people fighting to survive. It isn’t the story you have heard before. Everything that you have ever seen in a standard Romero cut-out movie has already happened before the show starts. The series is about the aftermath and the social trauma as society puts itself back together family by family. The show asks questions like, Can you forgive someone who killed your daughter? It asks, When you have carried a gun and killed, do you just go back to work at the supermarket when it is all over? It asks, What happens when our trust and confidence in our western modern bubble is burst? Do we still trust those who couldn’t save us? Police? Government? Doctors? Scientists? It asks what it would be like in your town, in your family.

Think about it. This isn’t a show you have seen before. This is new ground.

In The Flesh doesn’t feel like it’s about zombies. Like Black Mirror, it’s a dramatic satire, taking elements of our culture and taking them to extremes, twisting familiar genre elements into something new. Here are some of the elements that I enjoyed:

  • Medicalisation

In many stories, Zombies are either supernatural or caused by a virus. In In The Flesh, nobody really seems to know. Everyone who rose as a zombie had died in a single calendar year, literally clawing their way out of their graves and are functionally dead, surviving injuries that would kill a human. This seems pretty supernatural to me, and yet Zombies are now treated with medication to become functional humans again. In fact, they’re not Zombies according to science, they are PDS Sufferers, people who suffered reversible brain damage which returned their brains to a feral state and sapped their advanced motor skills. We live in an age where pretty much any problem anyone has is labelled, medicalised and treated. What was naughty is now ADHD. What was eccentricity is now Autistic spectrum. What was once clumsiness is now dysphraxia. When the reach of science is so powerful and can help us so much, perhaps everyone has their own syndrome. Maybe you should be avoiding gluten. Maybe you should be taking testosterone replacement in middle age. Maybe you should be screened for something. So too zombies.

  • Science vs. Mysticism

Like I just said, nobody knows why people rose from the dead and no-one really understands why PDS (if it is what it seems to be) happens. Religion has always claimed to have all the answers and Science only claims to definitely know what we have learnt so far. Nevertheless, when Science interacts with something but can’t explain it, people need something to fill the gap. They can’t put their trust in something that seems confused and unclear and go looking for sureties. Who do you trust and listen to? The preacher who says the Zombies are demon imposters from hell? The so-called “undead prophet” who believes that zombies are the chosen and blessed. Both use the bible to argue opposites and the point is made that we live in a modern age because scientists are able to keep people trusting the rationalist paradigm. If something unexplained was to shake our faith in modern science, it doesn’t take much to get to some very medieval thinking.

  • Distrust of Nationalized Healthcare and the NHS

A very British theme. We love the NHS but we’re scared of it too. PDS treatment is rolled out by the government in a typical utilitarian fashion and you just have to trust that what is happening is the best for everyone. The zombies get to be people again and families get their fathers, sons and daughters back. But this isn’t a slick operation, it’s British nationalized healthcare. We wonder if the system is very well thought out or completely mismanaged. We wonder whether the government really has the money to make this work. The truth is that the centres that treat PDS sufferers are grey, run-down places and that the nurses who oversee treatment went to a half day course to learn how to do it. Waiting room pamphlets manage to sooth and horrify at the same time. The government doesn’t have the money to look after the PDS sufferers so they go back into the communities. But if it doesn’t work, don’t worry because each nurse also has a Tazer. Keep calm and carry on.

  • Truth and Reconciliation

Violence happens and then the people are left over to go back to work and try to forget. For the PDS sufferers themselves, do they need to apologise for what they have done or do they call it a symptom of their condition. Can they be proud of who they are? Will they be accepted back? However, the zombies weren’t the only people who changed. Ordinary men, women and children became fighters, took up arms and did violent things. Zombies are fearsome in a group but weak individually so much of the heroics are just slaughter. And then what happens to them? Can they forget? Do they have nightmares? Do they want to put their weapons down? Do they want to go from being heroes to being nobodies like soldiers home from an unpopular war? People who were killing one day have to knit their community back together the next. Can they ignore the graffiti, the missing person posters, the uncleared wreckage or the presence of the enemy themselves among them? Taught to kill zombies, do you really stop just because they called them PDS sufferers? Can you ever trust the damn rotters? The sleepy English village of Roarton feels like Sarejevo or Belfast. The credits didn’t roll and people have to figure out what to do next.

  • Distrust of the Government and the North-South Divide

When the zombie rising happened, the government thought that they could handle it but things quickly got out of control. So the government did what governments do and protected themselves, pulling the police and military back to protect London and let the rest of the country fend for themselves. The north became the Wild West and people had to turn to anyone who was willing to fight to be the protectors of their community. Now the crisis is over, do you trust the government? The army? The police? Do you hand in your weapons? The North knows that the South doesn’t care about them and the idea of having faith in a central protector government is shattered. Surrounded by moors, Roarton feels like sleepy England has turned back into a wild, unclaimed and hostile land and the single rail station feels like the only link to the outside world.

  • Getting someone back, not the same….

When we lose someone, we want them back. But what if even when they come back they aren’t the same person. Even worse, what if they had already become someone else before you lost them? Bill Macey gets his son Rick back….not only from the zombie uprising…..but from Iraq, from the UK’s misadventure in Basra. The Walkers (I only just got the significance of their name) get Kieren back literally from the dead. The families want to put things back to how they were before everything went wrong but you can’t dictate how someone else should be. You can’t let your nostalgia cloud the fact that how you thought things used to be might not actually have been how they were.

  • Pride or Shame

PDS Sufferers really aren’t zombies, they are the people they were before they died given a second chance. They are the same as you and I except they have to take injections (as many of us do anyway). However, they sure look like zombies. They have pale, dead skin and dead warped corneas. The government recommends that PDS sufferers try to fit in as much as possible by wearing a healthy foundation, by wearing disguising contact lenses and by not doing anything that would give them away like trying to run (PDS sufferers, like zombies don’t have good balance so tend to shamble when they move quickly). Should they have to hide themselves or should they be out in the open? Is being proud of what you are so wrong? What if being open about who you are causes others to be violent towards you? Yes, it’s a metaphor for homosexuality, which isn’t that subtle because……well….because that’s pretty relevant to the plot.

And most importantly….

  • National crises secondary to personal apocalypses

Zombies rising is bad but nothing happening on a national scale is the source of true drama. Just because the world is completely different doesn’t mean that your own personal sorrows are less important. To you, they are more important. Just as Joss Whedon showed us in “The Body“, what people really care about isn’t the big picture (which as the name suggests, happens in the background). What it means is whether or not your friends and family are ok? Are they really ok or just pretending? Do they look at you the same way as before or are there lasting scars? The plot of In The Flesh is driven by people who care about their family and people who care about their community. The plot is driven by love and despair. The very nature of the central character and his death overshadows anything supernatural, and the supernatural becomes commonplace. This allows the show to dispense with long exposition dialogues – the feel of a place, the details in the backgrounds, the posters and graffiti, the slang, the uniforms all seem so deep and communicate much that needs to be said, allowing human empathetic themes to take the centre stage. Like the poet Max Payne once said, “There are only personal apocalypses. Nothing is a cliché when it happens to you.”

It’s a smart pop-sci-fi show aimed at teenagers and older and it’s actually populated by real-seeming empathetic people. Give it a chance.

 

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