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In the Flesh, Ep. 2.01, “Episode 1”: Heavy on world-building, light on characterization

In the Flesh, Ep. 2.01, “Episode 1”: Heavy on world-building, light on characterization

In the Flesh - 2.01

In the Flesh, Season 2, Episode 1, “Episode 1”
Written by Dominic Mitchell
Directed by Jim O’Hanlon
Airs Saturday nights at 10 on BBC America

In the Flesh most likely went under the radar last year during its three-episode first season on BBC America. The series is a British import and, like Sundance TV’s The Returned, is a fresh take on the zombie genre. As The Walking Dead continues to dominate cable TV, it appears other writers are attracted to the challenge of finding clever ways of working around its success. Dominic Mitchell, creator and writer of In the Flesh, is one of them. If you haven’t seen the first season, which clocks in at just under three hours altogether, I recommend doing so before reading further. It’s a wonderful debut series that has so much going for it, and at a time when more imported series are becoming available, it shows, specifically, new and ambitious talent at work.

How In the Flesh juggled themes of homosexuality, suicide, friendship, family and discrimination in its first season is rather astonishing. For a series that has so much to recommend it on the surface level alone, the scene in its first season finale in which Kieren is trying to get his father to get angry with him is one of the best individual moments of any episode of television from last year. There is so much heart in In the Flesh‘s first season that it very quickly stops becoming a zombie drama, transitioning to a straight-up drama that happens to include people who are dead. That effectiveness is what makes the second season premiere kind of surprising–in a somewhat disappointing way. It makes sense that Mitchell would first construct the emotional core of the series and then build outward. Yet, there’s hardly any character beats in this premiere that aren’t repeated from the last year’s episodes. Jem, Kieren’s sister, blew through a massive arc in the first three episodes, so what little we see of her in this episode feels like treading water. As she wakes up from nightmares and looks at her retired HVF (Human Volunteer Force) gear, her character is in limbo. Characters can’t reverse their development, right? Well, one might think so. One might think there’s no way that Jem can go back to hunting and killing rotters. But then we see Kieren’s dad make some ignorant comments about the PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) extremists, which basically reverses his character development from last season. So, there are immediately some issues that need to be sorted out regarding characterization.

Where the premiere succeeds is in making the world of In the Flesh much larger and more important. Not only is Kieren thinking about moving to Paris, but some of the sub-groups within the PDS community–the undead, as Amy’s group prefers to be called–are beginning to become more powerful. We see microcosms of that in Roarton during what is essentially a sit-in. Some of these work less well than others just because this is all ground that has been traversed in Roarton. It’s the central hub of the series, but the conflict that has been introduced is bigger than whatever is going on in Roarton, so the more effective scenes are ones like the opening, in which some rotters get on the train and attack people after inducing their unmedicated states. That said, the introduction of someone like Maxine makes the dynamic in Roarton a little more interesting than it would be otherwise. There’s still plenty of repetition, but bringing her in as the local MP checking in on the state of things while also pursuing alternative means of eliminating the rotter population makes her a more interesting presence than some of the lingering antagonists from last season.

Where this second season will succeed or fail is how it manages to build its characters as people dealing with personal issues in addition to putting all the emphasis on politics that it does in this premiere. We get hints of what’s going on in Kieren’s head as he can’t even look at himself in the mirror without contacts and make-up, but it’s nowhere near the same amount of introspection we got last year. It would be foolish to use that as an excuse to be underwhelmed by the return of In the Flesh, though. This is such a wonderful series with almost limitless potential. Most of the rest of what made the first season so memorable is still here, including an absolutely brilliant soundtrack. Again, if you’ve not had the chance to see this, the first season can be viewed in one sitting. Anyone with even a vague interest in zombie series (and especially those who have a waning interest in the genre after tiring of similar representations of it) owes it to themselves to check out In the Flesh. Even those not interested in the genre, though, will still find plenty of great dramatic elements to the series that stand up well enough alongside some of the current prestige dramas on television.

– Sean Colletti