If there’s one type of story that’s been massively over done in the last few years it’s tales of the supernatural. Zombies, vampires, werewolves. I think I’ve got monster fatigue. So I wasn’t particularly looking forward to In the Flesh. I was wrong though, because it shows a lot of promise, and is intellectual in ways that are absent from a lot of TV.
In the Flesh (BBC Three, Sundays) is set in a world four years on from a zombie outbreak, where the former risen dead are being treated with drugs to overcome their ‘illness.’ Like much of modern pop culture (Utopia, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, every superhero movie from the last ten years), it is influenced, directly or indirectly, by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the comic book that set in motion a trend for grounding the fantastical and supernatural in a realistic world, and exploring the consequences of such a world. The American show the Walking Dead is currently treading the same territory, and is surely a major influence on the BBC’s show, though there are many differences.
Purely as entertainment, In the Flesh succeeds, though it lacks, so far, much excitement. The world is captivating, the story moves fast, and many intriguing plot points are thrown up in the first episode. The show begins in a treatment centre for zombies, but we quickly see the hostility awaiting them in the outside world, where they are viewed by many as monsters. Anyone who has played Fallout 3 will be familiar with the theme, similar as it is to the Tenpenny Tower story in that game. Exploring prejudice and hatred towards those different from ourselves via zombies might not be wholly original, but it’s interesting all the same.
Such parallels to real life have always been a part of the zombie story. Originally, zombies represented our slow, unavoidable march towards death, just as vampires represented our fears of sexuality – think about it, the handsome gentleman biting the neck of young virgins, infecting their blood. The supernatural is a conduit for our own fears and desires. In the Flesh recognises that, and there is a hell of a lot of subtext in the show. Possibly too much.
In addition to the commentary on prejudice, the show illustrates the experience of those suffering from mental illness. Kieren, our protagonist, committed suicide before he rose from the dead, and his treatment and release back into the hands of his family mirrors the experience of people who have been hospitalised for depression. The struggle of his family to deal with Kieren, and Kieren’s own struggles and sense of isolation and detachment, is an examination of this.
And then there’s the religious element to the show. Kieren is handed the web address of the Undead Prophet by a zombie friend who resents having his ‘illness’ treated. The website emulates that of our real world Islamic extremists. Meanwhile, you have the Christian vicar, preaching a different message and manipulating the Human Volunteer Force sergeant to kill on his behave – ‘I am the shepherd,’ the sergeant says, mirroring the vicar’s words.
That is a fuckload of subtext and I am worried that it might be too much. Dawn of the Dead was a satire on consumerism and Night of the Living Dead made points mainly about racism and the Vietnam War. They had a narrow focus, intellectually, and devoted the rest of their run-time to entertainment; to fighting and terror and guts. In the Flesh on the other hand might have bitten of more brain than it can chew.
The writing on the show is pretty good. There is a crazy amount of exposition in the first episode, but it is conveyed without clumsiness. Particularly good is the revealing of Kieren’s suicide – ‘He can’t kill himself twice,’ shouts his sister, Jem. This line not only explains how Kieren died, but it explains why his sister is being so hostile and is so angry.
Jem though is a problematic character. I like the acting of Harriet Cains, her HVF backstory, and how she changed over the course of this episode, but she is really annoying. That’s done on purpose, because she’s a teenager, but just because it’s done on purpose it doesn’t mean it’s any more enjoyable to watch. If she’s going to moan and bitch throughout every episode it’s going to drive me nuts. Funnily enough, The Walking Dead had a similar problem with purposely annoying female characters. It took them three seasons to work it out – and it’s still not fixed. Hopefully going forward Jem will become more likeable.
In terms of plot, In the Flesh juggles a lot of different aspects. We’ve got the zombie assimilation back into society, the political aspects of that, the resentment of the HVF, the gradually emerging backstory (the northern and rural resentment at how the uprising was dealt with, for instance), the Undead Prophet, the zombie-hunts, Kieren’s flashbacks, the suspicious bad guys, and some sort of drug for zombies on the horizon. It is a lot. I think the show did a great job of covering so much ground in one hour without things becoming too jumbled, but I really hope it slows down a bit in future episodes and reduces its scope.
Then there are the many characters. The evil vicar and the young zealot are a little lazy; quite tired stock characters. Ricky Tomlinson is good, at one point drawing on his real life experiences berating Tory politicians. His scene towards the end, when his zombie wife is dragged into the street and executed, was genuinely hard to watch. The HFV sergeant tells the old woman to take her humanising contact lenses out before killing her, because it’s much easier to hate people when they look like monsters.
And the sergeant’s son is coming home, back from the dead, we find out at the show’s end. In the Flesh is certainly spinning a lot of plates. I’m looking forward to the second episode but I worry a little that things are about to become very clogged.
- ‘I’m watching pornography,’ says the young zealot, when caught snooping on his mum’s computer. ‘Think I might be one of those sex addicts.’ The show could really benefit from humour like this. The Walking Dead notably lacks comic relief and takes itself very seriously, to its detriment.
- I like how quickly everything has gone back to normal. Even TV drama is back on.
- In the Flesh is one of the few zombie shows/films to actually use the word zombie. It’s supposed to be forbidden, as Shaun of the Dead pointed out.