In The Flesh. TV Review

BBC3_zombie_drama_In_the_Flesh___trailerIN THE FLESH

Writer: Dominic Mitchell

Director: Jonny Campbell

Starring: Luke Newberry, Ricky Tomlinson, Emily Bevan, Kenneth Cranham, Harriet Cains

BBC Three

Reviewed by Catherine Mann

Four years ago the recently deceased rose from their graves and shambled around eating brains. Local communities defended themselves, and the Human Volunteer Force was organised to combat the threat. Eventually drugs were developed to treat Partially Deceased Syndrome. PDS sufferers were placed in secure treatment centres and prepared to re-enter the community. Kieren is haunted by flashbacks of brain-eating as he’s released into the custody of his parents. Homecoming is difficult as Kieren is covertly returned to Roarton, a community which had an extreme reaction to the Rising.

In the Flesh is a three-part series that aired on BBC Three and is due to air on BBC America in August. It’s an excellent drama that does something new and interesting with zombies. Not only is the action set after humanity’s victory, it focuses continuation and renewal rather than survival. This review contains fairly significant spoilers and I suggest watching the episodes first if you want to remain spoiler-free. In fact I definitely recommend watching this miniseries if you can, it’s got strong performances and a brilliant script.

Kieren is the central character and it’s through his guilty, flashback, dreams that the audience gets a glimpse of what the Rising was like. There’s a little bit of gore, but the story isn’t about undead and humans killing each other. Kieren’s parents exemplify a certain type of British attitude. Despite the trauma of what happened and the miracle of having their son restored, they’re desperate not to make a fuss, to normalise the situation as much as possible. This leads to odd comedic moments, like Kieren pretending to eat at mealtimes, and his father’s desperately cheery attempts to distract from the fact that’s he’s essentially a prisoner in his own home. Local nurse, Shirley, cheerily visits to instruct the family on administering the daily drugs that PDS suffers need to remain aware. Her manic jollity is entertainingly at odds with the situation, though it’s clear that she’s put herself in danger. The only time Shirley gets serious is when she pulls Kieren’s mother aside and gives her a taser, for the emergency that everyone is desperately pretending won’t happen.

The only person willing to confront the situation is Jemima, Kieren’s angry sister. She’s heavily involved with the local HVF, and celebrated for her talents at killing rotters. The show follows the tradition of not using the z-word, though one of the strengths of the script and performances is that what’s left unsaid is as powerful as what’s spoken outright. Jem’s been taught that the undead are evil and Kieren’s return throws her into confusion. Her surly hostility masks a brittle hope that her brother might truly be back, mixed with the anger she felt after his premature death. However when Jem thinks Kieren is threatened her family loyalty comes to the fore as she and her parents grab hidden weapons and prepare to defend their household against friends and neighbours.

Defiantly undead Amy is probably the most refreshing character in the show. She doesn’t have family, or much connection to the community, and this frees her from the tensions of the rest of the cast. She’s independent and self-confident, and shakes Kieren out of his dazed discomfort. She encourages him to join her on day trips, and scorns the heavy make-up and coloured contacts that PDS sufferers use to mask their creepy appearance. She acts as though her condition isn’t important, putting people off guard with a mixture of bravado and surprising frankness. As well as being the only person who seems to be having fun, Amy also acts as confidante to Kieren when he reveals his suicide scars. However, Amy isn’t all bravery and humour, after she sees how little she’s accepted and how alone she is, she dons the make-up and leaves town. Even as they’re saying goodbye, Amy still has a smile and a joke for Kieren.

Bill is leader of the local HVF and, along with the vicar, is the driving force of local opinion in Roarton. The only thing that motivates Bill more strongly than his hatred for inhuman rotters, is his love of his son, who died bravely serving in Afghanistan. When partially deceased Rick is returned by the Army, Bill’s denial is so deep that despite the obvious facial scarring he insists that everyone treats Rick as a returning hero, even taking Rick on a rotter hunt. The history between Rick and Ren (Rick’s nickname for Kieren) is conveyed subtly. A scene that’s clearly a throwback to the situation when they were both alive shows that Kieren is only accepted by the local lads because of his close friendship with Rick. Bill’s approval dominates Rick’s life, and his relationship with Kieren is probably the only thing Rick ever had for himself. When the pair snatch time alone the tragic circumstances that led to their deaths is laid bare, albeit without overtly defining their relationship, which fits with the characters.

In some ways the community in Roarton acts like an extra character. Kieren hears about drugs that revert PDS suffers to their feral state and a movement that believes the undead are superior to the living. Despite these tantalising glimpses of wider context the story focuses on the events in the fractured community. A visit from a beleaguered Government representative early in the first episode shows a community angry at being abandoned but fiercely proud of their independence. Besides Bill’s HVF, the leading power in the village is the vicar, who uses the pulpit to spread his message and the parish council to impose his will. These are the forces that lead to an elderly PDS sufferer being dragged outside and killed in the street. The Roarton situation exemplifies how those who shout out and ride roughshod over others can come to dominate the peaceful and kindly intentions of more restrained people. There are no big damn heroes here, and the most dangerous folk are those who believe in their own heroism. The community has a quieter side shown by Shirley and her support group for wives and mothers. It’s in this safe space that we hear blunt accounts of how the reintegration has affected families and Kieren’s mother expresses the anger she feels towards her son for what he did years before. When events take a tragic turn it’s honesty in the family that allows Kieren to understand that his undeath needn’t be as miserable as the end of his life was.