Series Breakdown Rating:
Aesthetics and Style: 5
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Season One – *****
Part One: Sympathetic Gay Zombies. The Best Kind of Zombies.
On the theme of Halloween (I realize it’s past Halloween, but bear with me), here’s a little British zombie miniseries that’s been mostly forgotten. In the Flesh never made a huge splash but garnered a dedicated fanbase and enough influence to push it through a slightly longer second season. The nine total episodes are the caliber of something I probably would have watched and loved in high school; it’s a simple blend of drama, character, and supernatural elements, topped with silly accents. As is, I think the series has some fairly gaping flaws that likely limited its widespread appeal, though even a few years after its cancellation, I think it has content worth discussing.
The first season is essentially a three-episode miniseries, and the episodes are tightly packed with material. The scope of the series is naturally small, even with episodes that run on for an hour each, but within that scope, the series explores just about everything it realistically can.
In the Flesh is a zombie show, and its main premise is that the zombie apocalypse has ended and the people infected with the virus have been cured. Zombies being sympathetic or even protagonists is not a wholly novel idea, but among the glut of Walking Dead-style zombie stories, In the Flesh certainly stands out. One of the disturbing hallmarks of the classical zombie franchise is the theme of killing sick people under the premise that they’re no longer human. Many series go out of their way to explain why killing zombies is necessary (they’re dangerous and can’t be reasoned with, there are too many of them) and why people trying to take care of them are foolish (there’s no cure and even trying to treat them puts everyone else at risk). This idea seems to partly stem from pre-vaccine practices to contain rabies in dogs and, to a lesser extent, some medieval communities’ tendencies to lock up Plague victims rather than treat them. Zombie stories are often dour tales that focus on individuals’ animalistic kill-or-be-killed instincts winning over once society collapses.
In the Flesh isn’t that. It’s a story about prejudice and how those survivalist mentalities harm everyone, even those who embody them. With The Walking Dead rounding off its ninth season and still basically repeating the notes of its earliest episodes, a zombie story with a different core is sorely needed.
The show follows Kieran, a teenager with Partially Deceased Syndrome (this series’ name for the zombie condition) who rose from the grave a few years prior and ate brains, as is the purview of a zombie, before being brought back to humanity along with several thousand others. The series opens with him being reunited with his family and returned to their small rural town as part of a nation-wide plan to rehabilitate cured PDS sufferers. However, those who weren’t killed during the zombie apocalypse (and as a side note, why don’t we ever call these by the vastly superior name “zompocalypse?”) are still shaken by their experience and many aren’t too keen to have zombies back in the area. Kieran’s family has to smuggle him back into the house, where he’s greeted by an estranged sister who was — and still is — actively involved in a militia aimed at destroying zombies. Over the course of the first season, Kieran has to convince his family that despite physical alterations that result from his illness, he’s harmless and happy to be home. His sister comes around in the first episode, the town comes around in the second, and in the third, everything falls apart.
The series goes deeper than the basic metaphor of Kieran being a plague survivor. He’s gay, which draws more obvious parallels between him being ostracized for his illness as well as his sexual orientation. The townsfolk’s violent attitude toward zombies (coined here with the derogatory terms “rotter” and “rabid”) seems more similar to that of rural people toward people in the LGBT+ community as well, rather than the ill. However, the series notes the opportunity provided by other zombie media to depict the militia as narrow-minded, suspicious, and superstitious.
Part Two: Grief and Brains
In the Flesh’s strongest point really is its premise. Within three episodes, it manages to unpack the baggage associated with both the former zombie characters and former zombie apocalypse survivors.
The main character’s life story is reasonably compelling: a teenage boy falls in love with a neighboring boy, and when the neighbor goes off to war, the boy feels betrayed. Distraught to learn that his boyfriend has been killed overseas, the boy commits suicide. He’s among the risen dead during the zombie apocalypse years later, where he mindlessly terrorizes his former town. When cured, he gets a rare second chance at life, seeing his parents and sister again after all of them have been through hell. He’s greeted with suspicion at first, but when the anti-zombie leader of the town learns that his own son has also come back to life, tensions briefly ease. The leader’s son happens to be the boy’s former boyfriend, so they get a miraculous reunion until, confused and zealous, the town leader murders his own son, leaving the boy to grieve once again.
This provides an original angle from which to consider grief, suicide, and mental illness. It’s something of wish fulfillment in that characters can see the consequences of their actions and choose different paths the second time around, but it’s not an optimistic approach. The characters don’t come back repaired and refreshed for a second go; they have the baggage of their previous life impacting them directly. The changes they make, like deciding to stay home or getting involved in the community, don’t necessarily make things better, nor do the characters’ attempts to return to how things were before. Life doesn’t give easy answers, and it’s not a dialogue tree to navigate over and over again.
The characters of the town likewise flesh out the story, particularly the protagonist’s family. Kieran’s father found his body when he died, which becomes a critical apex in the third episode. Both of his parents are loving and sympathetic, but visibly uncomfortable and unsure of what to make of the situation. They’re delighted to have their son back, but they don’t seem fully ready to address everything that comes with it. His sister, whom he was fairly close to in the past, grills him over his condition and is furious at him for killing himself. Eventually, we learn that she ran into Kieran when he was a zombie, which significantly contributes to her reluctance to accept him.
The zombies work thematically as clear stand-ins for the oppressed and misunderstood. The ideas of unexpectedly being able to see someone again after they die and having to live with the consequences of a near-complete societal collapse are unquestionably irrelevant to most people, but they provide an intriguing entryway to considering the nuances of depression, trauma, and humanity in general. Sympathetic zombies aren’t a new thing and they’re becoming more common as Walking Dead fatigue settles in, but a series that goes beyond the basic concept and follows the characters through an extended recovery period is at least rare.
Part Three: If We Have Sympathetic Gay Zombies, Should We Really Keep the Zombie Apocalypse Angle?
I’ve been talking mostly in summary up until now. The series’ delivery isn’t especially bad for any reason, but it is a bit bland. The color palate is gray throughout, often overcast as is the nature of Britain, and the characters are likewise dressed drably. The cinematography communicates what it needs but doesn’t go out of its way to be especially interesting, and the editing is likewise functional. The music is fairly pleasant and largely responsible for the buildup of tension at critical moments in the series. The acting is fine. Overall, its aesthetics are nothing to sniff at, but they’re pretty standard for this sort of story.
Mainly, issues in the delivery arise from the script, which, again, isn’t bad, but feels somewhat unpolished. I mentioned earlier that this series seems like it would appeal most to high schoolers, and the script is why. Characters are wont to spell out their desires blatantly, and the moral quandaries of the series are usually simplified into the zombies being wholly misunderstood while the other characters, militaristic or not, are backwards country bumpkins. At several points in the series, Kieran has to correct several misconceptions that feel odd for a town full of militaristic zealots to overlook, especially when the show wants to paint them as good at their jobs if nothing else. They’re willing to overlook the complete difference in behavior and appearance of treated PDS sufferers compared to the untreated zombies, even to the point of murder, which seems a bit much. Zombies in this series only appear once they rise from the grave, so bites don’t spread PDS, but the townfolk are ready to shoot one of their own out of fear of him contracting it. Even the untreated zombies are consistently shown to be relatively harmless, more like animals than violent monsters. All of these elements are thematically relevant, but they point to consistency problems in the story’s structure. How are we to accept that the zombie apocalypse happened when anything supporting its occurrence clashes with the themes the series deems important?
The series tries to have it both ways – zombies are both a legitimate danger and also a misunderstood natural phenomenon. This is where the metaphor breaks down, because its context changes depending on which perspective the series tries to emphasize. Using fantastical elements to parallel real-world issues is popular, especially in urban horror and fantasy, but it runs the risk of oversimplifying the core constraints of those phenomena and imbuing them with unintended subtext. If the zombies are or were a legitimate danger, then they differ in a crucial aspect from most real oppressed people. In a story with that element, society’s fears have a rational basis. In reality, bigotry is inherently illogical; people may bring up a rationale to buffer their existing opinions, but acting against someone on the basis of hatred doesn’t involve pre-conceived justification. Fantasy series like to present this behavior as a two-sides sort of scenario, especially when the bigot and victim in question are at war with one another. However, no one in reality imagines that hate crimes against a civilian is any act of military strategy; it’s just racism, plain and simple. In the Flesh presents a scenario where the zombies were formerly dangerous and are reformed, more akin to those recovering from debilitating illness that drove them to be violent against their will. This is problematic both because it paints a picture that is really not common for those living with mental illnesses, the overwhelming majority of whom are non-violent, and because it provides an immediate cover for the anti-zombie groups to exercise their bigotry.
However, the series does seem to recognize some of the problems with establishing zombies as dangerous combatants. Its solution often seems to counterbalance it by swinging in the opposite direction. Kieran and the other post-zombies he encounters are oppressed for things outside of their control, often ridiculed or treated as lesser beings, which makes the audience sympathetic to their plight — even more so because the characters are compelling outside of their illness. Occasionally the series goes a bit far in trying to establish zombie sympathy, as when the militia discovers a family of uncured zombies acting peacefully, but most of the time, this angle seems to be the series’ strong suit. It only becomes an issue when it clashes with the established tone of the zombie apocalypse as a bad, frightening thing, but that’s more on the side of the traditional zombie stylings than anything else. The combative tone is gaudy enough that it’s not especially missed when the sympathetic tone replaces it.
The series is about people and drama derived from their personal struggles, but it seems reluctant to give up the zombie aesthetic entirely. The blandness of the visuals and the occasionally awkward dialogue are minor gripes; the series’ insistence on prefacing with a zombie apocalypse and establishing this as character motivation is far more messy. I get the sense that the people involved in this series love zombie films and perhaps started this series as a zombie story with a different perspective. I understand the appeal because this idea is what drew me to watch the series in the first place, but I don’t think that’s really what the show is really about. As it goes on, the premise and the series’ themes grow more and more disparate until they feel almost like they should be in two different stories. I like both of them – the story of Kieran, recovering zombie, as well as the story of Kieran, misunderstood gay youth. I’m just not sure that this series found the optimal way to merge them.
All that said, the first season is still worth a look, especially if you’ve never come across it before and have an interest in horror dramas. The first season is just about the right length for the content it wants to explore – the show uses its brief time efficiently without rushing any scene or reveal. Parts of it could be improved, and parts show their seams pretty readily, but it’s easy to see why In the Flesh has such a dedicated fanbase. I’m not sure how far this series could have gone, given how much it packs into the first season, and it was always probably destined to be a miniseries. However, with any luck, it might inspire young writers to pursue similar ideas to shake up the realm of horror and fantasy television. I wouldn’t hold it up as a beacon of glory, but it’s a series that takes risks and merges the unconventional with the overdone. You may have noticed I quite like series that do that, and I’d love to see more in the future.