Finally, A Zombie TV Series For People Who Don't Like Zombies

Add in realistic queer representation, a ton of beautifully written female characters and a kick-ass soundtrack and you have a really wonderful show. So of course it might get cancelled.
Publish date:
September 19, 2014
television, zombies, tragically cancelled, in the flesh

I really hate zombies. When I was younger, the sight of someone walking a pretend zombie shuffle was enough to make me panic. Sometimes even people holding their arms out stiff and coming in for a hug made me want to peel out. Flight, not fight, every time.

Understandably, I haven’t been a big fan of the great zombie mainstream migration. Forget "Walking Dead" -- I don’t even like it when "Bob’s Burgers" makes jokes about Chad the Zombie.

So I was shocked as anyone when I fell head-over-heels for BBC Three’s zombie drama "In the Flesh." To say it’s a zombie show for people who don’t like zombies is sort of an oversimplification. That’s partly due to the show’s unique premise: during The Rising, thousands of people who died in 2009 come back from the dead. They return in typical rabid fashion, craving human brains. But a chemical is discovered that gives the newly-resurrected their minds back. Instead of zombies, they become Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers, rehabilitated in clinics that encourage group therapy and hand out informational PDS pamphlets. PDS sufferers learn to apply makeup to their pallid flesh, pop contacts into their yellowed eyes, and assimilate as best as they can back into society.

The protagonist, Kieren Walker (played by Luke Newberry), is an 18-year-old PDS sufferer plagued with flashbacks of the terrible things he did during The Rising. In the first episode, he’s taught a simple mantra: “I am a Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer, and what I did in my untreated state was not my fault.” It’s clear he doesn’t believe in the phrase. He returns home to the small town of Roarton, a dangerously conservative place for “rotters.”

Kieren is sort of extraordinary as a main character. He’s incredibly eloquent (aided by some of the best TV dialogue I’ve ever heard), artistic, sarcastic. At times, he’s incredibly selfish. He’s also queer -- an important part of his character, but not necessarily a defining one. “There are bigger issues at hand than dealing with his sexuality,” showrunner Dominic Mitchell said in an interview on I’m With Geek. “He’s quite comfortable with that, it’s being a zombie that he has trouble with.”

Once you look past the zombies, it’s a show about guilt, redemption and self-forgiveness. So far, there are two excellent seasons looking at otherness, persecution, and what it means to try and fail and try to find a place to belong. Add in realistic queer representation, a ton of beautifully written female characters and a kick-ass soundtrack and you have a really wonderful show.

So of course it might get cancelled.

Even though "In The Flesh" already won two BAFTAs, the situation is a little more complicated than bad reviews or slim viewership. The BBC Three channel is folding, with certain shows migrating online. Not all hope is lost. Enter the Save In The Flesh campaign. The small-but-mighty fandom doesn’t want to see their undead heroes tossed into the grave of canceled TV shows. Hence the birth of a hashtag, and the outpouring of support in tweets, blogs and stunning fan art. I rarely use hashtags in earnest, but my twitter timeline’s been heavy on #SaveInTheFlesh lately.

There’s no righteous indignation quite like loving an unjustly canceled TV show. What a tragedy, to see a young show -- so full of hope and promise -- struck down before it reaches its potential (or even wraps up all the cliffhangers). A moment of silence for shows gone before their time. Pour some out for "Freaks and Geeks," "Happy Endings," "Carnivale," "Firefly" and "Dollhouse" (bad luck on your track record there, Joss Whedon).

There’s a real poetry in a show ending on its own terms, on its own schedule. Being in control of a timeline is essential to good storytelling, too. Where would the world be if "Breaking Bad" or "Lost" hadn’t been allowed to wrap up their efforts? Then again, some shows desperately cling to life. (I’m looking at you, "That 70’s Show" -- a series that ended not with a bang, but a whimper.)

Of course, some shows refuse to stay dead. "Arrested Development" rose from the grave after a seven-year hiatus. A successful Kickstarter campaign resurrected "Veronica Mars" for a movie.

But for every show that comes back to life, countless others bite the dust for good. It’s hard to be so invested in something, to feel so protective of it, and to have such little control over its wellbeing. I suppose this is true of all things. You have to do the best you can, and for me that’s harnessing the power of hashtags, obsessing over fan art, preordering the season two box set and talking way too much about “this new show I’m watching.” Maybe that’s why fan campaigns seem so magical. Sure, everyone’s united in desperation, but there’s something empowering about believing in something so much -- and believing in the power of fans’ collective voices.

In the end, I can only speak to my own experience. I watched the entirety of "In The Flesh" in one glorious weekend, only leaving the apartment for coffee and cat food. I’m a fan of the gratuitous TV marathon binge, the kind where you stream so many episodes in a row that you actually feel sort of ill. (In college, I was notorious for holing up in my dorm room for season after season of "X-Files," emerging for Monday class pale and shaking with the utter conviction that aliens are real and they are here.) Even if you’ve been surviving solely off of Frosted Flakes and you haven’t seen natural sunlight for three days, at the end of those homestretch episodes you really feel like you’ve accomplished something.

I graduated quickly from watching "In The Flesh" episodes to subscribing to fan blogs. I started watching fan compilation videos on Youtube. I read interviews with the cast and crew. (In the first draft of the script, Kieren was a mental patient instead of a zombie! I gleefully informed my cats.) I tweeted, I texted, and yes, I sketched out the ideas for an as-yet-unwritten fanfiction.

In the last episode of season two, there’s a particularly poignant scene set to Keaton Henson’s heartbreaking song, “You.” I didn’t cry during the episode (close call), but afterwards I put the song on and paced my living room.

And I cried. And cried and cried. I stumbled around the room in sweatpants I hadn’t taken off in 48 hours, so thankful that my roommate was out of town and didn’t witness me at the bottom of this descent.

Sure, I pulled myself together. On Monday morning, I took off the sweatpants and went to work. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this astonishing show while I was riding the bus or eating lunch in the park or getting ready for bed.

What is it about certain media that hits us so deeply? Certain songs we keep replaying, certain episodes we watch again and again. Those dearly departed shows that live on in our memories (and fanfic and fan art and late-night drunken conversations about what episodes you would write if you were in charge).

I feel an urgent sense of responsibility to try and keep this show alive. It’s a peculiar sort of ache to want to protect something so out of your hands. But I’ve learned one important thing from "In The Flesh": Resurrection is possible.