Post-apocalyptic visions have been all the rage of late, but BBC America’s “Survivors” finds a sweet spot in the midst of such mayhem — it’s not terrific but proves eminently watchable in an extremely commercial, popcorn-movie kind of way. The ragtag survivors of a virus that kills 99% of the planet’s population are left to struggling, with a central mismatched group (think “Gilligan’s Island,” minus the laugh track) trying to stick together as various personalities cross into their orbit. “The Road” this isn’t, but a well-chosen cast and serialized elements pull one along from episode to episode.
Series creator Adrian Hodges (“Primeval”) is working from Terry Nation’s novel, but the opening two-hour launch bears faint echoes of Stephen King’s “The Stand,” as a kind of modern plague sweeps Earth, and we witness people from different walks of life who inexplicably keep going.
That first chapter, while perhaps necessary, is the weakest part of the series, which has already run two cycles (six episodes each) in the U.K. After the crisis, a group of people — everyone but “the millionaire and his wife” — take refuge together, given the scrapping for food and uncertainty regarding who can be trusted, which tests morals and human decency.
The de facto leader, Abby (Julie Graham), still harbors hopes of finding her missing son. She’s joined by Tom (“Hotel Babylon’s” Max Beesley), who’s in prison when the virus hits; Greg (Paterson Joseph), whose initial goal is to quietly settle in a place all his own; Anya (Zoe Tapper), a mysterious doctor; and playboy Al Sadiq (Philip Rhys), who reluctantly adopts a young boy (Chahak Patel) in his travels.
“Every new person feels like a gift,” Julie says, defining the attitude that leads them to create their diverse little community — albeit one that’s threatened, repeatedly, in subsequent episodes.
It’s that template — the uncertainty about where the next peril resides — that makes “Survivors” compelling as a series, in much the way CBS’ ill-fated “Jericho” was. As with that earlier series, there’s also a serialized element involving shadowy researchers that’s cliched but still reasonably effective.
The format, meanwhile, provides an opportunity to recycle all kinds of familiar themes, including riffs from “The Lord of the Flies” (a group of boys left to their own devices), “Oliver Twist” and a messianic prophet who describes the virus as divine “punishment.”
The program works, primarily, because Hodges and company quickly get past the premiere’s horror to the more intriguing questions of what people will do to survive and how far they’ll go when forced to fend for themselves once organizing institutions have been incapacitated.
In that sense, the series is essentially a Western — settlers surviving along a lawless frontier — with a modern hook about the price of security vs. liberty.
Nor does it hurt that the fine British cast is especially well chosen, from Beesley, with his veiled menace as the former inmate, to Graham, Joseph and Tapper, who when asked if she was a doctor says blankly, “I’m nothing anymore.”
“Survivors” isn’t great or groundbreaking, but it’s a whole lot more than nothing.
In fact, by episode three or four, I had a nagging question: Which network is going to try producing a U.S. version and screw it up?