The metaphorical aspects of the supernatural have already been given quite a workout in “True Blood,” which is why BBC America’s three-part “In the Flesh” appears to be following a well-trod path by contemplating the alienating aspects of being a zombie. Too earnest and serious to work as satire, this character-driven study — treating what the government has dubbed Partially Deceased Syndrome as just another way of being “different” — certainly doesn’t fit into neat boxes, but its real-world, zombies-as-gay parallels play a bit heavy-handed. Although not bad per se, those with a genre appetite should be forewarned: “The Walking Dead,” this isn’t.
The program’s conceit picks up some time after the point at which most such tales begin. Zombies — who rose from the dead and munched on human flesh, in what was called “The Rising” — have now been successfully treated for their condition, using a medical cocktail that enables their brains to function. Still, ordinary humans are none too keen about plans to reintegrate them into society; paranoia and fear abound.
Kieren (Luke Newberry) took his own life at 18, for reasons that are apparent perhaps earlier than intended. So his apprehensive parents (Steve Cooper, Marie Critchley) are harboring him in their home, even though his now-older sister (Harriet Cains) is part of a group that fought “rotters” back when they were pillaging the countryside, and doesn’t want them back in the community. Her comrades-in-intolerance are led by a fire-breathing clergyman (Kenneth Cranham) and town leader (Steve Evets), a grizzled veteran of the battle, who faces the whole loathe-them-until-it’s-my-kid dilemma when his son, Rick (David Walmsley), returns from Afghanistan, also a zombie.
Written by Dominic Mitchell and directed by Jonny Campbell, “In the Flesh” contains some interesting elements, including the theatrical makeup and colored contacts zombies wear to obscure their pallid complexions. There’s also the little matter of being unable to eat or drink, and an ambling walk (hey, you’ve seen the movies) that Newberry in particular appears to have perfected.
Still, the central plot boils down to a familiar theme about small-town closed-mindedness. And while the zombies-becoming-members-of-society strain is an obvious device, even at a mere three hourlong parts, it’s not entirely clear what the end-game is, or what sort of afterlives these walking corpses can anticipate even if they can win over the bigots in their community.
Given the tone, Kieren’s flashbacks to his flesh-munching days (a side-effect induced by the drug) also feel a trifle gratuitous, as if to hide how little is happening during much of the narrative. And as an aside, a U.S. audience might find some of the accents particularly difficult to digest, at least in the early going.
That’s not to say the idea of employing a fantastic backdrop to explore more prosaic matters isn’t warranted or a well-established staple of science fiction, but “In the Flesh” feels a little too on the nose in using these zombies as surrogates to deliver a message.
In that regard, the makeup zombies use to blend in works better than the miniseries’ narrative device. BBC has already ordered a follow-up, affording Mitchell an opportunity to further explore the characters. That’s not a bad thing, since “In the Flesh” has potential, even if it just shuffles along at times en route to driving home its point.