To wit: “The End of the F***ing World,” a well-regarded British co-production, is returning for a second season in November; Netflix’s Sabrina the teenage witch, on “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” has to deal with potentially apocalyptic stakes instead of the light scrapes her ABC predecessor faced; on “The Society,” all adults have vanished in some sort of event, forcing those under 18 to start the world anew.
It’s this last show that “Daybreak” shares the most with, on a premise level: In the first episode, we’re told that a nuclear attack on Los Angeles had a disproportionate winnowing effect: “The bombs must have been biological. Most adults melted into goo,” narrator Josh (Colin Ford) intones. Farewell to the school’s uptight principal (played by Matthew Broderick), hello to a dangerous sort of freedom. We follow Josh and two compatriots (Austin Crute and Alyvia Alyn Lind) through the “Mad Max”-inflected after-world, in which cliques have divided up greater L.A. like a high school cafeteria, and defend it their respective territories with violence instead of social pressure.
Ford makes for a winsome narrator; a transplant from Canada to Southern California, we’re told, his Josh, tasked with addressing the audience, carries across a gimlet-eyed understanding of the social scene before and after the attack. He also sells some of the less sharply-written material, a skill that becomes more noticeable when the perspective shifts in later episodes. Lind’s character, for instance, a young science genius, has a long backstory involving grinding drugs into homemade slime to sell to students that strains even the elastic reality of this series, and will make viewers think back fondly on the relative lack of adornment of Josh’s confusion and lonesomeness. (Lind’s Angelica also is studiedly “un-P.C.” in a tired way, with a lengthy bit of “cool-kid” banter with Crute’s Wesley, a gay black character, culminating in the rejoinder “Stop being so gay and retarded.” Oof.)
With reservations about the Angelica character aside, what makes “Daybreak” work inasmuch as it does is the counterpoint between what the characters’ lives were like before the blast, and what they’re living for now. Josh’s tentative bond with a popular object of affection (Sophie Simnett) is sweetly told, and Wesley’s coming into himself as a pensive self-styled “samurai,” narrated by the RZA and told in part through stylish animation, is elegantly done.
It’s the show’s action and social commentary that falls short. The latter is represented in part by Angelica, too forcefully written by half, and in part by a burned-out-hellscape-as-social-scene metaphor that feels overdetermined. The show’s rules don’t really make sense: Most adults were vaporized, but some became zombies, and some were actually fine-ish. It was in flashbacks and in moments where Josh and Wesley were figuring out how to carry on that I saw the show “Daybreak” wants to be, one of fine and granular understanding of the roiling emotions of teen life filtered through the lens of popular art. Those stories, told by characters that feel new, are more interesting than an apocalypse we’ve already seen before.
“Daybreak.” Netflix. Oct. 24. Ten episodes (five screened for review).
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Krysta Rodriguez, Colin Ford, Sophie Simnett, Austin Crute, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Cody Kearsley, Jeante Godlock, Gregory Kasyan.
Executive Producers: Aron Eli Coleite, Brad Peyton, Jeff Fierson