With so much great television these days, it’s so easy for a series to fall through the cracks. Case in point: BBC’s In the Flesh, quietly one of the best shows on TV. The first series aired last year, and you’ll be forgiven for never having heard of it—though Dustin did cover it last year. It was a three-episode story about a “cured” zombie returning to normal life. It was also one of the very best things TV last year, right up there with the stellar Rectify and Top of the Lake, two more under-seen series that dealt in great artistry and very subtle, powerful emotion. In the Flesh is now back on BBC America, and I’m here to tell you that it’s well worth your time.
To give you an idea of just how little attention the series is getting, despite me being a big fan of the show, and despite it airing on the same network and same night as Orphan Black, I wasn’t even aware the second season had begun airing until last week, two episodes late. And look, no offense to Orphan Black, which is a totally fun show with a mind-bogglingly great lead performance, but if any series deserves widespread acclaim and attention right now, it’s In the Flesh.
The series’ premise is simple enough. Set in the UK after a zombie epidemic, scientists have found a cure to return memories and personalities to the undead. Though these people are still zombies, they are also unquestionably people, and the same people they were before anything happened. Kieran Walker is one of those zombies. A teenager who must return to his old life, where his parents are more than a little freaked out, his sister is scared of him, and a militant anti-zombie group populates the town.
The brilliance in the series is not in the premise, though. It’s in how creator Dominic Mitchell has chosen to use the premise. In the show’s first season, the story played as a direct parallel of the gay experience, including coming out and being scorned by a public that just isn’t comfortable with the idea. Though there are zombies and militias and insane preachers, the drama is down to ideas as simple as family acceptance and love. It’s also a heart-wrenching series. As tragic and beautiful as anything produced for TV in the last few years. The intimacy of the series’ aims, as well as its short run made for a remarkable standalone work.
Except it’s no longer a standalone work. The BBC commissioned a second season, this time with a longer order of six episodes. I was immediately skeptical. It was such a perfect little story, and with an ending that felt weighty with finality. How on earth could Mitchell and his crew expand the show into new territory without it feeling utterly perfunctory?
As it turns out, the answer lies in broadening the world of In the Flesh just enough to expand its focus from a gay rights parable, to a story more generally about the fear of “the other.” The specters of racism, radical nationalism and terrorism have come to complicate the poignant, but more simple focus of the first three episodes. The threat now is not merely one of family acceptance, but social understanding on both sides. It’s about how fear comes to motivate horrible actions in otherwise decent people, and about the lengths those people will go to inoculate themselves from those they don’t understand. It’s a smart writing choice, and so far the second season is playing out with care and intelligence and just enough genre flare to make it accessible to everyone.
In the Flesh doesn’t really stand a chance against the juggernaut of The Walking Dead, but those that watch it will find a show of much greater depth. The issues it deals with are more complex. The characters it builds are more involving. Even its visual style, with its 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, is uniquely compelling in the television landscape. It’s not getting the attention or the heavy marketing of bigger genre shows, but if you have any interest is excellent, emotional, and socially vital genre storytelling, do yourself a favour and catch up on In the Flesh. TV this good shouldn’t be ignored.