TV Review: BBC America's 'Survivors'
The danger in remaking something that was already influential is that chances are good your remake will draw unavoidable comparisons to the things that the original inspired.
Does that make sense? No?
Let me try it in plain English: On Saturday (Feb. 13), BBC America is premiering "Survivors." The post-plague drama is based on a cult favorite British series which premiered in 1975. That means that the source material for "Survivors" predates Stephen King's "The Stand" (and the subsequent miniseries), predates Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" and predates the briefly resurrected "Jericho." And whether or not the original "Survivors" directly influenced "The Stand" and "28 Days Later" and "Jericho" and "The Walking Dead" and "Lost" and "The Road" is almost beside the point, because the remake can't escape their shadow, as well as the shadows of a dozen other similar stories of post-apocalyptic rebirth.
So while I wouldn't say that "Survivors" is without its creepy pleasures, familiarity supersedes originality and freshness fairly early on. Because BBC America kindly provided me with the complete first season/series, I watched that entire first run and while I occasionally admired the creative team's ability to keep finding new angles to explore within the extremes of the circumstance, I tired of the stylistic sameness and monotony of the pacing.
[Full review of "Survivors" after the break...]
Created by Adrian Hodges, "Survivors" begins as a particularly virulent flu outbreak is spreading around the world. Soon it will decimate almost all of the world's population, leaving the few survivors to dig through the rubble and start again.
Pandemics always make for great narrative devices, because no matter when you set your story or what you call your disease, it can stand in for whatever the paranoia of the day happens to be, whether it's as literal as Swine Flu, SARS, AIDS or Ebola, or whether it's zombie-ism or body-snatching as metaphors for Communism or fundamentalism or consumerism. The bottom line is always the same: Kill off enough people, disconnect enough technology and topple enough government infrastructure and those that remain become a microcosm for humanity with all of its modern artifice stripped away.
Then you can start asking big questions:
Are people inherently generous and good, or does the instinct to survive mean that we're naturally self-serving and amoral?
With order stripped away, do people gravitate towards Faith or toward Reason?
Do we find salvation in isolation or in togetherness?
Do we aspire to utopia? And how quickly do we find ourselves repeating the mistakes of the society we left behind?
It's not like the original "Survivors" created these archetypal questions either.
Hodges kicks off his story with some intriguing misdirection. Yes, the premiere opens with an extended first act of British people coughing and dying, but we're introduced to a wide cross-section of British society without any indication of who we're supposed to care about and whose lives we're supposed to be invested in. Yes, you can probably figure on which actors are the most recognizable, but it's not a star-driven project and for more than a few American viewers, many (most?) of the actors will be unknowns or "Oh, it's That Guy from That Show." I'm not going to go into the character descriptions both because some of their jobs become plotpoints later and because I agree with the oft-stated thesis of the show, that after the bloomin' apocalypse, you become defined by what you are, rather than what you were.
We're half-an-hour in before you feel confident in which characters are going to make it for at least the foreseeable future and we're an hour in before they start coming together. That means there's a lot of time spent wandering and driving through deserted sections of London, enjoying the kind of creepy and otherworldly imagery that might have played a lot better before Danny Boyle let the undead run wild more than eight years ago.
After a certain point, abandoned freeways, raided supermarkets, boarded up restaurants and trashed country manors lose their primal power to shock us. Along the same lines, Hodges and the "Survivors" writers fall into a storytelling rut. Our ostensible heroes, just trying to go about their part of the surviving process, somehow stay clean and well-groomed but either in their own encampment or out in the world, they invariably run into people whose hygiene hasn't been as well maintained and whose sense of right-and-wrong hasn't been as well preserved. The seven hours of "Survivors" that I watched were basically seven hours of people being abducted, held at gunpoint, robbed or enticed by other options which look too good to be true and therefore probably are. In each episode, those interactions with other survivors take on a slightly different tone -- One week there's a peace-loving hippy cult, another week a reconstituted government relearning about justice and mercy, etc -- but they remain textbook, as if the writers are more interested in establishing talking points for each episode, rather than evolving drama. The suspenseful plot beats are identical week-to-week and the speechifying about The Nature of Man becomes intolerable by Hour 4 or 5. Viewers are smart and sometimes they can get allegory without the hand-holding, but "Survivors" only understands hand-holding. Hints at a grander arc are parsed out slowly throughout and then suddenly in a rush in the finale.
The best thing going in "Survivors" is a cast of core characters who are a bit imperfect and unformed themselves. They're our entrance into this universe, but people we think we like are capable of behaving dreadfully, while characters we think we hate can behave heroically. That's not too different from several of the character-driven ensembles I mentioned above, but it's sure better than the alternative of predictable character performing predictable tasks with consistent and unwavering morals.
I like Paterson Joseph and Max Beesley's performances the most because we're told the least about their characters and their backstories. It turns out that the more backstory we learn about these people, the more we can anticipate everything they're going to do, which is why the characters played by Julie Graham and Zoe Tapper become duller with each hour, despite the perfectly game efforts of both actresses. Phillip Rhys never quite overcame the liability of being Reza from Day Two of "24," nor the sense that his character is probably the one with the fewest secrets and the least number of layers to expose. In contrast, Nikki Amuka-Bird is so powerful and vividly interesting, even without no backstory at all, that I often wished the camera just stayed with her and detoured from the main group.
On Twitter, I've heard opposed viewers of "Survivors" Across the Pond, with some followers telling me it was great in the first season and has fallen apart and others telling me that after sticking with it through the boring parts, the show has become great. For me? I bought the first hour and became less enchanted as the formula imposed itself and repeated and repeated. I've seen this stuff before and seen it better.
"Survivors" premieres on Saturday, Feb. 13 at 8 p.m. on BBC America.