This spoiler-free Daybreak review is based on viewing of the first five episodes.
Every show should be judged based on its success in entertaining the audience for which it was intended, and Daybreak, as a post-apocalyptic teen dramedy, will doubtlessly please those who enjoy a bit of fourth wall breaking narration and exaggerated iterations of high school cliques in survival mode. The logic behind the premise that a biological weapon killed most adults and turned others into zombie-like “ghoulies” will quickly be seen as unimportant simply because the characters themselves are compelling, particularly the show’s protagonists Josh (Colin Ford), Wesley Fists (Austin Crute), and Angelica (Alyvia Alyn Lind).
Daybreak centers around those attending Glendale High School in sunny California, and the tribal society that forms after the bombs hit falls into some predictable categories, such as the Jocks and the self-proclaimed “Cheermazon” cheerleaders. However, groups with names like the STEM Punks, the 4H Club, and the Disciples of Kardashia are also vying for power as they pay tribute to the quarterback leader Turbo, who is dressed in Mad Max-modified football gear. Plenty of context for these groups comes from flashbacks to the time before the apocalypse, but somehow the caricatures within the new social hierarchy feel perfectly sound, despite the occasional death-by-ghoulie being treated with casual acceptance as the new normal.
Josh Wheeler, a relatively new student to the area, acts as the story’s narrator, and Ford plays this charming but relatively anonymous C student with immediate likability. His initial insistence that the apocalypse is the best thing that ever happened to him clashes somewhat with his single-minded mission to find the girl of his dreams who has gone missing in the chaos, but Daybreak leans hard into his survival skills even as it acknowledges his occasional lapses in judgment. This strategy contributes to the show’s realistic characterization which serves as a great counterpoint to the unrealistic setting, allowing the viewers to ground themselves in the lives and motivations of the central players.
Daybreak even allows Josh’s companions, Angelica and Wesley, to have their own narrative style when it comes time to explore their secrets and back stories. The ten-year-old Angelica boldly tells the camera at the beginning of her character-centric episode that, as a super-intelligent, pyromaniacal, self-styled “gangsta,” she will be making use of a Goodfellas voiceover to tell her story. Pacifist “street samurai” Wesley, on the other hand, has his story delivered through narration from Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA laid over kung-fu style animation, a method which has to be seen to be truly appreciated. It’s this sort of innovative storytelling that sets Daybreak apart from other sci-fi comedy hybrids.
The show also makes use of a blend of Stranger Things inspired nostalgia with Gen Y sensibilities. For example, the casting of Matthew Broderick as Principal Michael Burr is an obvious nod to the narrative style of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but his PA announcements that include promoting gluten free bake sales and quoting rapper Jay Z (“Be the flow!”) feel much more contemporary. Similarly, gay characters are treated with more modern indifferent acceptance rather than as teenagers with uncomfortable secrets designed to create drama, yet a sizable chunk of Daybreak’s story takes place in the local mall, giving events happening therein an appealing retro feel.
Not every aspect of Daybreak hits the mark, however. For one thing, the character of Sam Dean (Sophie Simnett), a girl who finds the good in everyone and who is universally liked, is depicted as an idealistic “human sorting hat” whom we’re supposed to love as much as Josh does simply because she appreciates his aw-shucks honesty and is a beautiful blonde with a British accent. The chemistry is there, but there’s a certain artificiality to her perfection. In addition, the identity of a mysterious villain known as Baron Triumph feels very predictable even though some twists and turns will have viewers doubting their smug conviction.
Despite these minor flaws, Daybreak is a comedic breath of fresh air in the lineup of bleak, apocalyptic sci-fi shows. With whipsmart, self-referential dialogue and well-rounded characters that win our hearts, the show is entertaining and grounded despite its over-the-top premise. How did the characters survive for months with only snack foods and breakfast cereal to sustain them, and how will they live when it all runs out? No one cares! Just climb on board for humorous zombie violence, lots of jokes about the size of golfers balls, and plenty of intrigue and character development to satisfy even the most discerning palate.
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Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and coordinates interviews for The Fourth Wall podcast.