This review contains spoilers. Read our spoiler-free version, here.
Like its heart-meltingly vulnerable lead Kieren (Luke Newberry), In the Flesh arrives home with no small amount of baggage. The ink on its commission contract was still wet when the first volley of “More zombies? Yawn” comments arrived on the bottom half of the internet, followed in quick succession by a round of “BBC Three? Meh” shrugs and a string of ungenerous speculative comparisons to other shows, films and comics about the dead, be they Walking or Shaun of.
Add to that the fact it was brought to life by a channel that chose not to resuscitate well-loved predecessor The Fades, and granted a timeslot that has it jumping into Being Human’s grave, and you could say In the Flesh faced reintegrated-Rotter levels of resentment and suspicion from some quarters.
Lucky then, that it’s bloody ace.
Not that luck has anything much to do with it. It’s the work of talented playwright Dominic Mitchell, accomplished TV director Johnny Campbell, and a cast and crew that – judging by episode one – know exactly what they’re doing.
What’s that exactly? Telling a tense, engaging human story about guilt, prejudice and acceptance through allegory. With laughs. And gore. And Kenneth Cranham. Told you it was ace.
Taking a longer perspective than most zombie stories, In the Flesh takes place not 28, but 1400-odd days later. Set four years after an unexplained ‘rising’ brought hordes of brain-munching Rotters out of their graves, it asks what would really happen in the UK once a cure was found. NHS rehabilitation centres, post-death group therapy sessions, and a great deal of resentment on both sides of the life/death divide is its answer.
Our protagonist is repentant revenant Kieren Walker, a Partially Dead Syndrome sufferer attempting to fit back into the family and community that buried him years before. Complicating matters for him is the stubborn anti-PDS sentiment in the isolated village of Roarton, which was left by the government to fend for itself during the rising. Further complicating matters is Kieren’s sister’s allegiance to anti-Rotter vigilante group the Human Volunteer Force, and on top of that, the not-small issue of his suicide.
Thanks to its writer and production team, the world of In the Flesh feels remarkably well-conceived and recognisable. If its make-up and post-uprising story say genre TV, its bleak Northern housing estates and clinical rehab centres say social realism. That the two, along with the script’s warming bolt of contemporary satire, are so well-blended is a credit to its makers.
The look of the reintegrated PDS sufferers is just as well-handled. In the Flesh’s undead pass for the living without putting anyone off their cocoa, but the overall effect is uncanny. With his permanently-dilated pupils and flesh-tone mousse, Luke Newberry’s Kieren looks like an airbrushed, unthreatening boy band member, which makes his transition to veined, white-eyed monster all the more unsettling when it happens.
Speaking of the unsettling, how about that chilling confrontation in the episode’s closing minutes? Taking a shotgun to a kindly faced grandmother in a cul-de-sac is brutal by anyone’s standards, and in this instance, yet another example of In the Flesh turning the tables on genre conventions. Usually it’s an act of mercy when the infected corpse of a neighbour is put down by a bullet to the head, but precisely the opposite was shown here. Roarton’s ‘protectors’ aren’t the heroes of this piece, far from it in fact.
Now that the first of its three instalments has aired, it’s clear that In the Flesh doesn’t so much jump on the zombie bandwagon as flag it down to offer its undead passengers a cuppa, a hug, and some honest insight into community and otherness. With all that, and the matter of The Undead Prophet radicalising a tranche of the Rotter community, underground zom-drug Blue Oblivion, the introduction of fellow PDS sufferer Amy, and the friendship between Kieren and newly recovered soldier Rick to explore, spending only three hours in Roarton just doesn’t seem like enough. Brilliant stuff.
In the Flesh continues next Sunday the 24th of March at 10pm on BBC Three.
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