This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
Any doubt as to whether 2013’s excellent In The Flesh had the scope for a return visit to Roarton has been quashed. The series two opener meaningfully expands the world of the un-zombie drama without losing any of the original’s charm or allegorical power.
If anything, this new series promises to top the first. With twice as many episodes in the second run, creator Dominic Mitchell has been able to seed mysteries and lay the groundwork for plots to gradually unfold rather than rattle out this time around.
Not that Mitchell wastes any time in establishing the key conflicts of series two in episode one. The very first shot greets us with graffiti for the ULA (Undead Liberation Army) and against Victus, the single-issue anti-PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) party that’s rapidly gained political ground in the nine months since we last visited Roarton Valley. During that time, tensions between the living and the partially deceased have intensified, with polarisation and extremism on both sides.
That extremism is pithily established in the pre-credits sequence, which hits the ground running with an Undead terrorist attack on public transport. The brief reappearance of Ricky Tomlinson’s Ken Burton humanises the killings and cleverly ensures that the attack becomes a topic for the gossips back in Roarton. Blending the supernatural threat with a real-life urban nightmare deftly beds in the world of In The Flesh for its audience and accessibly establishes the tensions and stakes of series two.
To hear Ken preach tolerance for the people who murder him seconds later isn’t a subtle irony but then nuance was never this drama’s strong point. In The Flesh’s power is in using the supernatural as a prism through which to view reality, whether in series one’s intimate story about suicide and grief or series two’s public allegory of political prejudice and fear-mongering.
Keen eyes will have spotted that the ULA graffiti had reached all the way to Roarton’s medical centre in episode one, a sign of the political battle encroaching on the isolated rural village. Two new characters embody that battle: Victus MP Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku) and the Undead Prophet’s disciple, Simon (Emmett Scanlan). Both arrive in Roarton with their own agenda and harbouring their own secrets. Much of this first episode is devoted to Martin’s attempts to ingratiate herself with the local community. Underneath the professional rhetoric of her anti-PDS electioneering though, is bloodlust and calculating pragmatism, as the masonry drill episode and aborted 999 call showed us.
If that’s the end of Vicar Oddie, then will his demise put paid to the fan theory that (look away now to avoid a potential spoiler) he was the man behind the Undead Prophet? The Vicar had a vested interest in bringing about a second rising and a working knowledge of Revelations. Were he to have been behind the videos, might that explain the commune’s particular interest in Roarton Risers…
Joining the smiling villain politician as a fellow newcomer to Roarton is vampiric Simon, the handsome, battle-scarred Yeats-quoting revolutionary fixed in his political ideals. Vivacious Amy, who’s returned to Roarton for an ominous special “mission”, is clearly under Simon’s thrall. Will Kieren be the next to succumb?
A new location and characters also arrives thanks to Jem Walker’s return to high school. The former ‘war hero’ is now sitting her mock GCSEs and suffering with PTSD, not that she’s owning up to the latter. Despite Steve Walker (and his mumsy jeans) attempting not to repeat the mistakes of the past by bottling things up, the Walker family are still keeping secrets, not least the fact that Kieren wasn’t an innocent bystander during the Rising.
It’s not all new though, everything that made the first series work is back for the second. Gentle satire, warm Northern humour, contemplative cinematography, music from Keaton Henson, and of course, a tremendous central performance from Luke Newberry as Kieren. Newberry conveys Kieren’s frustration (imagine being stuck in that dead-end job you hate not just for life, but forever) guilt, and struggle with his Undead identity with genuine pathos. He remains a real find for the series.
It’s incidental, but the background detail too, is something In The Flesh does extremely well. From the graffiti to the news reports, to the “Would You Trust Them?” Victus campaign posters, the ‘PDS-Friendly’ symbols in Kieren’s Lonely Planet Guide To Europe, and the ITV crime mystery being sponsored by Halperin & Weston, the company that makes PDS medication and make-up, its world is convincingly built, cosseting you comfortably inside the drama.
To sum up, In The Flesh has returned with a robust and promising episode that shows the law of diminishing returns where to stick it. It’s back, and praise be, it’s better than ever. Bring on next week.
Read In The Flesh series two interviews with Dominic Mitchell, Luke Newberry and more, here.
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