The following review contains no spoilers.
Much like the James Joyce novel from which his name derives, Now Apocalypse’s Ulysses (Avan Jogia) finds himself on an increasingly surreal-yet-mundane journey that begins in ends in similar fashion. In the first moments of the premiere, he has a vision of sexual violence and quickly escapes from it by bike. Toward the episode’s end, said bike collapses underneath him in front of the very place his vision occurred.
Of course, that’s not all that creator Gregg Araki manages to fit into “This Is the Beginning of the End” and subsequent episodes. Known for his so-called “Teen apocalypse trilogy” (Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere) of the ‘90s, the filmmaker is widely known for a visual and narrative style that seemingly favors bright colors and hypersexuality. Now Apocalypse features both of these in droves, but with its obvious allusions to Joyce (and Homer) and Francis Ford Coppola (and Joseph Conrad), it’s grasping at so much more.
After all, as the official Starz logline for the new series describes, Ulysses and his friends Carly (Kelli Berglund), Ford (Beau Mirchoff) and Severine (Roxane Mesquida) are all on “quests.” Specifically, these four 20-somethings are embarking “on various quests pursuing love, sex and fame.” For Ulysses, it’s finally managing to go out with Gabriel (Tyler Posey). His rich roommate Ford, meanwhile, endeavors to become a successful screenwriter. Ford’s girlfriend Severine despises monogamy and vyes for the secrets of the universe, but Carly? She just wants to land a decent acting role.
None of their respective journeys necessarily feel as epic as Homer’s Odyssey or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Once Ulysses wakes up from his fateful bicycle crash, however, things start to get a little weird… if not “epic.” Dystopian paranoia, an alien invasion heralded by a viral conspiracy theorist (played wonderfully by Henry Rollins) and a revolving door of sexual and drug-induced experiences are waiting behind every fork in the road. Meanwhile, the stereotypical Los Angeles that backdrops their lives chugs along like everything is normal.
This juxtaposition by Araki and Now Apocalypse’s co-creator, Karley Sciortino (Slutever), is blatantly intentional. In many ways, the show feels like a modern Millennial update of HBO’s Sex and the City combined with some of the odder aspects of The CW’s Riverdale. (Not coincidentally, Araki directed an episode of the latter, not to mention episodes of similar young adult programming like Paramount Network’s Heathers and Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why). In others, it’s almost an exercise in making meta-commentary that’s more jokey than serious.
Or, as Ulysses explains it during an early vlogging session, “On one hand, I can’t shake this gnawing dread, this feeling that there’s something going on just below the surface of everyday life. But on the other hand, I do smoke a lot of weed.”
So is a mysterious race of reptilian aliens actually trying to take over the world, one sexually violent (but purposefully ridiculous) act at a time? Or should Ulysses, as Carly explains it to him one morning, “Maybe smoke a smidge less pot before bedtime”? The hero of Now Apocalypse thinks otherwise, both in that his “bizarre premonitions” are pointing towards something that is actually happening and that he’s not smoking too much pot. In fact, as the show’s main mystery becomes even more prominent, it seems like Ulysses goes out of his way to smoke even more.
Maybe that’s the biggest joke that Araki and Sciortino are trying to make with Starz’s latest original series, which is executive produced by filmmaker and The Girlfriend Experience alum Steven Soderbergh. That is, that everything Ulysses experiences on his quest is nothing more than a psychedelic sexual romp through the perilous-yet-wondrous adventure of finding oneself in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s all one big gag at the more intentionally serious approach to such subjects that more traditional television comedies (or dramedies) take.
And therein lies Now Apocalypse’s biggest fault. Whenever things take a dramatically heavy turn, it happens so quickly that viewers might not be able to keep up following however many jokes or quips have preceded the turn. On the flip side, as soon as the show’s more serious moments release the tension with a new bout of comedy, the audience may find themselves more confused than not.
Now Apocalypse premieres Sunday, March 10th at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.