Flesh eating zombies. Children’s spines implanted with harnesses as obedience devices. The pursuit of cheap green energy triggering the neutralization of the global electricity grid. The display of the American flag as a declaration of rebellion.
These are the leitmotifs of a common and popular genre in episodic television as of late: post-apocalyptic drama. Its significance surpasses that of mere entertainment. These stories are deeply reflective of the times in which we live. As such, they are both alarming and potentially uplifting.
Let us consider three of these shows.
The most well-known, having the greatest longevity thus far, is The Walking Dead (AMC). Based on the comic books written by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard and originally adapted for television and produced by Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption) the show portrays a post-apocalyptic world populated by flesh eating zombies whose bites transform a person into a similarly undead and ravenous “walker.” Needless to say, the reliable structures of society have collapsed. Survival and the maintenance of one’s humanity depend upon the strength of the family, and of the extended families that form in the service of that very survival.
In such a context, leadership is essential. As in the other shows to be discussed, leaders are often reluctant, ill prepared, and have the position thrust upon them by circumstances. In each case they rise to the occasion, although not without worrisome setbacks. In The Walking Dead, the character of former police officer Rick Grimes is played by Andrew Lincoln, who plums the depths of this most dire of situations with resolve and aplomb. As does, for the most part, his wife (played by Sarah Wayne Callies, Prison Break) and the rival for her affections (John Bernthal). Best not to expect happy endings here.
The second series of the genre is called Falling Skies, executive produced by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is on familiar ground here, having featured extraterrestrial beings in ET, creatures run amok in Jurassic Park, and contact with alien civilizations in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In this TNT program, a global alien invasion has wiped out 90% of the human population. Family members lose touch, often to learn that loved ones have died. The invaders have neutralized the world’s power grid, characteristically forcing the human defenders of earth to resort to primitive means and methods of survival, or what one might euphemistically call a simpler life.
Here, armies are raised. The Second Massachusetts hearkens back to the Continental Army formed during the Revolutionary War. Once again, the focus is refracted onto the formative roots of this great nation. And again, the emphasis on family and brotherhood is preeminent. The regiment is commandeered by Army Captain Dan Weaver (a grizzly Will Patton), while former history professor Tom Mason (the ever effective Noah Wyle) takes on the role of Dan’s partner and the survivors’ reluctant leader–learning as he goes, finding within himself reserves of physical courage and determination yet untapped. Tom is the widowed father of three boys, one of whom was among the children captured by the aliens and physically and mentally harnessed into mindless obedience. Rescuing his son is an early priority for Tom, as is melding a disparate group of fellow combatants, including the unpredictable former gang member and sometime-chef John Pope (Colin Cunningham).
Finally, consider the series Revolution from NBC. Appropriately for the purposes of this writing, in the opening credits the letters of the title (Revolution) quickly devolve into the word “Evolution,” suggesting that revolutions do not simply occur to sort out the human condition once and for all, but tend to recur in an ongoing process of human evolution.
The show is executive produced by JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions. (Lost, Star Trek) and directed by the Jon Favreau (Iron Man.) It takes place 15 years after a worldwide blackout inadvertently (?) brought about by the well-intentioned development of nano-robot technology for the purpose of creating cheap “green” energy. Our heroes are all members of the Matheson family: Miles (played by Billy Burke, Twilight), Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost) and “Charlie” (the lovely and believable Tracy Spiridakos)–brother, mother, and daughter of the murdered Ben Matheson.
In all three shows, the hero is forced to confront a formidable foe contending for leadership and ultimate power. This elevates the challenge of surmounting physical obstacles to the higher level of staking out and defending ethics and values. It is as if society is being forced to remake itself in the wake of near unendurable destruction, and it must lay the groundwork in moral soil. From where this writer sits, observing the ongoing undermining and dismantling of this country as founded, built, and nurtured by its leaders and citizens alike, one can only long for such an opportunity to start over and rebuild from the ground up.
Ben Matheson in Revolution fell victim to the Monroe Republic militia, which is intent upon dominating the entirety of the former United States. The compelling twist here is that warlord Sebastian “Bass” Monroe (David Lyons) is Miles’s best friend since childhood. Miles previously commanded the Republic alongside Monroe before experiencing a change of heart and deserting the militia. Eventually, he reunites with his surviving family, who join the rebel forces that dare to continue to raise the American flag. Now the race is on to restore electrical power… for the good or ill of mankind.
In each of these three television series, humanity is in extremis, having hit a nadir from which it must fight to resurrect itself or be extinguished. This is a scenario which resonates deeply in this-our-place and time.