There Will Be Spoilers
Series two of BBC Three’s undead drama series In The Flesh has drawn to a close. With twice as many episodes on offer, writer Dominic Mitchell had more of a chance to explore the world he created and give the audience a deeper insight into its characters. Unfortunately, by expanding its vision, In The Flesh has diluted what made it quite so engaging first time round.
Though the three episodes that made up series one had a clear propulsive plot and narrative structure, it was largely a poignant character study of an undead teenager, now rehabilitated and categorised as a PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) sufferer, trying to readjust back into society. Not only is Kieren discriminated against, but his hometown is still reeling from the initial undead outbreak and any ‘rotter’ faces the very real threat of being violently dispatched by the local militant enforcers. The show quite beautifully revealed his backstory and his past relationships as the episodes progressed, and by keeping its focus on Kieren and the Walkers (his family, not just a reference to The Walking Dead), it smartly avoided getting too bogged down in the wider ‘what-if’s’ that any world-building can find itself getting side-tracked by.
But series two comes unstuck by thinking we are as interested in the world of In The Flesh as we are in the main character. Containing Kieren in his hometown of Roarton makes a certain sense (new laws have restricted the movements of PDS sufferers and a programme of community service enacted), but it also means we are stuck with its inhabitants, leaving some episodes in which Kieren is effectively sidelined, leaving In The Flesh to become a general “undead people problems” show (see also: the generic and ill-fitting new title sting, all zombie clip-art dropped into a flash animation). Cue great chunks of time taken up with dramatically inert councillor Phil visiting the local undead brothel, boo-hiss MP Maxine Martin, who seems to have walked in from a sub-par Doctor Who episode and wields a seemingly huge amount of executive power, and a married couple having to deal with a live-in undead ex that pretty much went nowhere.
And since when did Roarton become undead central? The strength of series one was that Kieren was an individual outsider, with only a select few aware of his re-existence (and even fewer that he could consider allies). Now the local area has a sizeable undead community, enough to be roped into a labour force or to organise grave-raves where they get high on sheep brains for kicks. Sure, this would be as a result of the continuing wave of PDS sufferers returning from treatment and reintegrating themselves, but a lone outsider is more compelling and less tired a premise than “zombies = any minority group”. Since George A. Romero, zombies have been forever linked with social satire, but apart from some neat and accurate asides of government and council bureaucracy, In The Flesh series two is unimaginative with its representation of the other, whereas series one, following an individual having been involved in a terrible act finding themselves in the stifling claustrophobia of a community that knows their past, reminded me more of We Need To Talk About Kevin than Romero’s work.
Worse though is that other worn-out narrative, that of “the chosen one”. The success of series one was that Kieren was just one person in a larger framework, but that does not mean that we need to a) cover other stories in this framework in the assumption that they too are interesting, or b) realign everything to make them the key. It is as if there is a need to justify to the audience that the reason we are following Kieren is because he is part of something bigger, rather than simply because he is a well-formed and well-performed character in an interesting situation. There is nothing wrong with making a seemingly insignificant place the epicentre of a wider-reaching drama a la Superman crash landing in Smallville, and it’s nice we’re not in London or Edinburgh or Manchester, but it retrospectively cheapens what has come before. It pulls it back a little in the finale by revealing that it’s not Kieren but his BDFF Amy that is the “chosen one”/first risen (or is she?), but that doesn’t stop the whole thing feeling pretty yawnsome as far as series arcs go. The only truly duff notes in series one were the references to an underground undead cult/terrorist organisation and its Anonymous-esque vlog-leader the Undead Prophet, and my fear was that any subsequent series would undoubtedly bring this clichéd subplot to the fore. And while this element remains bubbling underneath for now, it’s clear a third series would pitch battle between the living and the dead, and the Undead Prophet would become a major part of that. Sure, the religious aspect was inevitable (and informed a great deal of the Roarton residents’ attitude towards the undead in series one through Vicar Oddie’s sermons), but the batty second rising subplot, coupled with some clunky biblical references (the introduction to the Undead Prophet’s twelve disciples gathered round a Last Supper table was particularly naff), all left series two of In The Flesh feeling like a shadow of its former self.