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Originally published Thursday, May 8, 2014 at 1:37 PM

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‘In the Flesh’: a zombie drama with heart and brains

A review of the BBC America series, which begins Season 2 on Saturday, May 10.


San Francisco Chronicle

On TV

‘In the Flesh’

Season 2 premiere, 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday, May 10, on BBC America.

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The critical success of two European zombie shows last season has led to occasionally acceptable but still second-rate imitations from American TV creators, with more to come. Fortunately, the French series “The Returned” and BBC America’s “In the Flesh” are still alive and well.

OK, let me rephrase that because, of course, both shows are about the mysterious return of dead people who want to pick up their lives just where they left off.

The second season of “The Returned” will arrive later this year on the Sundance Channel, but you only have to wait until Saturday, May 10, for the second season of “In the Flesh,” the story of a no longer late teenage boy named Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry) who is among many other reanimated dead people suffering from partially deceased syndrome.

The first season of the show was all about Kieren and other PDS zombies trying to elude vigilantes of the living known as the Human Volunteer Force. The vigilantes included Kieren’s sister, Jem (Harriet Cains) who, like many other living people of the community, hated what they couldn’t understand. She’s put that behind her, but still feels self-conscious about being the living sister of her PDS brother.

All Kieren wants to do is live a normal partial life. He dutifully applies makeup daily to hide his pallor and wears brown contact lenses to cover his death-white eyes. When he meets with local health officials for his regular dose of humanizing meds, they tell him that it’s best to remove the contacts at night. He complies, but only after first covering the bathroom mirror with a towel so he doesn’t have to see himself.

One of the requirements of his regular appointments with the health department is to hold a mirror up to his own face, speak his name, identify himself as suffering from PDS and announcing that he knows it’s not his fault. It’s a brilliantly revealing and poignant scene in Saturday’s episode.

“In the Flesh” is of course a complex and thought-provoking allegory. It is about how shame can eventually transform itself into pride and activism. It’s also about how pride and activism can push some people to go too far, to seek vengeance against those who hate them.

On the human side, the series, created by Dominic Mitchell, is also about how ignorance breeds fear and hatred. Nothing new there, of course, but what we see in Saturday’s episode is that even among haters, there are differences of opinion about how to treat the undead. A new member of Parliament has been elected to the district that includes the town of Roarton. Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku) is a member of Victus, the party opposing integration of PDS and living residents. She is disturbed by the evolution of PDS and living coexistence in Roarton.

There is obvious irony in the wariness with which she is greeted by some residents of the town, including the anti-PDS Vicar Oddie (Kenneth Cranham). It’s never spelled out, of course, but it doesn’t need to be: Prejudice is an equal-opportunity form of ignorance, and just as Oddie hates PDS zombies, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine he doesn’t have much love for black people either.

As for Kieren, the more he tries to live that normal nonlife, the more the living get in his way, pushing him to the point where he has to confront his own shame at being a zombie and decide where he fits in the world. For much of the episode, he talks about going to France, wrongly thinking that somehow he can leave his problems and his identity behind him.

It’s far too late for that, of course.

It’s not too late for those who love great TV drama, however. Don’t be put off by the subject matter: You don’t have to like zombie shows at all to love “In the Flesh.” You only have to love great, involving TV drama.



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