In the Flesh is the most intelligent zombie show I have ever seen. It totally destroys The Walking Dead (about which I posted a lot over at the Global Sociology Blog). The first season is only three-episode long but that is enough to produce a great show with interesting and diverse characters based on a premise that is much more interesting than blood and gore.
The premise in itself is rather original. The story starts actually after the end of “the rising”, the period of time where those who died in the year before come back as zombies. So, there is no bug, no epidemics. Just an unexplained revival of those who died at a certain time. Also, these zombies are not contagious. Getting bitten does not turn one into a zombie, even though everybody believes it because they have seen it in the movies.
Also an original premise: this time, scientists have found a treatment for what is now called “partially deceased syndrome”. The treatment stops the “zombification” process and actually reverses some of the brain damage, the PSD sufferers regain control of themselves, but they do get flashbacks of their time as zombies. Also, they can no longer eat or drink without being sick as their insides are still decomposed. They also keep the white “dead flesh” skin tone and weird pupils. They are partially dead, therefore, they do not really heal, cannot be killed except if shot/stabbed in the head.
The central character is Kieren Walker, who committed suicide at the “right time” and became a zombie. We meet him in a rehabilitation center where he is administered treatment and therapy (to accept his status as PSD patient and deal with the guilt of what he did during his zombie time). Kieren is getting ready to return home, so, he is also taught how to use make up to get a more ‘natural” skin tone, and contact lenses, all to make the living less uncomfortable.
So, when the story begins, the zombie apocalypse is over. The government seems to be in control. They are still zombies out there but they are few and far between, lost in the woods, not really a threat anymore. However, the perspective of having PSD patients (or “rotters” as they are called) back in their communities does not go over easy.
And so, Kieren goes home to a rural village called Roarton, to initially uncomfortable parents, and a hostile younger sister who has joined a militia called the Human Volunteer Force (HVF), people who took it upon themselves to kill rotters. The Roarton HVF is led by Bill Macey, whose son Rick was supposedly killed in Afghanistan (he actually comes back as a PSD patient, which creates a moral conflict for Bill). Bill, fired up by the local preacher, fights against the return of the PSD patients.
There is a lot in this series that can be used to show the relevance of sociological concepts, especially relating to deviance. Obviously, the “rotters” (a stigmatizing label) are treated as deviants. Once back in their communities, they are expected to be registered with the authorities (like sex offenders) and to subject to regular medication and check-ups. They are also expected to use the cosmetic skills taught to them at the rehabilitation center. Kieren’s mother is actually given a taser in case the medication stops being effective. But the stigma is such that the volunteer nurse who is supposed to check on him is hiding the fact that she is involved with this. Initially, Kieren’s parents hide the fact that he is back home, making him hide in a closet if someone comes to visit. They are right to be worried as Bill has shot an killed another PSD patient who had returned home.
Fueling the hostility against rotters is Vicar Oddie who considers the rotters to be evil and should be killed, as unnatural beings. The Vicar also leads the local town council from which he can exercise further power against PSD patients (such as painting PDS on the garage doors of homes where they have returned… shades of Star of David on Jewish businesses before WWII).
At the same time, the story also explores the patients themselves, and their perceptions of themselves as they regain their humanity and come back to live among the living.
In this first season, we see different patterns of reaction: Kieren, who feels guilty for both the way he died and what he did as a zombie; Amy, who goes through the entire deviant career, embraces her status as “rotter”, refuses to wear make up and lenses, and does not hesitate to go out, actually enjoying making people uncomfortable; and then there is Rick, the veteran, who is largely in denial (mostly for his father’s sake) of both his homosexual relationship with Kieren (before he left for Afghanistan, a first source of conflict with his father), and now his PSD status (he pretends to be able to have a drink at the local pub with his father even though it makes him sick, what with the rotting guts).
With the end of The Rising, the treatment and rehabilitation, and the return (and potential normalization) of the PDS patients in the community, Bill, and the rest of HVF, are afraid of losing the status and privileges they were granted at the height of the Rising. They were used to free drinks at the pub, and other perks due to their status.
When the series starts, one of them is asked, for the first time in a long time apparently, to pay for his drink, and the pub owner is in the process of taking down pro-HVF signs. Nevertheless, the pub creates a segregated area for PDS patients who might venture in. But for the HVF people, the fact that things might quiet down, that danger is no longer really present, and that zombies are being reintegrated into society, poses a specific status problem. And, as we know, people threatened with the lost of power and prestige, usually do not take it very well.
There is definitely a classist aspect to In The Flesh, Bill Macey and his two sidekicks are definitely portrayed as lower class from a rural area, totting guns all over the place. And the two sidekicks in question are definitely portrayed as complete moronic losers who got their status thanks to a rifle and an HVF armband. No wonder they don’t want to give it up (although the perspective of getting money for grabbing zombies and turning them in – instead of killing them – is incentive enough).
Bill himself, along with Vicar Oddie, is a complete bigot who had a problem with his son’s homosexuality then, and has issues with PDS patients now.
On the other hand, the Walkers and the Burtons (Ken Burton is played by the always excellent Ricky Tomlinson) are higher on the social ladder (as seen through their nicer houses), but also more open-minded (as the Walkers take their son back in, and Ken Burton accepts his PDS-patient wife).
The only character higher on the social ladder is a hapless minister that we see at the beginning of episode 1, whose job it is to explain to the rural community, how PDS-patients are going to be reintegrated in their communities. This is class conflict 101, with the lower class people shouting bigoted things while the minister (while completely ignoring their fears and concerns) patiently gives them bureaucratic, long-worded non-answers (“if you go to the website…”).
There are a lot more plot points that make the series interesting and even though the narrative is pretty tight and well concluded at the end of the third episode, there are enough loose ends to provide storylines for further seasons, especially, the existence of some sort of underground group of partially deceased.
But as I said, this is an intelligent show. Don’t watch if all you want to see and blood and gore and flesh-eating, because there is hardly any of that. That is not the point of the show. The show is about characters, and what happens when the horror is over. It is well written. There are many layers to the story and all the characters are interesting to follow. Also, and that is not negligible, the series passes the Bechtel test.
But you should go in there, armed with your Erving Goffman (stigma, presentation of the self) and Howard Becker (Outsiders, labeling theory) and you will find some rich material to analyze.
Also, go read PhilBC’s review. He got to see the series in the UK long before it aired on BBC America, but his review really made me not want to miss it when it came out here.