When I first got Netflix, the service’s algorithms had me pegged as a fan of horror, science fiction, and other genre staples, and its recommendations were targeted accordingly. Then one day the magic computer systems that measure our every action calculated that I was gay, and so overnight Netflix started recommending all manner of programming about drag queens and some Golden Girls-adjacent category they called “strong female friendships”—subjects of no interest to me. Stubbornly, Netflix refused to let the stereotype go despite my manifest uninterest, even sprinkling in shows about decorating and fashion. What, really, do they program their algorithms to believe? After a couple of weeks of this, the computers tried a new tack and suddenly all of the thumbnails for shows featured shirtless young men smiling and flexing, even when the content had nothing to do with the imagery. Eventually, Netflix’s algorithms calmed down and settled back into highlighting genre fare, but it was instructive to see the way the service’s marketing changes according to how they stereotype their users.
All of this is a long way around asking exactly whom they felt that the new post-apocalyptic teenage zombie dramedy Daybreak was meant for. If you trust the algorithms—and I don’t—it’s apparently made for me, or, rather what they think of me. The lead is a likeable young man, and the show features loads of 1980s and 1990s pop culture references. (Seriously: What teenager today is into 1983 He-Man? I’m 38 and it was only just barely my time.) There is a quasi-tragic same-sex romance, and it highlights the importance of found family. It’s like they were checking the boxes generated by a computer algorithm. If you actually watch the show, it feels like it was made by and for 40-something screenwriters who gained their knowledge of the world from television and have created a recursive self-referencing show about television that lacks real engagement with the world outside of Hollywood. And yet, it’s also a lot of fun and could have been great if not for the screenwriters’ complete miscalculation about how invested TV viewers are in the nuts and bolts of making television in a P.C. climate.
The series is based loosely on Brian Ralph’s 2011 graphic novel, unread by me, which was apparently more serious and darker than this adaptation. While the TV version is ostensibly meant for a teenage audience, and is the 24 to The Society’s The West Wing, it’s hard to imagine teens embracing this homage to 1980s and 1990s teen culture the way Netflix seems to intend. Also: There is probably something important to say about the number of apocalyptic shows airing in our era of relative peace and prosperity, but this doesn’t seem like the right show to talk about it.
Daybreak begins as the story of Josh (an effortlessly charming Colin Ford from, of all things, Under the Dome), a Canadian expatriate who recently transferred to a Glendale, Calif. high school just in time to fall in love with a British expatriate with the supernaturally ridiculous name of Sam Dean before the world ends. (Ford also appeared on Supernatural, so, ha ha.) Biologically targeted bombs wipe out nearly all of the adult population, turning everyone over the age of eighteen into ravenous “ghoulies” who endlessly repeat the last banal thought that passed through their heads. (“There’s a sale on yoga pants at Lululemon!”) The effect efficiently removes any sense of dread and moves the story away from Fear the Walking Dead to something closer to comedy. Most of the remaining people in Glendale are high school students who have retreated to their Hollywood-approved cliques and claimed parts of the city in the name of jocks, nerds, fashionistas, etc. and war with one another for territory and supplies.
Josh is a free agent who keeps to himself and tries to avoid the fighting, at least until he acquires a tribe of his own, including sociopathic preteen Angelica (Alyvia Alyn Lind) and pacifist “samurai” and ex-jock Wesley (Austin Crute), whose clandestine same-sex romance threatens the social order. Together, they take on a series of colorful but ridiculous villains as they level up on a quest to find Sam. How ridiculous? The main antagonist is a football player turned Mad Max villain going by “Turbo Jock Bro.” He communicates only in grunts and travels in a tricked-out vehicle playing the TV football broadcast theme music.
Usually shows get better as they find their footing and develop their stories. Daybreak is the rare series that I liked progressively less as the story unfolded. In the early episodes, Josh is the focus, and he breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience and guide the viewer through the story, treating the camera like a friend and engaging with the audience. If it sounds like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it should. The original pitch for the show was “Ferris Bueller in the apocalypse.” Josh is a reasonable facsimile of Ferris, and having Colin Ford playing opposite Matthew Broderick as the principal goes a long way to justify the many, many Ferris Bueller references. But again: Are the teens these days into a 1986 comedy that, again, was just barely in my 38-year lifetime?
While the direct-to-camera trick can be cloying, when used right, it can involve the viewer and put you directly into the story. But as we move through the season, the focus shifts away from Josh and the direct-to-camera commentary vanishes. With it, goes most of the series’ charm and at least half its comedy. It becomes a fairly straightforward postapocalyptic drama in the manner of The Walking Dead, albeit more coherent and less dour, with the requisite Lost-style flashbacks. By shifting the structure and tone so wildly, the effect is actually to create distance between the show and its viewers, since the narrative goes from personal to conventional all too quickly. At times, there are brief attempts to recreate the initial connection by sharing other characters’ points of view directly with the audience, and there is a version of this show where each episode might have been narrated to camera by one P.O.V. character per episode. But these attempts become shorter and less developed, with snarky on-screen graphics and running commentary on the story’s construction, writerly conceits that actually work to take the viewer out of the story. They suggest the presence of a showrunner where we should be invested in the characters.
I got the feeling that at some point the showrunner and the writers got network notes from Netflix that they needed less of the “cisgender white male” (as one character scoffs) and more diversity (Netflix actively produces programming for underserved audiences), so the program starts to have its teenage characters talk incessantly about diversity and tolerance in language that resembles the bitter way old people pretend young “woke” folks talk, and the unnecessary emphasis on prefacing phrases with “gender neutral” or explaining away derogatory uses of “gay” call unwelcome attention to the writers’ unpleasant sense of humor and obvious belief that tolerance is a form of oppression. At one point, a character claims the gender of “seahorse.” I think Rush Limbaugh made a joke like that. There’s an argument to be made against over-policing language, but this is neither the time nor the place for pointed asides that have the effect of justifying cruelty.
This problem extends to the program as a whole. Daybreak’s surface level story about teens surviving the apocalypse in style is a very thin veneer over the show’s actual concern: the business of making television. At every level, this is a show about being a TV show. The production design makes no effort to hide the TV-ness of it all. What teenagers do you think have professional hair and makeup after everyone dies? How many have pro car-painting skills? And where do they get the buckets of printer ink and the professional-level graphic design skills to create their tribal icons and banners, decorate arenas (!) in branded paraphernalia, and do it all with limited electricity? The only exception is the jocks, who have hand-painted, crude insignia because, in the minds of the writers and producers, jocks are (a) dumb, (b) evil, and (c) probably like totally secretly gay and stuff, but, you know, in a bad way. I’d say it was all a Revenge of the Nerds-style revenge fantasy from the writers, but that movie came out when I was three years old, and I think I saw it on TV when I was ten. Even in my youth, that was an old stereotype. So who exactly is the target audience? The only group that comes off worse than jocks is women, who are, to a one, depicted as either (a) mean, (b) bonkers, or (c) sociopathic. (The narrative even punishes them for having sex, just like in a horror movie!) The only exception is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, i.e. Sam, who has no agency and is seen mostly through others’ eyes, even in the eighth episode, which is devoted to her but is too busy trying to make a point about feminism to go beyond the superficial. Do not get me started on the mess of a finale, which doubles down on all of this in nonsensical ways.
But it’s the overly postmodern writerly aspects that really sink the story in the second half of the season. The writers can’t help but engage in postmodern games, calling attention to the TV clichés and conceits that allow a visual story to function. It also seems like they did that because this is a TV show made up of parts of old TV shows and movies unmoored from the real world that informed the originals. At one point, Angelica complains about the first episodes focusing on straight, white, male Josh, implicitly conceding that she knows she’s in a TV show. (Rod Serling did a Night Gallery segment about characters who realize they are in a TV script, and it is … weird.) Early in the season, when present Josh imagines a conversation with his pre-apocalyptic self, the two versions of him discuss why this was not a real time-travel sequence but is a visual representation of his inner dilemma for the benefit of the viewers. During an actual dream sequence, the camera pulls back to break the fourth wall of the set and let the characters become actors in their own lives. Wesley eventually admits that his entire samurai persona (and the writers’ apparent knowledge of Japan) derives entirely from samurai movies. The jocks run American Ninja Idol, a singing competition to the death, which both foregrounds the primacy of television in this world—as opposed to the world of real teens that is lived online more than on TV—and also undercuts any sense of logic. If the whole of your world had been reduced to a few hundred kids from your high school, would you kill off what, by second half of the season, must be close to a quarter or a third of the entire population? Even the dimmest bulb sociopaths would recognize how counterproductive this is.
And yet, I have to say that I wasn’t bored at any point in the series, which is a marked improvement over Netflix’s other entries in the genre like The Society and The Order and whatever that horrible Canadian import that was also about young people carrying on after all the adults die was supposed to be. This version was enjoyable to watch and always entertaining in the moment, even if it doesn’t add up when you stop to think about it. If the writers could get themselves out of the story, cut the aggressively unlikeable Angelica’s screen time in half, and let the otherwise appealing and engaging group of characters get on with the business of enjoying the decadence of surviving the apocalypse and having time enough at last to indulge their hearts’ desires, I could see a second season being worth the time.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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