Starz’s Now Apocalypse is a strange mixture of quarterlifer angst, sex farce, and space aliens. Going into the series, I had no idea it would involve History Channel-style conspiracy theories about Reptilians, government cover-ups, and cattle mutilation. I’m not sure that the aliens added anything to the series, but the show certainly helps to continue mainstreaming conspiracy theories, albeit under the guise of fiction.
If you subscribe to Starz and use its streaming app, then you have probably seen the show’s first season. If you are watching on live television, then you are only halfway through the season.
But let’s be honest. You aren’t watching it.
Last Sunday, 85,000 people saw the fifth episode, down from the 147,000 who watched the series premiere in March, making it one of television’s lowest rated shows, even by the standards of minor premium pay cable services.
Now Apocalypse comes from the fertile if off-kilter mind of Gregg Araki, who became famous decades ago for a series of movies involving teenagers, alien abductions, and the apocalypse. I had never seen them, nor had I heard of Araki, so the repetition of his themes in the new series can as a surprise to me.
Now Apocalypse revolves around the wanderings of twentysomething queer burnout Ulysses (Avan Jogia) and his best friends, dim screenwriting wannabe Ford (Beau Mirchoff) and reluctant cam girl Carli (Kelli Berglund), as they try to navigate bad job prospects and failing relationships in the heart of Los Angeles. Araki’s series takes them through a series of increasingly explicit sexual misadventures that mirror their social and economic challenges, depicting young life on the outskirts of Hollywood as an unsatisfying bacchanal of freedom untethered from responsibility.
No one on the show is happy. Ulysses struggles to find a true romantic connection and has trouble deciding whether an emotional or a sexual spark is the key to a relationship. He finds the potential for love and lust but can’t fully get over an extremely brief sexual encounter with Gabriel (Tyler Posey), who may or may not be the archangel who will herald the End Times. Ford finds himself in unsettling situations where he is exploited by powerful gay Hollywood power brokers looking to use him and his robotic icy French girlfriend Severine (Roxane Mesquida) who wants him to live under her own sexually libertine terms. Carli can’t bring herself to leave a failing relationship with a TV extra (Desmond Chiam) or to give up on a failing acting career. She descends into an online and offline world of BDSM and fetish sex that strays into farcical territory.
Severine is also a scientist working to suppress evidence of an alien presence on Earth, resulting in a trip to Roswell, New Mexico to help cover up cattle mutilations.
That Araki is able to make this stew of sad people living unfulfilling lives both charming and optimistic comes down to the series careful modulation of tone and the warm appeal of the show’s three leads, who will be familiar to viewers of teen-oriented cable TV series from the past decade. The actors give some of their best performances in these roles. All three are at their most charming and make even the most ridiculous excesses of Araki’s sex-and-aliens farce palatable.
That said, the show relies far too heavily on coincidence and happenstance to tell its story, and upon examination, the story falls apart when you consider the extreme unlikeliness of predicaments the story builds towards in its final episodes. I imagine that this is part of his purpose, to give the series a dreamlike quality and to suggest the workings of fate. Perhaps over many seasons it would start to pay off, but if this is the only season, then it reads as too cute by half, especially when Carli’s urine fetishist client turns out to be someone important in one of the character’s lives. I’m not sure Araki knows how computers work, and there are some unreal situations that arise online. For example, how likely would you be to pay for a session with a cam girl whose picture you hadn’t seen?
On a thematic level, the show’s sexual politics are strangely conservative. While the surface level seems to celebrate the hedonistic freedom of twenty-first century youth, our heroes are deeply dissatisfied with the buffet of endless options modern sex provides. Carli only half-jokes that she longs for the “easier” time when “everybody was straight” and sexual attraction wasn’t a guessing game. Ford openly longs for heterosexual monogamy but finds it hard to find a partner who is open to a traditional lifestyle. Ulysses is excited by the freedom of gay hookup culture but comes to realize he is happier in a monogamous relationship, if he can find one that melds mind, body, and soul. For my money, the most poignant line in the series came right at the beginning when Ulysses introduces the audience to Ford and explains that if Ford had even a molecule of gayness in him, they two of them would probably have been married years ago. This encapsulates the show’s theme that sex ruins everything.
And that brings us to the aliens.
I could talk about the influences the show takes from James Joyce and from French cinema, but let’s discuss space aliens instead. In Now Apocalypse the Reptilian aliens clearly represent the monstrous side of sex. They are depicted as rapists, sexually violating men’s assholes for nefarious purposes (the show suggests aliens incubate their young in human intestines, something like tapeworms). The show’s most unforgiveable and misbegotten scene involved one such rape played for laughs, despite the victim’s obvious trauma.
The aliens hover around the edges of the show, and their costuming is so 1950s B-movie rubber suit that I hope it was an intentional choice for potential future seasons. Regardless, I wasn’t entirely happy with the show having the aliens spawn conspiracies to suppress evidence of their presence, nor with the show folding into its narrative the angry paranoia of the History Channel and Ancient Aliens. Fortunately, the series doesn’t take the aliens all too seriously, nor ufology. It depicts UFO believers as socially awkward, overweight losers whom the cool kids won’t associate with. In perhaps its most useful observation about UFO culture, the series has Henry Rollins play a character about halfway between Giorgio Tsoukalos and Stanton Friedman who acts suave and reasonable in online videos but becomes a seething ball of rage when he feels that the losers he dislikes even as he tries to scam them into buying his endless flood of products aren’t spending enough money.
Sure, this show is fiction, but placing the darkest forms of modern space alien myths alongside the looming threat of the Judeo-Christian apocalypse smacks too much of reinforcing the kind of really dark material we find in the bowels of UFO culture and the dankest reaches of cable conspiracy shows and giving it a glossy pop-culture sheen that makes those ideas attractive in ways that their angry advocates can’t always do for audiences beyond their own true believers. If Now Apocalypse had more than 85,000 viewers (and whoever time-shifts the show—though it can’t be all that many), I’d probably be more concerned about the shiny, happy face Araki put on some of the worst UFO claims. But as it stands, more people are watching the nonfiction versions on even the lesser cable “science” channels. My gut feeling is that if the show somehow wrangled another season or two, we’d discover that the “alien” conspiracy is something else entirely and what seems at first to be History Channel horrors come to life has a deeper and more interesting angle (or angel!) behind it.
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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