It’s difficult to watch BBC America’s new post-apocalyptic sci-fi series, Survivors, without thinking about the past decade’s smattering of end-of-civilization pics like Children of Men and 28 Days Later. Indeed, it lifts so much from the latter (intertitles marking the “days later,” a scene opening on a sleeping patient’s eye, the dead lined up in a religious mecca) that Danny Boyle should demand a co-credit. But forgive Survivors for being too familiar—it does try to put some new mileage on the well-worn premise of the living banding together and taking to the road after a catastrophe—and you have a wonderfully acted, tearfully sad, and faintly provocative bit of telly.
Adapted from the 1970s British miniseries of the same name (itself based on the book by Terry Nation, the mind behind Doctor Who‘s evil Daleks and the cult series Blake’s 7), Survivors begins in London as a virulent flu causes an alarming bit of absenteeism. Soon enough, people are dropping in the streets and then one morning—bam—99 percent of the world’s population is rotting meat. Left to pick up the pieces and flee the city are Abby, a wife and mother who, though infected, mysteriously lives; Greg, a systems analyst with a surprising understanding of outdoor gear; Anya, a young doctor tortured by her failure to save her friends; Aalim, a half-Kuwaiti playboy who initially tried to ignore the plague; and Najid, a preteen Muslim orphaned when his parents’ died while praying. Rounding out their group is Tom, a high-security prisoner who strangled his jail’s only living guard to break free.
While Abby’s (Julie Graham) stubborn search to find her missing son is the show’s dramatic center, Greg (Paterson Joseph) and Tom (Max Beesley) are much more intriguing—at least in the first few episodes. Joseph, a brilliant comedian, plays it low key here and portrays Greg as a businessman slightly titillated by the idea of being outside the rat race for once; he just can’t hide the gleam in his eye when he talks about having to live off the land. And Beesley, recognizable for his stints on the previous BBC America imports Bodies and Hotel Babylon, allows beefy Tom to quietly hover around his newfound friends like a silent protector despite the fact that he possesses a menacing quality that implies he’s more unpredictable and psychotic than reformed.
Like with its predecessors, Survivors‘s real villain isn’t the virus, or the top-secret medical team hinted to be experimenting with it, but other humans. So count on them to eventually pop up everywhere, staking claim over various territories and food reserves, trading sex for protection, exploiting children, and occasionally terrorizing the gang just for the hell of it. But it works—maybe because the group is so likeable, or because writer Adrian Hodges puts so much faith in his main characters (it’s nice, for once, to see a work that doesn’t fault us for our reliance on technology, but rather shows how easily people can persist without it). And while it may never have the thrills of, say, 2008’s zombies-meet-Big Brother series Dead Set (still unaired in the U.S., but a must watch on YouTube), the whole concept is nevertheless very, very scary.