If you're going to bring another zombie show into the world, it had better damn well feel like something new, otherwise, get it out of here! Netflix's Black Summer is halfway out the door, shuffling lifelessly along where many zombie shows have tread before the longer it goes on, but also offering enough novelty early on to take a seat at the crowded table of series about the flesh-eating undead. Did I enjoy it? Sort of. I happily and brainlessly watched all seven episodes — the first season is eight episodes — provided early by Netflix, if that says anything.
Black Summer is supposedly a prequel to Z Nation, Syfy's zany answer to The Walking Dead that was canceled recently after five seasons, but that's only technically correct. In fact, the only reason it's being called a prequel has to be to draw in the cultish fans of Z Nation, because the two shows share no genetics. Black Summer is set at the onset of the zombie apocalypse; Z Nation took place three years into the apocalypse. Black Summer takes itself very seriously and gets off on tension, horror, and danger; there was literally a scene in Z Nation where a zombie stripper pole danced until her arm fell off (the arm kept spinning). These two are as blood-related as Rick and Judith Grimes.
Set a few months after the initial outbreak wipes out Denver, Black Summer is steeped in the chaos of a country that knows something bad is about to happen but is completely unprepared for it. It's absolute mayhem when we drop into the premiere. That's relayed by the camerawork, which is mostly done with a handheld camera carried by a guy who gets right up in actors' business, following them with long uncut shots as they creep through dark tunnels, bounce through abandoned houses, and sprint down deserted streets. It's easily the best part of the show and what sets it apart from other popular zombie series, and is highly effective at conveying a shared sense of anxiety at being trapped in a world where you can be eaten by making one mistake. That's what we really want out of a zombie show, isn't it? The Walking Dead aims to be cinematic and poetic; Black Summer is guerilla gonzo filmmaking. I don't know if there's a show out there that does a better job of putting the viewer inside the mayhem of a zombie apocalypse.
And it really needs to get that feeling across, because the story — what little of it there is — amounts to going from Point A (a suburb that's been evacuated) to Point B (a sports stadium where survivors are being airlifted to safer parts of the country), and the depth of the characters goes as far as them not wanting to be eaten. The characters in The Walking Dead are rich and complex studies in humanity compared to this lot. Jaime King is the biggest name in the cast, and she plays a mother looking for her daughter after they get separated in the evacuation (under dumb circumstances, of course). The group around her rotates depending on what's going on as characters come in and out, get their own threads, or get killed off, but you'll be lucky if you ever even know their names.
But really, not getting to know these characters isn't necessarily a bad thing, because Black Summer is here for the thrills and thrills only. Nine seasons of The Walking Dead have made me not want to hear another "let me ask you sumtin'" survivor's story or debate about retaining humanity vs. doing whatever it takes to survive (the answer is do whatever it takes, hippies!). Black Summer runs solely on adrenaline and instinct; there's no time to talk about morality because these randoms are dropped from one crappy situation to the next. It's actually refreshing to see a zombie show done this way; who needs monologues about right versus wrong when actions speak louder? I don't watch zombie shows to be lectured, I watch them to be scared of that sloppy eating sound coming from around the corner.
The flip side of this is repetition, and it's hard to see Black Summer aspiring to be anything substantial beyond zombie chases and encounters with scum taking advantage of the insanity. There's an episode almost entirely devoted to one character running from zombies — in the zombie cinematic spectrum, these undead are closer to the fast, angry monsters of 28 Days Later rather than the shuffling meat bags of The Walking Dead — that features about four words of dialogue. It's actually pretty cool, but is it meaty, provocative television? Not really. In another episode, a quintet of people are stuck inside a diner while two zombies lurk outside, and they must figure out how to escape, the closest the first season gets to moral boundaries. That's it, that's the entire episode. And if you start to question some of the characters' decisions or the episodic plots, you're gonna have a bad time. You're just supposed to watch to find out what happens next.
What the show lacks in depth it almost makes up for in structure. Each episode is presented as a series of smaller chapters, with simple title cards laid over a black screen. Are they really necessary? No. Does it break up the monotony? Yes. Additionally, as we follow these characters, they are constantly crossing paths with each other, so we'll see several scenes from different perspectives as we follow the different characters. Again, it's a distraction tactic, but if the show ever figures out how to use the mechanic well, I'd dig it.
Episode lengths also range from your standard 45-ish minutes to a mere 20 minutes — the finale, which is mostly an action-packed display of reckless gun management while the city succumbs to a wave of zombies, is the shortest of them all — which helps to keep the viewer off balance. Black Summer takes advantage of Netflix's loose format to create the show it wants to create, for better or worse, and the result is definitely its own thing.
In a sense, Black Summer is The Walking Dead without all the bloated melodrama, kooky villains, and pretentious blabbering (and, unfortunately, quality makeup and effects). That makes it less of an actual TV show and more of a sensory experience. I don't know if that means it's good, but it's an easy and effective watch for fans of the genre who just want to see how f---ed up a zombie apocalypse can be, and if it draws an audience that doesn't mind that formula, it could go on for 25 seasons. If you're looking for anything more out of a zombie show, then please let me know when you find it.
Black Summer premieres Thursday, April 11 on Netflix.