When describing the new Starz comedy Now Apocalypse, it might be tempting to start with the alien conspiracy that is the undercurrent of the entire coming-of-age series. It's definitely a storyline that stands out, but the apparent reptilian invasion in Gregg Araki's eye-popping show is actually far less provocative than its bold exploration of sexuality.
The series focuses on a group of four millennials — Ulysses (Avan Jogia), Carly (Kelli Berglund), Severine (Roxanne Mesquida), and Ford (Beau Mirchoff) — just trying to figure out their lives in Los Angeles... that is, until Ulysses begins having premonitions about an alien-aided apocalypse. Reptilian sightings and strange occurrences — like a hand job between Uly and a hookup (Tyler Posey) seemingly causing a universe to collapse in on itself — have Uly questioning whether it's up to him to save the world or if he just needs to smoke less weed.
But figuring out these extraterrestrial occurrences isn't the main focus of the comedy, which is more interested in the ways its four young heroes explore their sexuality than any alien conspiracy. Set against the backdrop of millennial malaise, Now Apocalypse aims to explore this generation's struggle between the deep-seated desire to find your identity and the freedom that comes from shedding the need to label yourself at all.
"I think it's interesting because we really love labels. It's not an old person thing. It's a young person thing too," Avan Jogia told TV Guide. "From what I'm getting, is that they fight really hard to have labels. I think Gregg posits an interesting question, which is why do we need them at all? He's always asking questions about sexuality and identity that is nuanced and that doesn't live within a binary, doesn't live within a black and white. I personally think that's the thing that I find interesting about this show and it will speak to young people and it will also challenge young people."
As part of this, Now Apocalypse co-writer and sexuality expert Karley Sciortino said she and creator Araki were purposeful in allowing their characters the freedom to explore who they are, who they're attracted to, and what they want in their sexual encounters without having to tie themselves down to any one definition."I think what is really defining of the millennial generation is that now more than ever you have so many options of who you want to be, and how you want to f---, and what your relationship can look like," she explained to TV Guide at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
Case in point: The show's central character, Ulysses, doesn't introduce himself as bisexual in the show's opening episode. Instead, he identifies himself and his friends by their place on the Kinsey scale, the metric created by Alfred Kinsey that puts human sexuality on a scale from zero (strictly heterosexual) to six (strictly homosexual). Uly puts himself at a four, recognizing that he still occasionally fantasizes about his best friend Ford's absurdly hot girlfriend, Severine.
"I don't know if [Uly] identifies [as bisexual]," Jogia said. What [Gregg] has done, and what he always continues to do, is to show voices and show characters that you haven't heard from and discuss the subtleties and nuance within something that everyone thinks is very A and B and black and white or this and that. He explores nuance between those things that everyone goes, 'Well if you do this, you're that, and if you do this, you're that.' He explores the complex, multiple currents that run through your identity."
This is also true in the case of Kelli Berglund's Carly, an aspiring actress who moonlights as a cam girl for extra cash. While Carly is often bored by the requests she gets, she never kink shames any of her clients, and the empowerment she gets from dominating online actually leads to her taking a more assertive role in her personal romance.
When we meet Carly, she's a passive participant in her relationship with Jethro (Desmond Chiam), who is more preoccupied with his latest acting gig than satisfying Carly outside or inside the bedroom. But through her adventures as a cam girl, she realizes she enjoys being sexually dominant. Though she initially hides this realization from Jethro, he accidentally finds the sex toy collection she amassed for work, which leads to them playing out a BDSM fantasy of their own in which Carly spanks Jethro for taking her for granted — and it works.
The intensity of their encounter leaves Jethro in tears at first, but it creates a shared vulnerability that strengthens their relationship in a way that wouldn't have happened if Jethro wasn't willing to experiment with his own sexuality. She, in turn, feels emboldened by her new authority in the bedroom, and Jethro's hesitation turns into enthusiasm for being dominated. The role reversal helps Carly value Jethro more as a partner and the intimacy built from this is enough for Carly to decide to give their relationship more time so they can keep exploring together.
But while all his friends are pushing their sexual boundaries, Ford's attempts to do so fail miserably. Though his girlfriend Severine fundamentally doesn't believe in monogamy, there's nothing Ford wants more than to be in a committed romantic and sexual relationship with her. Ford's desire for this heteronormative relationship is painted as strange, and borderline pitiable at times, and we're not used to seeing this kind of desire portrayed as the outlier. In a world that emboldens sexual exploration, Ford "is striving for that label," Berglund noted, but this desire is still shown to be just as valid as his friend's more boundary-pushing lifestyles.
"It is sort of like, 'Oh my god, how dare he want that in this show where we're all exploring our sexual identity?' [But] you still want to root for him. You love him," Berglund said. "That's what he wants. That's his journey and those are his desires. Again, in real life we all want different things and he represents that."
However, finding out exactly what you want and trying things outside your comfort zone can be terrifying, especially in a world so full of judgment and prejudice (not to mention, the fears that come from simply trying something new). But one thing that's refreshing about Now Apocalypse is how its central characters embrace the uncertainty along the way in both their friends' journeys and their own. "You could label Uly as something, you could label Carly as something, but they are more interesting than that and they are exploring it," Berglund said. "They're comfortable with [not having a label] and it feels very good to be playing that, because it is a little bit in that uncomfortable zone ... of 'What am I?' and 'What is my label?' But that's part of the journey that is figuring yourself out, and that's OK."
In a world where sex is on almost every screen we come across, there's still a lot of shame for expressing sexuality, particularly for older generations who grew up under much stricter censorship codes. The freedom to be able to explore sexuality and its complicated facets is a crucial part of creating a show that accurately depicts the current generation's growing cry for options outside the binary. More and more of today's youth want choices that reflect their ever-changing, multi-faceted identities, and the joy of Now Apocalypse is giving its characters the space to be curious and alleviate the pressure to have everything figured out, which is a stance rarely seen in other television series.
"Being sex positive or sexually curious doesn't mean that you have the 'perfect' sex life, whatever that means," Sciortino said. "There's a lot of sort of sexual mishaps in the show, but they rebound from that, and they're not victims. ... This show is really celebratory of sexuality in a way that I feel really proud of."
Being on premium cable, Now Apocalypse can show that curiosity, adventure, and ambiguity in all its naked glory. The unabashed way in which characters are able to not only talk about sex, but be depicted having it is one of the benefits that comes from being on Starz, a network that has been leading the way in terms of pushing the boundaries of sexual content onscreen. The series opens with a sweat-drenched Uly orgasming while having sex with a married man. The next scene features him walking in on Severine riding Ford backwards, with the trio proceeding to then have a conversation while Ford is still inside her. And that's just the first three minutes of the series, which is filmed in a way that embraces every action in these intimate encounters. It's hard to be ashamed when everything is out there in the open. That physical and emotional honesty is what makes it a pleasure to watch, which is all Araki wanted when he was creating it in the midst of all the turmoil going on in the real world.
"I feel like it's such a good time to put a show like this out there, because I think it is a very positive. It's just a good message to put into the world," Araki said. "The world has a lot of darkness, and a lot of fear, and a lot of depression, and a lot of like horrible sh-- going on right now. And I just feel like the show is almost like this ray of light into that black darkness that's out there right now."
Now Apocalypse airs Sundays at 9/8c on Starz.
This week, TV Guide is exploring television's relationship with sex, puberty, and everything in between. As part of Sex Ed Week, we're examining what Stranger Things can teach us about puberty, the story behind a cult classic Lifetime movie,how black '90s sitcom taught one viewer everything she needed to know about sex and love, and more. You can check out all our Sex Ed Week content here.