NBC's promotional campaign for You, Me and the Apocalypse is not doing a good job of presenting what the show actually is. The commercials focus on the comedy, making it seem like a wacky show about people crossing things off their bucket lists before the world ends. The 10-episode limited series has plenty of laughs, but being funny is only one of the things it's trying to do. It's also a survival thriller and a drama about what people decide is important to them when oblivion is imminent. It's an ambitious "everything's connected" story powered by a strong ensemble cast.
You, Me and the Apocalypse is a British-American production that first aired on Sky 1 in the UK last September. It was filmed in England, America, and Malta, and features an international cast with a distinctly British sense of humor. In fact, the bunker where the main characters are watching the apocalypse begin on TV is located underneath Slough, the setting of the British version of The Office. The show's vocabulary uses "carpark" instead of "parking lot" and British insults like "bellend."
Each hourlong episode begins in the bunker moments before the comet that's going to wipe out most of Earth's population makes impact, and then flashes back to show how the people in the bunker got there during the 34 days between the announcement of impending doom and impact. The bunker-dwellers include Rhonda MacNeil (Jenna Fischer), a librarian from Washington, D.C. who, before the apocalypse, was awaiting trial for hacking the NSA, a crime actually committed by her teenage son Spike (Fabian McCallum); Rhonda's brother Scotty (Kyle Soller), a bureaucrat tasked with coming up with doomsday plans for the American government, which he spearheads with his boyfriend, Army General Arnold Gaines (Paterson Joseph); Sister Celine Leonti (Gaia Scodellaro), an Italian nun; and Jamie Winton (Matthew Baynton), a British bank manager whose life was turned upside on the day the news of the comet broke because he also found out that his long-presumed-dead wife Layla (Karla Crome) actually ran off with his previously unbeknownst to him twin brother Ariel Conroy, a.k.a. White Horse, a notorious computer hacker. Jamie's quest to find Layla, Rhonda's quest to find Spike, and Celine and Father Jude's (Robe Lowe) quest to suss out the real Second Coming of Christ form the three central pre-Apocalypse plots. Other characters include Dave (Joel Fry), Jamie's free-spirited roommate who accompanies him on his search, and Leanne (Megan Mullally), a white supremacist inmate who becomes Rhonda's only friend after their escape from prison.
The strongest of these plots by far is Celine and Jude's. They are tasked by the Vatican with investigating those who claim to be the Second Coming in order to determine if they're actually the Antichrist, as foretold by the Book of Revelation. They must also reconcile their attraction to each other with the vows of celibacy they took, and whether those vows are worth breaking in this time of crisis. Their plot touches on weighty topics like clergical abuse, the aftermath of suicide, and the nature of faith in times of crisis, and handles them all deftly. Lowe is excellent as Father Jude, a chain-smoking nonconformist priest with a painful past. His soulful performance as a man with little faith in humanity but hard-earned faith in God is one of the finest of his career.
You, Me and the Apocalypse is Jenna Fischer's first major role since The Office ended in 2013, and it's great to have her back. She turns in a strong performance as a person completely unprepared for what life has thrown at her but willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family.
Scotty and Gen. Gaines' relationship is presented in an interestingly matter-of-fact way; the show takes place in a reality so post-"don't ask, don't tell" that an interracial, homosexual relationship is barely remarked upon. In fact, the biggest problem is probably that they're coworkers. It doesn't feel like a statement, which kind of seems like a statement itself.
The show starts to get unwieldy as it goes on and the plots get more complicated. Some characters start to behave differently in ways that feel unearned, and some events that happen would be implausible even if the world was about to end. The show is compressing 34 days into 10 hours of television, and sometimes the time jumps get messy. Perhaps 34 days was too many, and they would have been better off with a smaller window.
But these are relatively minor quibbles for a show that mostly works, at least in the five episodes screened for critics. Since You, Me and the Apocalypse already aired in Great Britain, spoilers are out there that give away a twist ending. But it will still be gratifying to watch how the writers bring all these disparate strands together to end up in the bunker at the end of the world. The show has not yet been picked up for a second season, so perhaps we'll never get to see its post-apocalyptic world. But Season 1 presents a coherent pre-apocalyptic vision that stands on its own.
You, Me and the Apocalypse premieres Thursday, Jan. 28 at 8/7c on NBC. See Megan Mullally discuss her character's racism in TVGuide.com's exclusive interview.