Zombies are hot. But leave it to the British to make them cool. And smart. And a shade more human than many of those they left behind. Turns out that being dead, or undead, is the ultimate wake-up call. While watching BBC America's fascinating and unexpectedly moving three-part miniseries In the Flesh (Thursday through Saturday, 10/9c), I was reminded less of AMC's blockbuster thriller The Walking Dead than of Sundance Channel's recent triumph, the artful Rectify, another searing drama of an outsider adjusting to an awkward and potentially dangerous homecoming.
In Rectify, the hero is released from Death Row. In Flesh, we encounter the very complicated 18-year-old Kieren (a soulful Luke Newberry) after he has risen from the grave, most reluctantly. Plagued by graphic memories and remorse from the time when he initially succumbed to his zombie urges to hunt and feed on humans, he's now on government-supplied meds that suppress the monster within. This allows him to return to family and a hostile village community ruled by prejudice and fear of these reformed "rotters."
Flesh gets under the skin as it explores what it is to be other, which for Kieren also means coming to terms with how he died four years earlier. This more spiritual journey resurrects his unresolved feelings for his best mate Rick (David Walmsley), who was killed in the Army. The quietly compelling story gains momentum once Rick also returns home — to a father who leads the local violent anti-zombie crusade and is in deep denial over the true nature of his now Frankenstein-looking son.
Suspenseful, tragic yet also uplifting in its audacious collision of fantasy and emotional realism, this haunting gem reminds us that we shouldn't speak ill of the dead. They sometimes make the best characters.
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THE USA WAY: "We all start to blend together after a while," says one of the freewheeling federal agents (an alphabet soup of FBI, DEA, ICE) who share a Southern California beach house, code-named Graceland—also the title of a series (10/9c) that likewise is barely distinguishable from USA Network's long roster of crime capers featuring pretty people in gorgeous settings. The language is saltier, the undercover missions more densely serialized than the episodic USA norm, and Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me) effortlessly carries the show as an FBI legend who may or may not be trustworthy.
But as his ambitious new golden-boy trainee, the talented musical-theater star Aaron Tveit (Les Miserables, Next to Normal) is too callow and conventional, the opposite of edgy. When he's center stage, you might find yourself wondering if you'd stumbled across a CW grad-student reboot of 21 Jump Street. Much more impressive is Vanessa Ferlito as a DEA vixen who works very closely with Sunjata on dangerous, career-risking assignments. They bring much-needed heat to a show that often risks feeling like another too-easily-disposable beach read.
That whole "blending together" issue also applies to the final-season opener of USA's long-running Burn Notice (9/8c), where the eternally embattled Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is reintroduced nine months into his own dangerous deep-cover mission, relocated from Miami to the steamy Dominican Republic. Bearded, boozing and brawling to establish his new identity, Michael is for now a lone wolf, separated from the team he rescued from prison in last season's finale by making another deal with the CIA.
It's a tough, taut episode that finds Michael caught between two Heroes vets: Jack Coleman as his manipulative new handler and Adrian Pasdar as his target, a shadowy terrorist who once upon a time (the good old pre-"burn" days) worked alongside Michael, back when he had a reputation for getting the job done "no matter what," as opposed to his current status, which his handler describes thusly: "You give new meaning to the word despised." Back home, Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) certainly hasn't forgiven Michael for getting back in bed with the Agency, but she's inevitably drawn back into his intrigue when a mysterious interloper (Spartacus' sly Nick E. Tarabay) approaches each of Michael's associates and loved ones to nose around into the absent agent's activities. In case you were curious, there are at least two significant explosions within the hour. Some things never change.
ADVENTURE TIME: TNT's latest attempts at breaking into the reality-competition market take their inspiration from Survivor and The Amazing Race: exotic locations, tremendous visuals, grueling physical challenges. If neither quite measures up at first look, it may be that one overcomplicates the set-up while the other oversimplifies.
The more promising of the two is The Hero (8/7c), which at least allows the contestants to develop as characters — although you might wish there was less focus on the sniveling crying of mother-of-three Patty (who fears heights so much you wonder why she'd take part in something like this) — as they arrive in Panama to live in a posh penthouse, where they're taken under the bulgingly muscular wings of one-note coach/mentor/host Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Before long, six of the nine players volunteer or are chosen to participate in a "team challenge" that involves hanging off the side of a bank skyscraper, evoking Amazing Race-style derring-do. One of the team is then selected, after a tiresomely contentious "war room" debate (which pulls focus from the adrenaline rush of the game), to represent the group in a "hero challenge," with $50,000 at stake — which if successfully won puts that week's "hero" in an ethical dilemma: Keep the money for him/herself or put it in a communal pot for the ultimate prize that only one will take home.
"The arch-nemesis of integrity: temptation," The Rock helpfully points out, around the time he makes a secret offer of $25,000 to another team member (these side offers usually involve negative consequences for others). Anyone who's watched shows like this know the contestants don't sign up to make friends. But they usually have no hesitation in admitting they're there for the money. Which, if they ever take it for themselves on this show, somehow makes them less than a hero? Whatever. I did like the part where the first episode's "hero" crawled in the dark through Noreiga's spider-ridden bunker to seek the loot as the clock ticks. More of that, less of the other junk.
The game's the only thing in companion piece 72 Hours (9/8c), which feels like an amped-up leg of The Amazing Race or a condensed version of Survivor if not its Eco-Challenge predecessor. As the title suggests, teams of three (seemingly randomly chosen) embark on a three-day endurance adventure, dropped into some remote Survivor-like location — the Fiji Islands in the premiere — deprived of creature comforts, with only a bottle of water to start as they navigate through rough seas and thick jungle to find their way to "supply drops" en route to an end prize of a suitcase containing $100,000. With dehydration and cramping the most common side effects, teams that hit the wall can also call on "relief drops," incurring one-hour penalties, to help fill their canteens and bellies (with live octopus). Watching them battle the elements, and in the most taxing segment traverse two islands with a six-mile kayak ride, is exciting armchair escapism. But it's not terribly engaging, as there's little chance to develop much of a rooting interest for any of the teams or individuals along the way.
But I did learn that hand sanitizer (one of the "relief drop" essentials) is useful as a flammable tool for making fire and grilling octopus, so the hour wasn't a total waste.
PSYCHO GHOULASH: What unexpectedly great news last week that NBC has renewed the hypnotically macabre and increasingly surreal Hannibal for a second midseason run next year. There are still a few more episodes to go before the first season ends, with profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) feeling more unstable and unsettled by the week, as the perversely enigmatic title character Dr. Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) manipulates events for his own murderous ends in between gourmet meals. In this week's "Roti" episode, Eddie Izzard returns as the fiendish Dr. Gideon, who's on the loose and on the prowl for shrinks who've done him wrong — which could be bad news for Alana (Caroline Dhavernas) or maybe the smug Dr. Chilton (Raul Esparza). Whatever happens, I'll be watching from the edge of my couch. Or possibly covering my eyes. In Hannibal, nothing's safe or sacred.
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