The thing with zombies is that it’s hard to get rid of them: Even if you succeed in killing some for good, there are always more.
That applies to series and films about the living dead, too.
I’m one of those suckers who will watch pretty much anything involving ravenous corpses, and yet it was starting to look as if the well were running dry.
And then “Black Summer” landed. If Andrei Tarkovsky and John Carpenter had teamed up to direct a zombie show, it might have looked something like this formally daring Netflix series.
Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about horror, tweeted in praise of the show’s fundamental appeal: “Existential hell in the suburbs, stripped to the bone.” Then he doubled down with what some interpreted as shade directed at “The Walking Dead.”
“No long, fraught discussions,” he wrote. “No endless flashbacks.”
He added, in the same tweet: “Showrunners could learn a lot from this.”
On paper, “Black Summer” is pretty standard. It is set a few weeks after something or other set off a zombie plague. The streets are empty. Military jets roar overhead. Survivors coalesce into small groups to better their chances.
In terms of the walking corpses themselves, the main deviation from the usual template is that as in the film “World War Z,” the zombies in “Black Summer” are defined by speed. People turn instantly when they die, so there’s no window for escape. Zombies can run and some can even climb. And they have a single-minded focus on feeding: Once they’re on your tail, they don’t give up.
Yet if the zombies are defined by frantic agitation, the show itself stands out from the pack thanks to a pensive, almost dreamlike economy. For many viewers, this aesthetic is frustrating (“why so sloooow?” is a common refrain in comments); for me, it’s hypnotically addictive.
The series was created by Karl Schaefer, who was also a creator of SyFy’s “Z Nation,” and John Hyams, who wrote and directed many episodes of that series. It is nominally a prequel, but it does not share that show’s humorous bent . Plot lines are skeletal, exposition is minimal. Each episode stands as its own set piece.
In Episode 3, “Summer School,” a group of survivors finds shelter in a school, only to end up in a “Lord of the Flies”-like social experiment. Episode 4, “Alone,” is almost entirely silent and consists of a realistically inept guy named Lance (Kelsey Flower) running from one location to another as he tries to evade a persistent zombie.
The episodes are divided in small sections by chapter titles, which are sometimes cryptic and sometimes plainly descriptive. Following the subtitle “Dog,” for instance, Lance sees a dog on the street. He calls him but the dog trots away. The poetic, wistful payoff drops several episodes later, like an afterthought.
Events happen at a deliberate, steady pace. Chases, whether on foot or in cars, can be heart-poundingly tense — it’s amazing how scary it is to watch someone creep through a seemingly empty building, no matter how many times we’ve seen it — but they are often interrupted by those chapter titles and are shot at what feels like a remove. When there is music, which is not very often, it’s usually a low electronic pulse.
As for the characters, we know next to nothing about them. When we reach the obligatory scene in which people sit down for cold beans straight from the can, nobody gabs about life stories, missed loved ones or lost children. They just eat in silence.
One of the chattiest characters, Sun (Christine Lee), speaks only Korean. She is never subtitled, even when she finally gets to deliver a big emotional speech. Ryan (Mustafa Alabssi) is even more isolated than Sun because he is deaf and doesn’t speak. What eventually happens to him illustrates the series’s most devastating philosophical bent: The world is stupid, cruel and, worse, arbitrary.
In most post-apocalyptic shows, especially those in which the creation of de facto teams is key, there is always the sense that people are drawn together by fate; this inserts a note of hope because Americans are optimistic and trust fate to be somewhat benevolent.
“Black Summer,” however, operates in a universe that is fundamentally pessimistic. People meet and are separated randomly. Death is a numbers game in which the odds are against you — even if you looked like a lead character.
This approach culminates in a season finale that lasts just 20 minutes and juxtaposes two of the series’s signatures. One is the sense of despairing chaos and absurd destruction, illustrated by a surreal shootout. The other is the through line of ascetic simplicity, as seen in the very last scene. “Black Summer” concludes by tantalizing us with a potential second season — though a suitably radical move would be for it not to happen.
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