Dawn of the 'Black Summer'
Netflix's new zombie miniseries redefines zombie TV.
On April 11, Netflix released the first season of Black Summer, a series set in the early days of a zombie apocalypse. The series unfolds in a series of vignettes that are focused on two small bands of survivors. In the eight relatively short episodes, we follow a handful of ordinary people as they form alliances, avoid becoming zombie chow, and work toward the ultimate goal of a football stadium where they will be evacuated to safety.
"... you should definitely be working Black Summer into your viewing schedule..."
This series is the creation of Karl Schaeffer and John Hyams and was produced by The Asylum. Fans of indie horror films will be familiar with The Asylum (for better or worse) and fans of Z Nation may be familiar with Schaeffer and Hyams. Schaeffer was a showrunner for Z Nation while Hyams directed nine episodes.
While there are hundreds of hours of zombie media to consume, you should definitely be working Black Summer into your viewing schedule and I’ll tell you why...
Black Summer is a prequel spin-off of Z Nation. This in and of itself was enough to get me interested. I know I’m running the risk of inciting an angry mob here, but I prefer Z Nation to The Walking Dead. There’s more action, the characters are more likable, and the humor is nice touch. Where else are you going to get to see an old man smoking a joint with a zombie? Nowhere, that’s where. Neither The Walking Dead, or its spin-off series, ever really did anything for me, whereas Z Nation had me hooked almost immediately.
"Black Summer isn’t just a retread of Z Nation..."
Black Summer isn’t just a retread of Z Nation, though. While the latter takes place in a time when the zombie apocalypse is in full swing, Black Summer starts just weeks into the outbreak. Also, where Z Nation sprinkles a little tongue-in-cheek humor around, Black Summer is heavier on serious social commentary, character development, and tension.
What would a zombie apocalypse be without the roving ravenous dead? Boring is what it would be. Imagine having a show based around the concept of the dead walking the Earth and then spending most of the first couple episodes on people being sad, with very few zombies to be seen. That would be pretty lame. Black Summer does none of that.
There are no shambling, moaning, absently wandering zombies in Black Summer. The undead here are fast, ravenous, relentless hunters that will go so far as to stand outside a building or below the hiding spot of a survivor to wait them out. They do not tire, feel pain, or deteriorate... only hunger.
I know that there are some folks who just aren’t on board with fast-moving zombies, but I’m not one of them. I’m all for whatever works in the context of the story, and these zombies work really well. It is their relentlessness and speed that really helps to guide the way the story unfolds.
I don’t care what kind of series it is, if the characters aren’t in some way relatable, I’m not interested. Black Summer delivers a pretty diverse group of ordinary people who are thrown together by their extraordinary circumstances. As Black Summer progresses you get to see a group of average folks harden up to become survivors instead of victims of circumstance.
The series opens with the beginning of Rose’s (Jaime King) journey. She, her husband, and their daughter are being loaded into a military vehicle for evacuation to the stadium on the other side of town. Her husband is wounded and isn’t allowed on the transport. She tries to negotiate with the military guys and, in doing so, is separated from her daughter. She must now make it to the stadium to be reunited with her.
Rose’s journey is one of tenacity. She loses her daughter and husband within moments, but pushes on in hopes of reaching her ultimate goal of seeing her child again. Over the course of eight episodes, Rose transforms from suburban soccer mom, to the embodiment of the “mama bear” trope. She will do whatever it takes to reach her child.
The character called Spears (Justin Chu Cary) through most of the show is actually a man named Julius James. When the audience is introduced to him, he is in handcuffs being led by a few uniformed soldiers. When he is left alone with one of his guards, he uses his quick wit and charismatic personality to trick the guard, kill him, and take his uniform and sidearm.
This character is likable from the beginning. Even amid the chaos, handcuffed, and being led to an uncertain fate, he still finds a way to laugh at the situation. He’s a natural leader and is capable of making the hard decisions when the need arises. His mysterious past is only hinted at in the first season, which left me wanting more of his story.
Ooh Kyungsun, or Sun (Christine Lee), is a Korean woman who is searching for her missing mother. One would assume that her stature and the fact that she doesn’t speak English would make her a liability to any group she traveled in, Sun is shown to be a vital part of the team time and again.
Sun presents one of my favorite parts of the show: the language barrier.
Sun presents one of my favorite parts of the show: the language barrier. There are no subtitles for her dialog, which leaves the audience much in the same boat as her allies. While her companions, and those of us who don’t speak Korean, do not know what she is saying, her nonverbal communication is strong enough that she often gets her point across. One of the most heartfelt moments in the show is watching Sun deliver a monologue as her companions intently hang on every syllable. No one understands a word of what she says but the emotion in her voice is tangible.
William (Sal Velez Jr.) is a blue-collar, working class guy just trying to make it through the horrible situation in which he finds himself. His only family is hundreds of miles away in Texas. His hope is that they are still alive and that he can, one day, reunite with them.
He and Sun travel together for awhile and the two bond despite the language barrier. The two of them have so much in common, but may not even know it. His and Sun's relationship is based on survival; the loyalty between them is strong without the need of words. I love watching them together because it shows how we can put even huge differences aside to band together against a common foe or for survival.
In the beginning, Lance (Kelsey Flower) is an absolute fucking marshmallow. He’s a twenty-something from the suburbs who, I assume, has never known any type of hardship. He’s not super bright and, for most of the season, he is more of a liability than anything. Honestly, for the first six or seven episodes, I kind of hated Lance.
"In the beginning, Lance (Kelsey Flower) is an absolute fucking marshmallow."
After going through hell alone, for the most part, Lance ends up getting a little harder. He even sticks his neck out to save Rose at one point and becomes a valuable part of the team when it counts the most. This character is an awesome look at how the situation into which one is thrown can change an individual completely.
An Easy Watch
One of the biggest problems I have with starting a new series is finding time for it. Between life, movies, and the shows that I am already religiously watching, it is tough to wedge in a whole new series. Black Summer, on the other hand, is a really easy watch. The whole series clocks in at just over four hours. Unlike most other series out there, the episodes of Black Summer vary in length. The longest episode is forty-eight minutes and the shortest is only twenty. I was hooked after the first episode and ended up knocking out the whole series over the span of two afternoons.
Black Summer keeps things interesting. With the short episodes broken up into vignettes, there isn’t a ton of time left for boring conversation and drawn out interpersonal drama. The dialogue is really sparse in this show and each conversation either serves to move the plot along, or develop certain characters. At the same time, nothing feels rushed. Everything in Black Summer takes just as much time as it needs and not a second more.
"... Black Summer never lingers in one place long enough for the viewer to get bored."
Because each vignette is only long enough to tell enough of a certain story to move the plot along, most of the tedious bits in between are cut out completely. This trimmed-down way of telling the overall story means that Black Summer never lingers in one place long enough for the viewer to get bored.
Between the trimmed-down method of storytelling, the almost ever-present tension, and the well-crafted characters it is easy to get sucked into Black Summer.
Like any good piece of zombie media, Black Summer is peppered with social commentary. Under all the tension and flesh-eating corpses, is a story of refugees. These folks are thrown together by circumstances outside their control and they have to trek through a hellish landscape that they once called home in order to get to a place that is, for them, a beacon of hope. They are asylum-seekers in the land of the dead.
"[Present are some] nods to child detention centers at the Mexican border and the [Hurricane Katrina aftermath]."
There are little things here and there that help to illustrate this underlying narrative but nothing is ever too on-the-nose. There are also more obvious examples; for instance, Rose’s daughter is taken by the military while she and her husband work out how to get there. There is also the fact that the safe-haven for the living is a football stadium. These feel like nods to child detention centers at the Mexican border and the fiasco after Hurricane Katrina respectively.
I really enjoyed this show. It’s an interesting look at the beginning of the fall of civilization through the eyes of average people. Black Summer is gritty, tense, and thought provoking while still being an incredibly binge-able show. If you’ve got a Netflix account, and a few hours to kill, you should definitely be watching Black Summer.