Let’s start here with an admission: I’m not a TV critic who devours every possible bite of zombie programming. No one can watch every show, after all, and although I’ve dug many post-apocalyptic, zombie films out there, including George Romero’s earliest films (Night of the Living Dead, c’mon) and enjoyed Zack Snyder’s contributions (although Army of the Dead was at least 30 minutes too long), I do prefer zombie fare that isn’t too stressful. That doesn’t sound logical, I realize. By “stressful,” I mean that it’s refreshing (to me) when a zombie show or movie can mostly be about zombies. Zombies and action, yes. Zombies and heists, sure. Zombies and comedy, awesome. The first Zombieland was fantastic. It kept things simple and swiftly moving. I’m good with that.
Nothing too complicated, please, for there’s so much heaviness in this world already. Give me adrenaline-pumping action when it comes to fleeing the undead. It’s also tempting to say that I enjoy “mindless” zombie fare, but that would be inaccurate, not to mention rude. I simply need a break from post-apocalyptic selections with vast ensemble casts or profound commentary on the state of society, or consumerism, or any other weighty theme. Enter Netflix’s Black Summer series, which returns this week and does something that a lot of zombie-apocalypse shows don’t do: keeps things simple. And although knowing about zombie lore would enhance the experience, you don’t need to know too much to enjoy this show as a random watch.
Not that I’m complaining about the zombie-littered TV landscape. There’s obviously the wildly popular The Walking Dead universe, although the intricate web that’s woven by the flagship show and the spinoffs is, again, more complicated for casual TV viewing after tucking into the other shows that I write about. Not only that, but our own Dustin Rowles is the resident TWD universe expert here, which gives me a chance to simply opt into the zombie-filled stuff that best suit my tastes. And that’s where Black Summer (which Dustin also enjoys, and he’s joined by Stephen King and Adam Goldberg in his fandom) comes in. Make no mistake: Black Summer is damn exciting.
The best argument that I have here — in the spirit of the show — is this: Black Summer is stripped down to the bones. It’s a show about zombies and the humans who flee them, period. There are no long stretches of exposition, no romantic interludes, no complicated backstories, and no distracting storylines or extra padding. Instead, the show (which is an unofficial prequel to SyFy’s Z Nation, though that is not a necessary prewatch) drops a handful of principal characters into the mayhem, six weeks into the zombie-virus apocalypse.
What results is a very economical bingewatch (the best kind). The first season is eight episodes long, and those episodes grow progressively shorter, as if the walls are closing in not only on characters but the audience. Characters come and go and there’s a core group that will engage you enough to invest in their plights. One of them would be Rose, played by Jamie King, who kicks ass, unlike what she’s done in Heart of Dixie, in Sin City, or during her supermodel days. A few other shell-shocked characters, Spears (Justin Chu Cary) and Sun (Christina Lee) are worth remembering, and to say anything else would spoil what’s coming, yet Season 2 is as compelling as the first round.
It’s enough to say that Season 2 continues doing what Fear the Walking Dead did for the bulk of this last successful season: kept things sharp while focusing on standalone stories that will, presumably, bring things together later in a cohesive manner. I respect the restraint, especially where the urge is always to go bigger and better. Instead, Black Summer keeps things humming along and doesn’t modify its formula, which still works. If you’re gonna throw zombies at me, make them frightening and entertaining, I say.
The best part about Black Summer, though, is how smoothly it flows. That’s because there’s simply no time for anyone to dwell on particulars or worry. These characters flee from zombies, they either succeed or they fail, and life goes on, even if that only means a few more moments or days or months for these characters. Yes, it’s wise to not get too attached to any of these players because, ultimately, any of them could go out at any moment before rising up as a member of the undead. Those suckers are fast, and their senses are keen enough to prove that no human will ever get a restful night’s sleep again in this universe. Simple, brutal, and efficient. That’s Black Summer, even if it looks like Black Winter these days…
Netflix’s ‘Black Summer’ returns on June 17.