As I write, zombie drama In the Flesh is soon to air its second series’ penultimate episode. Chances are you’re reading this after watching; those who aren’t, spoilers follow.
Flesh, which last month won BAFTA’s Best Miniseries award, is a knockdown argument for several things, among them BBC Three’s value, the rewards of employing first-time writers and why genre shows will never, ever be low brow. It’s one of the best things on television, as well as one of its freshest takes on the undead. (Creator Dominic Mitchell, who clearly knows horror inside out, describes it as what would happen ‘if Alan Bennett and Ken Loach got together and did a zombie show’.) The apocalypse has come and gone, and those with ‘Partially Deceased Syndrome’ – among them depressive, perpetually eighteen Kieren Walker – are re-entering society amid mistrust and violence. The risen are the heroes here; the living, the monsters.
Critics have said all this before. I want to say what In the Flesh means to me personally – why it has a place in my heart as well as in my viewing schedule. Kieren, like me, is from a remote northern English town; like me he longs to escape, planning at one point to move to Berlin as I did. Like me he’s bookish, artistic and reserved; like me he self-harmed and, like me, he’s queer. (The first series unfolds against the backdrop of his prior relationship with best friend Rick, which ended bloodily.) Kieren’s story, death and resurrection notwithstanding, is my story, and while LGBT characters are everywhere, Flesh is the first TV drama to make me feel my sexuality is represented.
Outside shows where everyone is gay, such characters are almost never the protagonist, and Kieren, more rarely still, is canonically bisexual. Beside an ambiguous connection with undead bon vivant Amy, both his romantic interests have been men to date, but Mitchell – understanding perhaps that same-sex pairings are for some of us the default – doesn’t bend over backwards to shoehorn a straight encounter in. His lead’s bisexuality doesn’t need to be proven, and is superbly handled, neither fetishised nor sensational. Kieren isn’t another gender-blind sex fiend like Jack Harkness, Oberyn Martell or Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, nor a depraved Bad Bisexual like Tony Stonem, Faith or John Hart. In fact, his quietness makes him one of television’s first bi characters to have the texture of a real person.
In fact, Flesh’s portrayal of queer sexuality in general is exceptionally good. Although he displays angst about his village’s homophobia, killing himself over the loss of Rick (whose insecurity appears as a flaw), Kieren never seems cut up about liking men, and it isn’t what the series is about. The fact he’s not straight is just there. This said, Mitchell and co-writers Fintan Ryan and John Jackson never fall into tokenism. Characters in mainstream shows we’re told just happen to be gay often feel only nominally non-straight, experience not colouring their outlook in any realistic way, but Kieren’s sexuality intertwines beautifully with his undead status. ‘I don’t take orders from a lad who wears makeup’, antagonist Gary tells him at one point, referring not just to the cover-up concealing his corpse-white skin, and his relationship with Rick is inseparable in Rick’s father’s eyes from their both being zombies. Simon, the undead liberationist he begins seeing in series two, is uncomfortable dressing respectably to meet the parents over Sunday lunch – a reflection of his views on straight society, surely, as much as his feelings about the living?
Moments like this stir memories of X-Men‘s ‘coming out’ scene and other onscreen allegories. But Kieren’s, Rick’s and Simon’s queerness isn’t allegorical: it’s real. Where LGBT people’s best hope has often been to read ourselves into the story, these characters are queer as much as they are zombies, and this isn’t subtext, it’s text. It adds to Flesh’s deconstruction of the genre, whose traditional heroes – straight men with guns – it makes the homophobic villains such figures often are for us in reality.
What’s best of all is that gay relationships here, especially Kieren’s with Simon, have realistic context, politics and meaning. Their first kiss isn’t the arbitrary lip-locking of Jack and Ianto or Kurt and Blaine on Glee, but a moment of choice and transformation. ‘You’d be amazed what I can do to your sort,’ Gary tells Kieren, stamping on another zombie’s head, ‘and what you can do sod all about.’ Simon, who if Kieren is teenage me must be who I am now, has berated him lacking defiance, trying to fit in and trusting the living too much – so when Kieren appears, incensed, at his door soon, his kiss is a turning point and an admission: Help me. I need you. You were right. What he learns from Simon, displayed at one point in a fierce monologue at the dinner table, is to let go of thirst for the acceptance of others – the same righteous rage many of wish our younger selves had had.
It fits the series’ theme of resurrection as a gift and second chance. ‘This time’, Kieren’s mum tells him in series one when Rick is killed a second time and suicide beckons, ‘you live’ – and his choice to do so is a scriptwriting rebellion against the tragic, morbid sexuality of queer characters past, too many of them dying by obligation. With solid, three-dimensional figures and true-to-life relationships, Mitchell invites us to un-bury our gays.
There are so, so many reasons to love In the Flesh. The fact it’s the best LGBT show since Queer as Folk is as good as any.