'Daybreak': TV Review

Netflix
It's the end of the world as they know it and the show is rarely better than 'fine.'
10/24/2019

Netflix's new reference-filled postapocalyptic action comedy is part 'Euphoria,' part 'Fury Road' and occasionally amusing.

While you can expect CBS sitcoms to remain perplexed by millennials for at least the next 15 or 20 years, younger-skewing outlets have already moved on to anthropological fascination with the behavior of the next generation.

Just in the past six months, Generation Z got semi-generic Lord of the Flies treatment courtesy of Netflix's The Society and a new version of Reefer Madness in HBO's Euphoria. If you like your Gen-Z paranoia with a hair more adult supervision, check out Syfy's deceased Deadly Class or The CW's Legacies. Turn to Netflix's Elite if you want your youth in revolt subtitled in Spanish, or Netflix's Baby, if you prefer Italian. These shows all hail from millennial or Gen X or even Baby Boomer creators who try to empathize by giving these variably dysfunctional kids vocabularies of instantly dated slang and pop culture touchstones as if to say, "How can today's kids be scary if they still reference John Hughes?"

Netflix's latest entry in the genre is the postapocalyptic action comedy Daybreak, a frantically hit-and-miss series primarily built around an ensemble of ostensible teens who look like they're in their 20s, talk like they're in their 30s and make references like they're in their 40s. Your reception may vary, but for me the misses outnumbered the hits through the five episodes sent to critics.

Daybreak was adapted very loosely from Brian Ralph's comic by Brad Peyton and Aron Eli Coleite. It's set in the aftermath of some sort of nuclear event that either killed everybody over the age of 18 or turned them into a pseudo-zombie (they're called "ghoulies" here), leaving the youthful survivors divvying up territory like a high school cafeteria by way of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Our hero doesn't exactly fit into any of the popularity-ordained cliques. Josh (Colin Ford) is a Canadian transfer student who wants no part of Glendale's postapocalyptic death sport. He just wants to be reunited with his ex-sorta-girlfriend, Sam (Sophie Simnett), but this isn't a world for the unaffiliated and Josh is constantly clashing with clans of bullying jocks, vicious cheerleaders and conniving nerds, all gone insular and feral in the six months since disaster hit. He's forced to make uneasy alliances with brilliant 12-year-old pyromaniac Angelica (Alyvia Alyn Lind) and Wesley (Austin Crute), a secret-harboring former football player now wandering Glendale as a self-appointed ronin.

I'm still haunted by the grim and gloomy self-importance of Deadly Class and the thing I probably appreciated most about Daybreak is that for all of the inherent darkness of its premise, the show is pleasantly light and silly. The kids have all moved past the grief and dispossession that fueled The Society into a general appreciation of this new feral anarchy, halfway between the last vestiges of the people they used to be and an embrace of their primal selves. If the show has a theme, it's embracing the person you are inside and welcoming others without boundaries divided by high school social status, race, sexuality or class. It's all pushed with little seriousness or feigned profundity.

That carries over to the show's style and tonal approach. For the most part, the early Daybreak directors — Peyton, followed by Michael Patrick Jann and Sherwin Shilati — work either outdoors in the daytime, given a Mad Max-ian burnt-out amber glow by cinematographer Jaron Presant, or inside a product placement-friendly mall bathed in florescent hues. The language in Daybreak is salty — the writers are fairly convinced that any time a 12-year-old swears, it's inherently funny — but the treatment of sex is intentionally puerile and the violence intentionally cartoonish. Nothing in Daybreak is designed to stick with you for very long and certainly nothing is designed to leave you meaningfully disturbed or provoked.

In lieu of going for actual impact, Daybreak is a show that throws a lot of things against the wall, aiming for cleverness of wildly varying degrees. With direct addresses to the camera and winking acknowledgement of potential critical complaints, Daybreak is constantly aware not only that it's a TV show, but that it's a Netflix TV show and possibly even that it's a mediocre Netflix TV show, with nods to binge-viewing and cheap cliff-hangers as well as one character who criticizes another's backstory as worthy of only a 5 percent on RottenTomatoes. Ha?

It's not without cleverness, but the aspiration is low and after a half-dozen variations on the identical joke, it wears thin. Much higher and more successfully reaching is the way the season's fifth episode filters Wesley's backstory through a blending of classical Japanese-style animation and appropriation-acknowledging narration from RZA.

That episode, written by Ira Madison III, also includes a joke about how only white guys love the second season of The Wire and, true or untrue, that conversation made me laugh. It's just one of many direct references that feel organic to the writers room and not to the story itself, but if you're going to drop nods to Gymkata, I'm going to chuckle. Less effective are attempts to be timely with at least one #MeToo joke and a really questionable Emma Gonzalez reference.

Daybreak features Matthew Broderick as the high school's principal initially as an excuse for multiple Ferris Bueller's Day Off jokes — Josh's bratty voiceovers are so Bueller-esque that the John Hughes estate deserves some measure of restitution — but it shouldn't be surprising that his performance quickly becomes a series highlight. Also representing an "older" demo and proving more unexpectedly nuanced than most of what's happening around her is Krysta Rodriguez (Smash) as a teacher whose transition into ghoulie is hilariously partial.

The younger actors are more of a mixed bag. Ford is a blend of annoying and everyman, which was probably intentional. Crute and Simnett are both likably underplaying their parts in a series in which most of the contemporaries are aggressively hamming it up. Chances are good that if I didn't mention the actor or character, they fit into that latter category. I'm certain Lind's potty-mouthed tween will have fans, even if the show's core demo will know she's playing a second-rate version of Hit-Girl and the show's writers room knows she's playing a second-rate version of Thor-obsessed Sara from Adventures in Babysitting.

Daybreak is actually one of three shows I've watched this week that only sent critics partial seasons and had nearly squandered my interest before the last screener episode offered frustrating hope. Thanks to Crute's sincere performance and the flash and amusement of the samurai-centric fifth, Daybreak met the low bar of making me curious about future episodes, as long as they remain reasonably short — all 50 minutes and below — and low-pretense.

Cast: Colin Ford, Sophie Simnett, Austin Crute, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Cody Kearsley, Jeanté Godlock, Gregory Kasyan, Krysta Rodriguez, Matthew Broderick
Creators: Brad Peyton and Aron Eli Coleite, from the comic by Brian Ralph
Premieres: Thursday (Netflix)