'Now Apocalypse': TV Review | Sundance 2019

Sure to be a cult favorite.
3/10/2019

Starz gives indie auteur Gregg Araki an unfiltered platform for his particular blend of graphic sex, withering sarcasm, queer themes and alien lizards.

Eagle-eyed indie film fans have followed director Gregg Araki's push into episodic TV for the past couple years. The Doom Generation and Mysterious Skin auteur's name has popped up on shows that make some sense (American Crime and, more oddly, Riverdale) and a few that required a little head-scratching (Greenleaf and Red Oaks?). It's all been hired-gun work, though, as despite the proliferation of programming options and the rise of auteur TV, nobody was handing Gregg Araki a full and unfiltered series platform for his singular and strange worldview.

Brace yourself, then, for Starz's new half-hour sci-fi comedy Now Apocalypse. Sure to perplex the hell out of anybody without previous exposure to Araki, Now Apocalypse is weird and funny and kinky and outlandish and utterly ridiculous. In short, it's the Arakiest.

The first three episodes of Now Apocalypse premiered at Sundance ahead of the show's March 10 Starz premiere, and what they form, in Araki terms, is basically Nowhere delivered in 30-minute episodic bites.

Directed by Araki, who co-wrote with Slutever sexpert Karley Sciortino, Now Apocalypse is the Los Angeles odyssey of Ulysses (Avan Jogia), a former aspiring actor now living a life of pot-induced low motivation, obsessing over a new, mysterious online dating crush, Tyler Posey's Gabriel. Ulysses lives with Ford, a college friend and aspiring screenwriter, who is described in the press notes as a "beefcake," though "beau hunk" would be doubly accurate, I suppose, since he's played by Beau Mirchoff. Ford's in a relationship with Severine (Roxane Mesquida), an astrobiological theorist at some sort of ultra-futuristic research facility that could double as an international modeling agency. Rounding out the show's core quartet is Carly (Kelli Berglund), an unemployed actor by day and cam girl by night.

Oh, and did I mention that Ulysses is having premonitions about the end of the world and there's also at least one rape-y lizard creature presumably from outer space?

On one hand, it's easy to feel like Araki's fascinations with blurred sexual boundaries, youthful disaffection, recreational drug use and, frequently, how those elements intersect with the themes and rhythms of science fiction haven't changed in the 20 years he's been making films. Equally likely is the reality that Araki was miles ahead of the cultural curve when he started his career, and he keeps returning to his native themes because he has to reclaim them from the mainstream. Here he's definitely taking back polyamory, aggressive gay sex and all manner of queer flexibility.

Now Apocalypse, then, is a mixture of elements that have been "normalized" and which Araki is eager to push to extremes, within both the TV landscape and the culture. What, the series ponders, can still shock us while keeping the character motivations clear and still conventional? Carly, Ulysses and Ford all just want to make it in Hollywood, and we've seen variations on the ludicrous acting classes — Mary Lynn Rajskub is a hoot as Carly's instructor — and the daydreaming coffee shop screenwriters, so what can happen that would make these familiar scenes off-putting? And in their personal lives, all these characters want is, to be frank, to get off? What's still outrageous if you can get on your computer and dial up whatever your flavor of kink is at a moment's notice? Part of the answer is to treat sexuality as graphically as possible — this makes Starz sibling Outlander look like Daniel Tiger's Highland Neighborhood — while at the same time treating it as matter-of-factly as possible.

Often the nudity and thrusting and grunting and sweating are a delivery mechanism for Araki and cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen's eye-popping color scheme and lighting. Where else would you get two characters, who just met, ducking into an alleyway for mutual hand jobs in which each character is captured in a different filter, culminating in a literal and metaphorical explosion? Much of Araki's career has felt like an attempt to deliver a Liquid Sky for a new generation and, like that lesbian punk sci-fi epic, Now Apocalypse will be greeted as off-putting or disturbing or just plain unpleasant by probably more viewers than embrace it.

Surely Araki and Valde-Hansen make everything in the world of Now Apocalypse, including the actors, look like bright and candy-coated. Throw the male or female gaze out the window. The camera here wants to ogle every actor onscreen or just to devour them. Actors have definitely given great performances in Araki films, but more often, I'd say, he casts carefully and uses actors for specific purposes. If Jogia is frequently dazed and blank and incredulous, that's exactly what Ulysses is meant to be conveying. James Duval, who served a similar function in several earlier Araki films, appears here as a homeless man, almost as a passing of the torch. Mirchoff, objectified in every frame, looks like he's having a blast. Mesquida, playing a scientist like Denise Richards was a scientist in The World Is Not Enough, gets laughs from lines that couldn't possibly be designed to be said with a straight face, and yet I already fear critics suggesting that she's wooden and unconvincing, rather than doing exactly what her role demands.

Another thing Araki enjoys is subverting the images of his stars, and Posey truly earns his "I'm Not on Teen Wolf Anymore" T-shirt. The big image changer, at least from what I can tell, is Berglund, whose biggest early credit is Disney XD's Lab Rats, and who gets to go aggressively raunchy and badass here, probably permanently jettisoning her Disney Queen status with dirty cam talk, bathtub masturbation and a hilarious scene of uninterested sex turning into very interested S&M. She's a feisty pleasure.

I think by now you can probably tell if Now Apocalypse is going to be for you. A fair warning would be that if the rape-y lizard creature would be your hook, Araki's in no rush to get to that part of the story, concentrating much more on the sexual comedy-of-no-manners and day-glo celebration of Hollywood vacuity. At least Araki's fans (or haters) know what to expect. Credit to Starz, meanwhile, for another show that defines its original programming brand as "Stuff nobody else would make." That's the best umbrella under which I can put Counterpart, Vida, America to Me and Now Apocalypse. That's a good brand to have.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events)
Cast: Avan Jogia, Kelli Berglund, Beau Mirchoff, Roxane Mesquida
Creator-director: Gregg Araki
Writers: Gregg Araki, Karley Sciortino
Airs Sundays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)
Premieres March 10