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‘In the Flesh’ fans are swarming to save the BBC’s zombie show

Despite low ratings, In the Flesh has infected a loyal audience. 


Michelle Jaworski

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 2, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 4:20 pm CDT

Yawn. Another show about zombies. Yet fans are pulling out all the stops to try to save In the Flesh. What exactly makes it worth fighting for?

As fans, we have a lot of expectations for the shows we watch—ranging from the realistic to the extremely unlikely—and while television seems to be in a golden age as of late, we’ve still got a long way to go. Even some of our favorite shows on TV have their own slew of problems.

Game of Thrones gives audiences a wide range of strong female characters and then undermines them with constant violence and rape threats. BBC’s Sherlock gives us women who start out with agency only to be dismissed and sidelined in the narrative—when it’s not bombarding you with “no homo” jokes about the two main characters. A “wasteland of dead girls” and accusations of queerbaiting darken Supernatural’s male bonding. And Teen Wolf’s queer showrunner and queer characters can’t quell the backlash from fans who ship two of its male characters together.

Not many shows come close to perfection when it comes to a portrayal of women and representation (although a few already have), and even fewer can boast strong queer representation. But In the Flesh is one series that excels in both—and its fans don’t want to let it go.

In The Flesh is a British Academy of Film and Television Arts awarded drama focused on the lives of people suffering from Partially Deceased Syndrome (or PDS). Set in a small English town after a zombie apocalypse, it stars Luke Newberry, who was cast as Teddy Lupin (and then cut) from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Although the subject of the undead is a big part of the show, so is the humanity that both people and PDS sufferers manage to show, even occasionally to each other. 

It may seem like a knockoff of some other zombie show at first glance, but In The Flesh, with all of its quirks, is the TV show the Internet needs.

Not another zombie TV show

Whenever a show dealing with zombies goes on the air nowadays, it will inevitably be compared to The Walking Dead. Both shows don’t show the actual outbreak—and they both chillingly demonstrate that zombies aren’t always the scariest thing out there—but that’s about as far as the similarities go.

If The Walking Dead is what life is like for those who survived immediate infection—what you see in just about every zombie movie—then In The Flesh is what the world looks like after a cure for zombie-ism is found, as survivors try to go back to normal life with that constant threat looming.

The Walking Dead’s Walkers (the word zombie doesn’t exist in that universe) are a growing, rotting presence, but unless the Walker is a main character or directly related to one of them, there’s no point in distinguishing them. They’re either going to wander off, or get shot or gutted. We learn nothing about them except for subtle nuances.

It doesn’t shy away from the more gruesome stuff

On the other hand, In The Flesh’s zombies are decidedly more… human, and zombie media not only exists, it’s a source of misinformation on the show about zombie lore. With the help of medication, the PDS sufferers—which consist of thousands of people who died in 2009 before rising from the dead—are then able to remember their past lives and be rehabilitated back into society by the government. In order to blend in with everyone else, they’re given contact lenses, makeup, and daily injections to appear normal and prevent their rabid state from returning.

Sound familiar?

By using the guise of the horror genre, the show is able to tell a much different story than you’d suspect at first glance. Sure, it’s a show about zombies, but it can tackle racism, homophobia, depression, suicide, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—and does it realistically.

Forced to hide who they are, they’re generally accepted until the makeup comes off. And townsfolk even have a slur for PDS sufferers: Rotters.

“What’s so great about horror and fantasy is that you can talk gender politics and identity freely,” Mitchell told SciFiNow in 2013. “In the Flesh is really story [sic] of identity. How do you fit in when you’re completely different and people are labeling you?”

It has a queer protagonist—but that’s not the most important thing about him

The (rotting) heart and soul of In The Flesh is Newberry’s character Kieren Walker. Quiet and thoughtful, he suffered from depression and committed suicide after the death of his best friend and romantic interest Rick Macy. Only, he didn’t stay dead. At the start of the series we follow Kieren, a PDS sufferer, back home to his parents and sister in the rural Lancashire town of Roarton, where not only is he fighting flashbacks to his untreated state (a side effect of the medication), he’s dealing with the guilt of both his suicide and the murders he committed while he was rabid—things he’s forced to deal with directly.

But it’s obvious from the start this isn’t just another show strictly about manpain—and it’s not all black and white, either.

“He’s not gay but he’s not straight,” Mitchell said in that same interview, not elaborating further than that. “He’s more in love with the person than the gender.”

Mitchell created a bisexual character, something that’s rare when it comes to representation even in the LGBTQ community. Many are pressured to “pick a side” or accused of making up their attraction to people of both sexes. In media, it’s not much better. Bisexual characters are often portrayed solely to play out a fantasy.

“His lead’s bisexuality doesn’t need to be proven, and is superbly handled, neither fetishised nor sensationalised,” Alex Gabriel wrote, calling In The Flesh “the best LGBT show since Queer as Folk. …In fact, his quietness makes him one of television’s first bi characters to have the texture of a real person.”

His sexuality is alluded to in the first season, mainly with his past relationship with Rick, but later on, Kieren starts a relationship with Simon Monroe, a fellow PDS sufferer with links to the Undead Liberation Army (an organization that aims to bring a Second Rising to wipe out the living).

It’s not another example of queerbaiting. In fact, it’s canon—something that comes as a relief to many viewers looking for even a smidge of representation.

“[H]aving a canonically queer pair to ship is so refreshing and I love it so much and it’s downright ridiculous and unacceptable that there are so few shows with good queer representation,” daydraws wrote on Tumblr.

The woman are flawed, full-fledged characters

It’s out of the ordinary to find one complex female character in a show. It’s rarer still to find more than one, and near unheard of to have them on a show that doesn’t undermine their femininity.

In The Flesh may have a male protagonist, but he’s surrounded by women. When Kieren first goes home for rehabilitation, two of the most important people in his life are women: Amy, his “best dead friend forever,” and his sister Jem. Neither is there strictly to advance Kieren’s plot, and of course they each come with complications.

Amy is confident in herself—she’s often in her natural PDS state and chooses not to wear the contacts and makeup that Kieren clings to in order to blend in. When another character tries to shame her after she sleeps with him, she’s having none of it. Having died of leukemia, she knows what it’s like to know that death was inevitable, so she’s living her second life to the fullest.

She’s the source of much of the show’s mythology, particularly when she’s suspected of being the first person to come back during the the Rising.

#SaveInTheFlesh because we need to know what happens with Amy! @bbcthree @BBCAMERICA @EmilyGraceBevan pic.twitter.com/B4I4UeLo8F

— plague (@RottenMermaid) July 27, 2014

On the other hand, things are a lot more complicated with Jem. Kieren’s younger sister, she was part of the Human Volunteer Force, which took out those with PDS during the Rising (and sometimes after). The siblings initially clash when Kieren first returns due to his PDS status, but that’s only scratching the surface. In a flashback he lives over and over again, it’s revealed that he killed Jem’s best friend in his rabid state, and she’s still upset at him for killing himself.

Jem eventually leaves the HVF, but killing zombies at such a young age has left its mark on her. She relives it through nightmares and flashes reminiscent of PTSD, and she has difficulty adapting to a normal life—something she shares with her brother. And while she makes up with Kieren, she still has a hatred for those with PDS.

The main villain of season 2, Maxine Martin, is in a position of power as Roarton’s MP (Member of Parliament). She is part of a more extreme line of thinking in which she does not believe PDS sufferers are real people, and puts policies into place that treat them like second-class citizens. It’s a role that could easily have been one-dimensional, but Wunmi Mosaku gives her multiple dimensions (as well as much-needed racial diversity in the show).

It’s probably saved lives

Representation is important and it matters. In just nine episodes, In The Flesh has already told stories that rarely get on TV. The tougher themes such as suicide, depression, drug addiction aren’t treated like an afterschool special, and nobody’s sexuality is marginalized. They’re treated as real, and they don’t have to get brought up every episode to be important.

On one blog, fans have been encouraged to share their Rising stories, or how they got into the show in the first place. And even by glancing at the #saveintheflesh hashtag, it’s evident the show has gotten people through a lot.

“This is not just some random gay zombie epic,” one person wrote. “This is a really intense discussion about what’s happening in real life. Using zombies. It’s genius.”

“Kieren was reaffirmation for me, and so much more—his sexuality is not a big part of his personality and it isn’t even really mentioned, it’s barely a side plot, and his relationship with Simon is shown to develop and grow in the same way that heterosexual couples do, which is of course, realistic of how this kind of thing really works,” another wrote.

Fighting to #SaveInTheFlesh

Originally airing on BBC Three, In the Flesh has captivated a small but passionate audience for the past two seasons, primarily in the U.K. but also in other locations including the U.S., where it airs on BBC America.

Ratings aren’t the greatest: In the Flesh lost nearly 65,000 viewers over its second season. Only 300,000 people watched the season 2 finale in the U.K.—less than half the audience the show had when it first premiered. Another acclaimed show, The Hour was canceled after its second season due to low ratings. Back in March, the BBC announced that BBC Three’s on-air channel will be axed, meaning the shows that air on that channel will only be available through the BBC iPlayer online. And we’ve seen too many American shows over the years get the cut with low ratings.

Fans have been here before. To keep In the Flesh from suffering that fate, they’re are using the hashtag #saveintheflesh to spread the word on Twitter and Tumblr. A Change.org petition to bring the show back has more than 4,200 signatures. A poll on Geekiary.com asking fans to vote for their favorite show of the summer shows In The Flesh in the lead with almost 200,000 votes; Dominion, currently in second, falls short at around 177,000.

So far, no one knows whether a third season will happen, least of all In The Flesh creator Dominic Mitchell.

It’s not a perfect show, and it has a long way to go when it comes to racial representation, but it’s one of the most relevant shows on television that’s fighting for its chance at a new season. It’s the show that Tumblr wants, or as close as just about any show on TV will get.

Want a taste? Thanks to BBC America, you can watch the three minutes of In the Flesh right on YouTube. Or, if you’re on the second season, you can watch the first four minutes from the  premiere.

So what are you waiting for?

Photo via BBC America/YouTube

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*First Published: Sep 2, 2014, 10:00 am CDT