While so many producers and networks are preoccupied with creating the next Walking Dead or Stranger Things, Netflix has looked back further, specifically to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for its new series Daybreak. That's not to say the post-apocalyptic comedy-drama is in any way a copycat -- while there are "ghoulies," you won't find a single vampire -- but it is a worthy successor to the cult favorite in terms of its wry self-awareness and exploration of the high school experience through a supernatural/sci-fi lens.
Loosely based on the series of graphic novels by Brian Ralph, Daybreak is set in Glendale, California, in the months after a nuclear apocalypse reduced most adults to "goo," and turned those that remained into mindless, zombie-like ghoulies, sentenced to endlessly repeat the last thing they said before the attack, no matter how banal ("There's a sale at Lululemon"). That leaves the teens and children to fight for survival in a world that's part Road Warrior, part Lord of the Flies, part Ferris Bueller's Day Off, with heaping helpings of irony and dark humor.
Colin Ford (Supernatural, Under the Dome) stars as Josh Wheeler, a 17-year-old transfer student from Canada who finds that his outsider status serves him well in the End Times. He navigates the territories staked out by high-school cliques turned tribes (The Jocks, The 4-H Club, Disciples of Kardashia, and so on), while stockpiling supplies and searching for Sam Dean (Sophie Simnett), the love of his life who was separated him the night of the attack.
Like a post-apocalyptic Malcolm in the Middle, Josh routinely breaks the fourth wall in the first two episodes to serve as the audience's guide to this bizarre, new world, in which two-headed crows scrounge for morsels, doomed contestants compete in "American Ninja Idol" for the entertainment of the leader of The Jocks, and the bogeyman-like Baron Triumph prowls the streets on a motorcycle, capturing kids to eat. Despite Josh's determination to remain a loner, he falls in with Angelica (Alyvia Alyn Lind), a precocious girl with a flame-thrower and malleable morals, and Wesley Fists (Austin Crute), a former jock turned pacifistic samurai seeking redemption. Together, they form a compelling central cast that is, luckily, more than mere archetypes of young-adult drama. (Likewise, Matthew Broderick as the "woke" Principal Burr and Krysta Rodriguez as the beleaguered Ms. Crumble prove to be more than cookie-cutter authority figures.)
Although Ford is joined by other narrators in subsequent episodes, he bears the weight of the world-building, and carries it well, addressing viewers as if they're participants in this offbeat adventure. If Ford weren't so charming, and Josh weren't such goofy, endearing everyman (everykid?) Daybreak would likely stumble out of the gate. However, the series' success doesn't owe all to him; when the narration, and the focus, shifts to other characters, Daybreak still works -- and works well.
While Daybreak doesn't blaze any new trails, in either teen comedy-drama or post-apocalyptic fiction, it has a great deal of fun exploring the tropes of both. The wasteland of Glendale is high school writ large, with the adolescent pecking order weathering the nuclear attack (and even thriving in its aftermath), and teens seeking a place among the cliques, not merely for social acceptance but for their survival. It's no coincidence that a shopping mall, kept pristine even as society crumbles, emerges as an oasis for the outcasts.
With the ghoulies, Daybreak introduces a zombie-like menace that wisely sidesteps the familiar threat of The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later and the like. Sure, they're revenants, of sorts, but the repetition of their frequently silly final words ("How do you pronounce 'La Croix'?") goes a long way to diffuse any sense of dread. Angelica goes to great length to differentiate ghoulies from zombies, noting that while their bites may leave scars, they won't transform their victims (a knowledge bomb that arrives a bit too late for Josh). But, as is so often the case in post-apocalyptic fiction, the real danger isn't the monsters but the humans, whether they be The Jocks or the cannibalistic Baron Triumph.
Witty, self-aware and endlessly entertaining, Daybreak offers something for everyone: teen angst (and romance), samurai action, Mad Max-style car chases and, yes, metatextuality, all in one, enjoyable bundle. It's a post-apocalyptic Buffy the Vampire Slayer for 2019, only, y'know, without vampires.
Starring Matthew Broderick, Krysta Rodriguez, Colin Ford, Sophie Simnett and Austin Crute, Daybreak premieres Oct. 24 on Netflix.