The glut of post-apocalyptic storytelling in TV and film, from The Walking Dead to The Hunger Games to The Last Man on Earth, is growing old. Judging from most of these works, there are only so many original ways to imagine the world after some catastrophe. But after 10 minutes of NBC’s new series You, Me and the Apocalypse, I was begging for the meteor to hit. It opens on an underground bunker as the world is about to end, then flashes back to explain how its various occupants got there. Trust me, though: You’re not going to care.
The show, produced by NBC and Britain’s cable juggernaut Sky 1, is the latest miniseries “event” that promises a star-studded cast and a story free from the status quo of most television. Here, the world can end without the studio worrying about what season two is going to look like. But its creator, Iain Hollands, whose only other credit is the little-seen U.K. show Beaver Falls, has instead set up an intricate series of plot dominoes to try and explain how a Catholic nun working for the Vatican, a prison inmate from California, and a mild-mannered Brit (among others) have ended up together, awaiting the end of the world. The show’s best sequence are its opening minutes, when the main characters watch news broadcasts showing a meteor hurtling towards the Atlantic Ocean. Everything else is infuriating delayed gratification.
For a British co-production, You, Me and the Apocalypse is surprisingly dismissive of the the venerable Oxford comma. Otherwise, its transatlantic flaws are rather telling, particularly the plot revolving around Rhonda MacNeil (Jenna Fischer), a mild-mannered librarian sent to jail for hacking the NSA. Hollands’s grasp on the American prison system seems drawn from some distracted viewing of Orange Is the New Black: Rhonda’s experience as an inmate amounts to being threatened by Latina gang-bangers and protected by a white supremacist with a Southern accent (Megan Mullally).
Fischer’s entire character beat amounts to “A middle-class white lady in prison: Imagine that!” Which gives you a sense of the nuance You, Me and the Apocalypse deploys as it slowly gathers its disparate ensemble, who are scattered across the globe but will somehow end up together in a bunker in Slough, England (the dreary suburban setting for the original The Office). The show’s other big star is Rob Lowe, playing a Catholic priest who smokes cigarettes and curses (again: Imagine that!). You, Me and the Apocalypse seems impressed with just how scandalous all of its storylines are, but it’s still airing on NBC. There’s nothing really transgressive going on here, just a curdled impression of far darker works, down to the drawn-on swastika on Mullally’s forehead.
The series counts down the 34 days before the end of the world. There are brief flash-forwards, narrated by the main character Jamie (Mathew Baynton), who keeps asking the audience if they want to know just how he got in such a sticky situation. “Not really!” I wanted to reply. More interesting is the question of how things play out once everyone’s in the bunker together, especially since so much of the show is concerned with characters who are either trying to prevent the meteor strike or get to safety. Viewers know from the opening minutes just where everyone ends up, and that the meteor is seconds from hitting the planet. So why waste an entire series trying to distract viewers from what they already know? The in medias res opening on TV is annoying at the best of times, but it’s usually resolved within one episode, not 10.
There are some twists that promise to play out along the way, mostly revolving around the fact that Jamie, a sad-sack bank manager still recovering from the disappearance of his wife, apparently has an evil twin brother who’s the world’s most notorious hacker. You, Me and the Apocalypse is curiously obsessed with hacking for a show whose endgame is a world with no Internet, but the frequent references to the NSA and state secrets seem as half-baked as Rhonda’s stay in prison or Rob Lowe’s fanciful Vatican adventures (which are concerned with the apocalypse’s relation to the Book of Revelation).
There may not have ever been a good show buried in all these misfiring elements, but even so, Hollands has picked a poor way to tell his story. As his characters trip and stumble toward an obvious conclusion, what should be an epic event series feels like a chore—and a waste of the generally strong talent involved. Here’s a suggestion: Next time, just blow the earth up in the first five minutes and start from there. Maybe it’s hacky, but the story would at least have what You, Me and the Apocalypse is missing most of all: suspense.