The adults are gone in the wake of a catastrophic event and teens rule what’s left of society in Daybreak, a new post-apocalyptic teen dramedy from Netflix. With its whip-smart dialogue, killer soundtrack, and rich trove of sly pop culture references, the show is almost too smart for its own good. I say “almost,” because this eclectic genre mashup turns out to be an outrageously over-the-top delight. If you liked Amazon’s The Boys, chances are you’ll like Daybreak, too.
(Some spoilers below, but no major twists are revealed.)
Daybreak is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Brian Ralph. His first graphic novel, Cave-In, was notable for having no words at all. Daybreak was groundbreaking in a different way, told entirely from the perspective (both narratively and visually) of an unnamed survivor to an apocalyptic event, breaking the fourth wall to address readers directly. The young man wakes up to find the world he once knew destroyed, before a one-armed man appears and takes him under his protective wing. They are joined by other survivors, teaming up to avoid zombie-like creatures that lurk in the shadows but are never fully shown. It’s a quiet, understated post-apocalyptic story that has been described as “The Road meets Dawn of the Dead.”
Created by Brad Peyton and Aron Eli Coleite, the Netflix TV adaptation is more “Mad Max meets Ferris Bueller’s Day Off“—and in a nod to the latter, the original Ferris Bueller, Matthew Broderick, plays high school principal Michael Burr. Set in Glendale, California, our main protagonist is high school student Josh Wheeler (Colin Ford), who transfers to Glendale High right before a nuclear bomb/biological weapon combination hits the region. The few surviving adults have become “Ghoulies,” doomed to crave human flesh and wander aimlessly in search of food while muttering the last thing they said before the bomb hit (“Why so many superhero movies?”).
With no adult supervision, the teens stick with what they know, grouping into “tribes” based on stereotypical high school cliques to survive. The Jocks dominate all the other tribes, led by the brutal former star quarterback, Turbo “Bro Jock” Pokaski (Cody Kearsley), and his right hand, Mona Lisa (Jeante Godlock). There are also the Cheermazons, STEM Punks, 4H Club, Game Overs, Disciples of Kardashia, and so forth. It works about as well as you’d expect from teens with no governing experience who have watched way too many movies. Punishment is meted out according to the rules of ancient Rome, except the accused must perform onstage for “American Ninja Idol,” hoping Turbo gives them a thumbs up to spare their lives.
Josh is a loner by choice, deftly evading Ghoulies, Jock bullies, and a mysterious figure known as Baron Triumph who hunts surviving kids and purportedly eats them. He is mostly living what he thinks is the high life, camping out in swank abandoned digs while looking for his missing girlfriend, Sam (Sophie Simnett), who he’s hoping has managed to survive as well. But then he has a run-in with the Golf Club (a lowly subgroup of the Jocks, who don’t consider it a real sport because of the tiny balls) and rescues 10-year-old Angelica (Alyvia Alyn Lind), a foul-mouthed “MENSA-level genius with flexible morality” and a deep love of fire and explosions. She latches onto him as her best chance to survive.
Josh gradually starts to attract other potential allies among his fellow surviving outcasts who haven’t pledged fealty to Turbo. They include Wesley Fists (Austin Crute), a former Jock turned pacifist samurai, who hopes to redeem himself for past bad acts via the code of Bushido; Eli Cardashyan (Gregory Kasyan), a bit of a self-serving tool who has holed up alone in the Glendale Mall; and former biology teacher Ms. Crumble (Krysta Rodriguez), who seems to be the only surviving adult who hasn’t gone full-on Ghoulie, in that she can form complete sentences and resists the urge to eat the kids.
Like its source material, Daybreak deliberately breaks the fourth wall to address viewers (and sometimes, the writers) directly—a narrative device also used to great effect in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hit series, Fleabag. But it cleverly tailors the style to the different main characters, each of whom gets a chance to tell their backstories in Lost-style flashbacks. For instance, Angelica self-identifies as “gangsta” and adopts the Goodfellas voiceover technique for her featured episode. Wesley’s story is narrated by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and illustrated with kung-fu movie animations. Ms. Crumble finds herself in a cheesy sitcom narration of her backstory (directed by Angelica with a canned laugh track).
More often than not, the writers subvert our expectations in creative, surprising ways.
It would be so very easy to screw up such an ambitious mix of genres and complicated narrative threads, but Peyton and Coleite pull it off. And that’s largely due to the strong writing, terrific cast, and well-developed characters, especially the teens, who reveal themselves to be far more than the stereotypical roles they’ve adopted because they’re frightened and crave some semblance of familiar structure. Deep down, they are still just kids, a dilemma best captured by Angelica, whose tough, sassy exterior hides a lonely, vulnerable pre-teen who desperately wants to belong somewhere. Her deepening relationship with Ms. Crumble, who gradually becomes a demented mother-figure/mentor, is a highlight of the series.
Sure, it’s best not to overthink the outrageous premise, and some of the teen soap moments are predictable, but they are also genuinely moving. And more often than not, the writers subvert our expectations in creative, surprising ways. I’d wager there has never been an after-school special as graphically on point as when Angelica gets her very first period and has to figure out how to use a tampon while hiding from Ghoulies in an abandoned cereal factory restroom.
Josh’s search for Sam is nominally the broad narrative arc for the season, but it’s the makeshift family he finds along the way that gives the series its heart. The teens didn’t destroy the world, but they’re the ones who have to rebuild a functioning society from the ashes. On the upside, the apocalypse gives the survivors a chance to figure out who they really are and re-invent themselves accordingly—for better or worse, depending on the characters. Daybreak concludes with a final unexpected twist and several unanswered questions that neatly set up a possible second season. Here’s hoping Netflix gives the show that chance.
Daybreak is currently streaming on Netflix.
Listing image by Netflix