Review of Daybreak (2019)

Moving picture, 8 hours

Seen in 2019.

Russian-Chinese WW3 bioweapons kill the majority of California adults and reduce the rest to mutating zombies repeating their last thoughts like the victims of Shen Fever in Severance (2018). Glendale high-school student cliques rule the local community in the post-apocalypse.

Zombies are not important to this show, not even to the extent of Zombieland (2009; the show’s main inspiration) or High School of the Dead (2010). It’s also not really a love story heightened by a zombie-apocalyptic setting, like “I Love Sarah Jane” (2008) or Warm Bodies (2013). Instead, and as this list of references implies, Daybreak is a show about high-school TV memes, like School-Live! (2015), which also has zombies.

Daybreak is an example of corporate appropriation of fan and youth culture. Its subject matter is an outgrowth of Revenge of the Nerds (1984) more than any zombie movie or post-apocalyptic romance. The main character, Josh, introduces himself as not belonging to a clique even in a world dominated by cliques, aligning himself with the viewer against his own memetic fictional environment, where wokeness and #metoo feminism are equivalent to fidget spinners and the Tide pod challenge. Viewer immersion is ruled out early, as in John Dies at the End (2012).

Hip-hop culture sets the mood in young Josh’s intro, playing “California Love”. The older Principal Burr, played by metafiction-dense Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s Matthew Broderick, alludes to the same culture, marking the principal as a poseur. This dual use of hip-hop culture for gatekeeping marks the corporate creators themselves as poseurs, though their sense of irony never extends that far. It is not true, as one character says in episode 4, that “clichés are tropes cause they’re true”; an excuse for not creating. True to its own falseness, the show highlights and comments upon its various revelations and cliffhangers, and eventually reveals which revelations were fake. As a viewer, you’re supposed to be thrilled at being actively misled, again as in John Dies at the End. Bad idea, that.

From time to time, the cultural riffing’s done well. Austin Crute is good as Wesley Fists, the gay jock blerd who fits in this world better than non-descript white cis-het placeholder Josh. He wears a shirt with 夜明け print: “Daybreak”, the revised title of the show for Wesley-centered episode 5. The woodblock-print-style vignettes also have proper untranslated Japanese in them. The second one begins:

さて、黒人とアジア人の文化の共通点を探ってみようか? 例えば、ケンドリック・ラマーの“カンフー・ケニー”とエディ・フアンのヒップホップへの情熱。それに強い結びつきがある理由は、とちらもアメリカでは抑圧されたマイノリティで、社会からステレオタイプ化されやすいからだ。

So let’s have a look at where Black and Asian cultures intersect, shall we? For example, there’s Kendrick Lamar’s “Kung-Fu Kenny” and Eddie Huang’s passion for hip hop. The reason why these cultures share such strong bonds is because both were subject to oppression as US minorities and are commonly reduced to stereotype.

Temporary narrator RZA agrees, outlining in the most self-conscious part of his narration how rappers came to value kung fu movies because they too were marginalized, plus they played on TV, which was cheaper than going to the movies. RZA also points out that samurai culture doesn’t actually connect to kung fu. This is nicely done, but they brought in the experts too late. Before that good episode, there’s a stereotypical post-apocalypse katana said to be from “Honshu province”. Honshū, the “main island” of Japan, was not a province, and the great majority of katana were made there. The writers may have been confused by a modern brand of stainless-steel knives.

Nothing of real substance is said about samurai or kung fu, nor is there a larger point to their inclusion here. Although Wesley straddles cliques and identities, there is no message in that either. Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985) had a point about cliques, arguing against them. By contrast, the cultural references on Daybreak don’t serve any purpose greater than Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988), doing the work of irony for the viewer and then regurgitating it into their mouth. The only moment of genuine irony is that one of Daybreak’s jabs at television is to ridicule how writers on other shows keep it simple to allow the viewer to keep an eye on their phone. Again the creators of Daybreak fail to apply their words to themselves, where they belong.

No story is told by putting Road Warrior sporting goods on jocks. No purpose is served by knocking off Peewee from Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958) and ramping up her antisocial tendencies to make Angelica. The CG mutant wildlife thread of the narrative amounts to nothing. The first season ends on yet another dumb and drawn-out “plot twist” with no end in sight. Thankfully, the production was aborted there; the promised second season was never made.

There’s very little room for incidental humour or realism in the cramped confines of the flashback loops. With plenty of call for them there’s no gym teacher, no coach, no nurse, hardly any adults other than the ones who make it into the post-apocalypse because they are played by contracted regulars. This is why, when Burr mentions before the apocalypse that peanut allergy affects even a member of the staff, Josh can be certain that Burr is talking about himself. In a good script, that deduction would have been foolish.

The writers do not have the intelligence of “Too Many Cooks” (2014), but they try: In episode 7, Crumble reimagines her apocalyptic life as a sitcom production and asks “Is this a flashback or a nightmare?” The answer, for me, is a nightmare. Daybreak is commercial hypermediation without a moment of earnestness. I suppose Hollywood will continue to foreground its flaws this way from time to time, making new versions of “Bosko in Person” (1933), Freakazoid (1995) etc. as old memetic clusters wither and die.

moving picture zombie fiction series