Dark clouds gather into FX mattes and suddenly all the adults and electricity disappears. This is the setting for The Cul De Sac, TVNZ’s new young adult series. The first episode played on Sunday night and José Barbosa reckons it shows promise. Dark, grim promise.
“It’s the apocalypse” says bespectacled neighbour played by former Shortland Street star KJ Apa (and future ripped Archie on US TV). Turning from the window, plucky go-getter Rose (played by Greta Gregory) says “The apocalypse, great. I’m already late for work.”
In the early scenes for TVNZ’s new young adult series The Cul-De-Sac (somewhat disturbingly referred to as ‘The Sac’ in several places on their Facebook page) everyone seems to have too much going on to really pay the impending end of everything too much mind. For 16 year-old Rose, the disappearance of all the adults and electricity is just another thing to deal with, fast paced full steam ahead. Even the threat of a feral dog chasing her and her rag tag group of friends and family doesn’t slow her down for too long. This girl can think her way around anything.
That’s probably the strongest part of what is, at least as it appears in this first episode, an extremely derivative show. It’s quite refreshing to witness characters on TV respond to Armageddon like it’s a bad storm or a 4G outage. But things soon turn down a familiar road, one that’s cobbled with tropes from various YA and children’s literature; the absence of parents and post-apocalyptic tribalism being the most obvious. Even the opening titles appear to be lifted straight from The Walking Dead. Unless future episodes bolt for the hills and uncover some new ground, you’re unlikely to see a new take on the genre, just a kiwi-accented version of it.
But they don’t have that bad a go at it. Someone was smart enough to put Greta Gregory in the lead role. Her Rose is a no-nonsense heroine, she’s got enough mettle to stare down Doni, the trench coat-wearing leader of a group of supposedly young shearers who’ve taken the local school and appear to know more about the apocalypse than they’re letting on. At one point Jack trips over in classic damsel in distress fashion. “Just leave me,” he wails. “Don’t be a dick,” replies Rose, hefting him to his feet.
In parts it’s also distressing. The sight of smaller children huddled together, or walking around aimlessly without parents, lures the mind to images of children refugees in the current crisis in Europe. Whether that’s intentional or not, it can lend the show an unsettling air.
The writing’s fairly solid; wonderfully there’s precious little exposition in the first episode. You learn about characters by how they respond to situations, not by being told who they are. That kind of writing’s always welcome. However, the preview for the second episode seems to suggest there will be a lot of mythology laid down. Hopefully, it’s not too thick for us to wade our way through.
The director Stephen J Campbell has managed to dredge more than enough unease from the show’s setting; quiet suburban streets emptied of people and sound. That’s an old budgetary trick, of course, using the commonplace and tweaking it enough so it becomes terrifying. The best post-apocalyptic sci-fis know that the banal, like Saturday mornings at Botany Downs, are the real spine-chilling stuff. Hopefully The Cul De Sac is savvy enough to know that it’s not just saving money, but drawing on true horror; the everyday kind that exists inside everyone.
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