“There’s something weird going on,” Ulysses says in the first episode of Starz's Now Apocalypse, but the weirdness mostly comes across as a secondary concern to series creator Gregg Araki, who directed and co-wrote all 10 episodes of the first season.
Araki is known for his early boundary-pushing indie films about sexual experimentation among young people, including The Doom Generation and The Living End, as well as for more serious dramas like Mysterious Skin and White Bird in a Blizzard, although lately he’s been working mostly as a director for hire on TV series from American Crime to 13 Reasons Why to Riverdale. Now Apocalypse combines the bold, explicit tone of Araki’s early films with the polished professionalism of his television work. But despite the constant barrage of naked flesh and sex scenes in various configurations (including two in the first five minutes of the premiere), it’s less titillating than tiresome, with dramatically inert plotting about some kind of impending doom.
Ulysses (Avan Jogia) is a slacker who moved to Los Angeles to become an actor, but quickly gave up on those dreams, and now mostly sits around getting high and hanging out with his equally vapid friends. His roommate Ford (Beau Mirchoff) is a dim-witted, aspiring screenwriter who attracts attention for his physique rather than for his writing skills, although he’s too dumb to realize it. Ulysses’ best friend Carly (Kelli Berglund) is still trying to break in as an actress, while working as a cam girl to make ends meet. In contrast to the vain young people, Ford’s older girlfriend Severine (Roxane Mesquida) has no interest in show business, and instead works as a scientist at some sort of ominous lab where she inspects strange substances and photos of UFOs.
She’s just as sexually adventurous as the other main characters, though, and Araki and co-writer Karley Sciortino spend a lot of time on the characters’ sex lives, from Ulysses’ obsession with an enigmatic online date (Teen Wolf’s Tyler Posey) to Carly’s discovery of her dominant side to Ford’s frustrations with Severine’s insistence on polyamory (“That sounds time-consuming,” he complains). Although Araki was exploring sexual fluidity in his work before it was cool or mainstream, he’s not really breaking new ground any longer. If Araki and Sciortino had managed to create interesting, engaging characters to have all that sex, the nudity and the love scenes could have been a bonus, or a way to add to the character development. Instead, the nonstop sexual content often comes across as desperate, or as a way to fill time while the overarching plot is busy going nowhere.
Now Apocalypse begins with Ulysses’ dark vision of a lizard-like creature raping someone in an alley, and he occasionally rouses himself to investigate this potential invasion or attack. That means he Googles “reptile alien” in the second episode, and watches some online videos by a renowned conspiracy theorist played by Henry Rollins. Carly tells him he has an “extremely active imagination,” and the show seems to be trying to convince the audience not to give too much credit to Ulysses’ premonitions. Yet, it’s clearly building to something, even in small increments, as Severine periodically consults with her colleagues about mysterious occurrences, and finally, in the fifth episode, a recurring character flashes glowing green eyes (could he be an alien?). That’s halfway through the season, though, and it’s a pretty meager development, given how much time the show has spent stringing the audience along.
That fifth episode is the last one available for review, and maybe the apocalypse will arrive by the time the season is over. In the meantime, there’s a lot of wan Hollywood satire, from Carly’s pathetic acting class (with Mary Lynn Rajskub as the sleazy instructor) to her boyfriend’s excitement at being booked to play a mutilated corpse on a TV crime procedural. Although it’s billed as a comedy (with episodes running about 30 minutes), Now Apocalypse isn’t particularly funny, and its characters are more irritating than charming. Araki gives the show a garishly colorful look, dressing his characters in outrageous, and often ridiculous, outfits that struggling artists would almost certainly not be able to afford, but at least it’s a nice contrast to the dim, dingy look of many cable and streaming series.
The bright colors and sexy bodies only provide so much distraction, though, and it’s not enough to make up for how dull and aimless the story and characters are. For a notorious provocateur, Araki turns out to be disappointingly stingy with the crazy plot developments. One of the show’s mediocre running gags is how terrible Ford’s screenplay is, billing it as a “post-apocalyptic Lethal Weapon” with cyborg vampires, but at least that sounds like something that would be fun to watch.
Premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz, Now Apocalypse stars Avan Jogia, Kelli Berglund, Beau Mirschoff and Roxane Medquida.