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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Survivors' on BBC America

The British are so civilized at world's end.

February 13, 2010|By MARY McNAMARA | Television Critic

Even if you watch "Survivors," a post-apocalyptic drama premiering on BBC America, with the sound off, you would know it was British for one reason: No guns.

A plague quickly wipes out 90% of the world's population leaving a few scattered survivors, and no one has the sense to bear arms. Except one clearly crazy man who shows up in Episode 2 to terrorize the "good guys" with a lone rifle not once, not twice, but three times and still no shots are fired.

I realize the British gun laws are stricter than ours, but still -- these people did build an empire once upon a time, and they didn't do it with pluck and goodwill.

This is the kind of absurdity that hobbles "Survivors," despite the all around splendid acting of the cast. (That's how you tell it's British with the sound on.)

A remake of a TV series based on a novel, "Survivors" is torn between the desire to go big -- it's the literal end of civilization -- and small -- how would an ordinary person react to the death of everyone he knows? Regrettably "Survivors" succeeds at neither, getting stuck instead in a blurry bog of middle ground.

In the first episode, of course, everybody dies, and that's always alarming to watch, particularly in the middle of cold and flu season. We also meet our main characters: Samantha (Nikki Amuka-Bird), the government's health secretary, who watches as the world collapses; Abby (Julie Graham), a mother who's on her way to tend to her sick son when she is stricken and yet miraculously survives; Tom (Max Beesley), who watches his prison cellmate die and then kills the one surviving guard to get out; Anya (Zoe Tapper), a doctor who comes unglued watching hundreds of patients, including her girlfriend, perish; Al (Phillip Rhys), a party boy who passes out one night only to wake to a dead girl in his bed; Greg (Paterson Joseph), who dreams of living completely on his own; and Najid (Chahak Patel), an 11-year-old Muslim whose survival scene is perhaps the most chilling of the episode.

By the end of the first hour, all but Samantha have come together, convinced by Abby, who is, apparently, the only one among them familiar with post-apocalyptic fiction, that they have a better chance of survival together than separately.

Typically, when fictitious strangers find themselves beset by tragedy, be it zombies, vampires, pandemic or a tropical island with mysterious powers, reaction breaks down into cooperative versus combative. In "Survivors," Abby is community-building made flesh. Even when, in Episode 2, they come in contact with other survivors who seem to think that because they possess a single rifle, they should control all the supermarkets, Abby's gang relies on penetrating looks and words of shame. The attempt to remain civilized when there is no actual civilization is what propels "Survivor." Handled with a little less maternal bossiness, it could be a fascinating theme. The deaths that occur after the pandemic are particularly jarring. When human beings are a limited resource, even one accidental or unnecessary death takes on new meaning.

That the sickness wasn't "natural" is pretty much a given, and perhaps the presence of a locked-down community monitoring the devastation will unify both the various survivors and the plot. Because hope is always more effective when it makes a little sense.

mary.mcnamara @latimes.com

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