Simply put, Daybreak, Netflix’s post apocalyptic Red Dawn meets Ferris Bueller zombie teen comedy series, is a hot mess. Or, as we used to say in the golden heyday of Tumblr of yore, a problematic favorite.
I purposefully stuffed way too many descriptors into the first paragraph and tried way too hard to sound cool and am now being way too obvious about every single thing I’m doing and speaking in the first person while breaking the 4th wall, in order to give you a sense of what might have been charming in Daybreak but is really just tres, tres obnoxious.
Daybreak, the TV show, is based on the comic book of the same name by Brian Ralph and created by Brad Peyton and Aron Eli Coleite. Like the comic, the main character is a self insert first person narrator who just happens to be a North American straight white male. I haven’t read the comic yet, but from what I understand, it’s more contemplative than the series, described in one article as being more like the 2009 Viggo Mortenson film The Road than Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Or, you could say more like the original, 1979 Mad Max film.
The Netflix series isn’t contemplative. It’s white guy, Harvey Weinstein, “woke” and wants to make sure you know it, while at the same time it pours misogyny, homophobia, ableism and racism all over the screen. The lead character, named “Just Josh”, is our self insert character, because the standard “everyone” is still a very pale white guy.
In this case, Just Josh is so pale he’s Canadian and so forgettable that each person has to name several other Joshes before they remember him. But he’s supposed to be acing the apocalypse since he knows survival skills learned while sitting in a hunting blind with his dad every summer. Apparently the writers are unaware that kids in the US do that, too.
And apparently they’re unaware of what they’ve actually written, because the audience is gaslit continuously throughout the season. Just Josh is mediocre at everything, at best, other than hoarding and protecting his own interests, which I guess amounts to the same things. And those are the skills, after all, that white guys are trained in from birth to be best at. It would be insane if he couldn’t at least make sure he came out on top in the end by way of manipulation and cheating while pretending to be kind and honest.
The writers are honest about the rest of the
white guys in the series and what they’re doing, with tribes of evil jocks, evil STEM students, and an evil principal played with relish by Matthew Broderick, who could have given the creators much needed lessons in how to pull off charmingly mischievous.
But these creators are going for black comedy and don’t understand where to draw the line. They don’t understand that in 2019, it’s not okay for Just Josh (Colin Ford) to ruthlessly, viciously slut shame his girlfriend, Sam Dean (Sophie Simnett), when he finds out that though he’s a virgin, she’s not, and then even more viciously slut shame her again after they’ve had sex.
They don’t get that the show’s narrative shouldn’t expect us to still see him as a nice guy when he treats Sam this way, or after we’ve watched him verbally abuse and continuously attempt to abandon a troubled 10 year old girl for the entire season. But his abuse of the lonely little girl is all played for laughs, too. Cause the potential for death, assault and rape are h*lla funny when they aren’t likely to happen to you.
And especially when you’re abusing someone half your size and strength. That’s really hilarious. Angelica uses fire as her weapon of choice, because, guess what, she’s small and in physical danger. But she’s told over and over that’s she’s wrong to do so, because fire puts the men in danger.
But that’s the whole point of the fire. She can’t use her body size to protect herself the way the boys do, so she needs a weapon. The narrative portrays this as a mental illness, just as our society would. It’s really a normal survival instinct for a child or woman alone in the world. Angelica is alone in the world before the bombs and is protecting herself even then.
Back to Just Josh. It’s not okay that he turns on everyone he knows as soon they even slightly disappoint him, but then they accept him just as he is, and almost all take him back as soon as he forgives them. Especially since the people he’s treating so badly are all female and/or people of color. And especially since his callousness jeopardizes their lives and leads to several of their deaths, while they frequently risk their lives and friendships for him. The writers and their avatar Just Josh have an unfair double standard.
Daybreak makes it quite clear that the lives of alpha white men are most valuable. Sure, white men die in ritualized deaths, but much is made of those deaths. Girls are there to be fetishized, used to vent emotions, rescued, coerced into sex and potentially raped (rape is implied but not shown). We spend almost no time with the all female tribe and get the backstory on at least twice as many male characters as female characters. As with many productions these days, women appear on camera, but most are in service to the male characters.
The exceptions are Ms Crumble (Krysta Rodriguez), former science teacher, now Ghoulie (zombie) witch, and Angelica Green (Alyvia Alyn Lind), homeschooled genius and drug dealer who pretended to be a student at the school before the apocalypse. They are both fully fleshed out, delightful characters who get their own storylines and develop a deep mother-daughter bond.
Sam Dean gets a lot of screen time, but is purposefully a cipher who’s there to further the stories of Just Josh and Principal Burr. The other female characters’ screen time is limited and they are basically tropes. The boys attempt to grow beyond their tropes or at least get a twist. The girls don’t.
The leader of the jock tribe, Turbo Bro Jock (Cody Kearsley) and former jock tribesman turned solo samurai warrior/rōnin Wesley Fists (Austin Crute) also have a fleshed out storyline and backstories that are satisfying and give both characters their due.
Another character, Armenian mall rat Eli Cardashyan (Gregory Kasyan) is well written, with a poignant backstory that explains his present day actions. Actually, the backstories that explain the behavior of the characters, no matter who they are, are one of the strengths of this show. Every character who gets a backstory makes sense when you think their actions through and put everything in context.
But Eli is treated badly by the show and the other characters, as a throwaway character, even after they learn his story. Josh is only able to appreciate him when they have something very, very specific and concrete in common. He can’t understand Eli’s story when Eli is just a guy from a struggling immigrant family with strict parents, who’s trying to find something that’s his alone.
Even though Josh’s story shares many similarities, he’s is unable to see through his cultural differences with Eli. I think some of this was on purpose by the writers, but given the way Eli’s story turns out, not as much as you would hope. The writers still default to assuming that the Armenian guy is redundant if we already have the white guy and his black best friend.
Aside from the treatment of Sam Dean, Eli’s treatment is what makes me the most angry about this show. The way Eli is denigrated and dismissed is symptomatic of the way people who aren’t white males are othered and misrepresented, or not represented at all.
It’s clear that the writers tried to include speaking parts for black characters, though the black female characters remain shallow, with no backstory or motivations given. They included a prominent gay male couple, but no lesbian or other noticeably queer characters are in sight. You’d think there would be multiple queer tribes popping up amongst teenagers in Glendale, CA, but I guess that didn’t occur to these creators of various films starring The Rock.
There are also virtually no speaking parts for Latinx characters, other than Ms Crumble, even though there are hardly any black people in Glendale (1.3%) but the population is 17.4% Latinx. The production was filmed here in Albuquerque, where there is no shortage of Latinx talent.
The Asian characters are treated with so much racism and so little else it falls into the realm of satire. I hope to God a real woman in KJ’s (Chelsea Zhang) place would maintain both her self-respect and her well earned leadership role rather than give them both up to Just Plain Awful Josh. I could write an entire essay on the stereotypes in her treatment. She’s included to be Josh’s plaything and to save him when he’s thrown everyone else away. Then she becomes disposable to him when he thinks he gets a better offer, like the forgotten minority that she is.
Yet she still forgives him for everything, because he’s Just Josh. She’s such a male fantasy- Smart! Pretty!
She should have castrated him before he put anyone else in danger, since unlike Sam, she isn’t saddled with having to be nice all of the time.
Various physical disabilities are represented, mostly for laughs as people lose body parts and abilities to the apocalypse. Ms Crumble’s Traumatic Brain Injury and another character’s deafness are treated with some sensitivity, but that’s offset by a particularly insensitive slur which is used gratuitously.
The deaf character is also an opportunity for Just Josh to show off his ability with American Sign Language, learned while he was a regular on a children’s TV show. It’s supposed to be more proof of how amazing he is, but it feels like more evidence of his privilege and whininess. His backstory is no worse than any other character’s, but he feels that he’s suffered the most, and the narrative, by virtue of giving him first and last word, gives him that due.
He’s already whining about his life before the bombs drop, and only gets worse afterward. He supposedly has better survival skills than anyone else because he’s survived alone, but isn’t the ability to form and maintain membership in a tribe a survival skill itself? As the narrative shows, and does eventually grudgingly acknowledge, the ability to rig up solar panels is useless if you get sick then die because there was no one to take care of you.
Like many a Netflix show, the season rambles around some and focuses on character rather than plot for a while in the middle. I almost didn’t keep watching after the first 2 episodes, when Josh was the main narrator and focus. But in episode 3 the story finally broadens to include other points of view and stories. The camera leaves Josh behind completely for long periods of time to follow the rest of the core cast on their journeys, skillfully interweaving pre-apocalypse flashbacks with the current story. Those middle episodes were my favorites.
The visuals are well done, fun and a pop culture delight. Between the dialogue, the soundtrack and the visuals, there are too many pop culture references to catch, though I’m sure people are trying. There’s a sepia-toned cast to the light in Daybreak, which both reminds the viewer that these kids are still living off their nostalgia for the lost world and makes you wonder how the bombs have changed the environment. Overall, the production design is one of the best, most consistent parts of the show.
The kids construct their post apocalyptic society based on every movie and TV show they’ve ever seen, making Mad Max and The Walking Dead self fulfilling prophecies, until they aren’t. In this world, growing up means learning to be your real self and putting aside pretending to be a character in a movie.
Matthew Broderick has a ball both embodying these archetypes and being the fly on the wall pointing out that they’re playing out Lord of the Flies. The cast are all lovely and talented. They have good chemistry together, especially Krysta Rodriguez and Alyvia Alyn Lind. Austin Crute makes every scene better and commits 100% to his tortured gay samurai rōnin persona.
Colin Ford tries hard to make Josh likeable, but I find some of the character’s acts unforgivable, while the narrative and the character want to gloss over them. It’s the feeling I frequently get when watching shows made by wunderkind white guy creators, such as Bryan Singer, Seth Rogen or Seth McFarlane. There’s this atmosphere of smug self satisfaction, frat boy humor, and a shallow attempt to prove they can do right by people who aren’t privileged white men, an attempt which always ultimately fails because of self sabotage by lack of true empathy. It’s made clear that white alphas rule and others are there to be sacrificed or serve.
I always wonder why no one involved in these giant, expensive productions points out, somewhere along the way, how callous these shows actually look, but I’m sure it’s the Harvey Weinstein effect. Everyone whispers about the way they gaslight and denigrate people who don’t share the creators’ privilege, but everyone also knows that there’s no point in speaking up.
That last part is also due to the Wonder Woman Effect- the studio heads want women and others to continue to take 2nd or 3rd or 4th place, and will make sure the final edit subtly reflects their view, no matter who made the piece. Audiences are used to seeing the world portrayed this way, and fall for the gaslighting, so that the prejudice and oppression, though subtle, is normal and internalized. We’ve all been told, many times, we’re overreacting to a joke or something that wasn’t intended.
Which is why the end of the season was both perfect and completely disappointing. If there’s a season 2 of Daybreak, I’ll probably watch it, because I’m a glutton for punishment who can’t stop myself from looking at a train wreck. But I’m going to keep looking for more shows that aren’t train wrecks.
**SPOILERS FOR THE END OF THE SEASON**
I was thrilled when Sam told Josh to bugger off because she thinks he’s a jerk who was in love with a fantasy of womanhood and relationships rather than anything remotely real. That had been the obvious truth from the beginning to end of the season. She didn’t need him, didn’t like him all that much, and most of their relationship was in his head.
She mostly hung around with him because Burr told her to, but was too kind to tell him that. Then she enjoyed the attention he gave her, so she stuck around awhile. We didn’t actually get her backstory from her point of view- Sam is very good at appearing to tell you things about herself, but not really saying anything. But she clearly doesn’t have anyone at home, like most of these kids.
Her post it said “Where are you?” not “Save me” or “Find me” or “I need you”. It was a noncommittal question that could be answered with one or two words. Josh took the rest upon himself. For him to tell her she owed him because he’d been searching for her was just more male entitlement, this time of a kind not restricted to white guys.
For the show to insinuate that she’s evil because she became the leader at the end is misogyny, pure and simple. Josh is a terrible leader who was only chosen so that the schlubby guys at home on their couches can pretend they too have had a win, just like Turbo engineered a win when he needed one and pretended it was real. It’s the
white guy way- steal someone else’s stuff and pretend it’s yours, without remorse, because in your mind it should have been yours anyway, since the world owes you everything. That much about this show was real.
I’ve had men, not just white guys, steal my work off this blog who were probably telling themselves that very thing.
But Daybreak is only marginally self-aware that this method is wrong. That’s the problem. And the show seemed to think that Sam stole the leadership from Josh, when, in fact, we’d been shown Sam earning her leadership for the entire season by being nice to everyone, never picking sides in petty arguments, helping anyone who needed help and encouraging people to work together. And, importantly, paying attention in and out of class.
She kept up with all of this even when it wasn’t convenient or easy. She stayed at Josh’s house and worked through their argument after he was awful to her. I wish she hadn’t, but it shows her persistence and determination. Meanwhile, Just Josh kept to his mediocre self and frequently zoned out, lashed out or gave up and ran away. He had to be goaded into doing the right thing, giving someone else a chance or trying to work with others. Why would Sam want to bother with him? She doesn’t need a front man.
Sam Dean earned the trust of the entire school, one day at a time, all season long, through the niceness women are socialized into performing at all times. Good for her if she found a way to weaponize it. Her enemies will use everything they’ve got in order to beat her. So should she.
If Just Josh, as the representative of Nice Guy Incels everywhere, is beloved because he’s resourceful, quick thinking and can pull a team together, then why shouldn’t Sam Dean also be beloved for the same reason?? Why is she being set up as the next Big Bad in the Mad Max throne?
Because if the man and the woman are equally qualified or the woman is several degrees better, the man still deserves the win (and the woman herself, if he deems her body good enough for him). That’s the message virtually every aspect of Western culture is currently sending women. Apparently, we won’t be able to escape it when the world ends.
Image courtesy of Netflix.