Alien Lizards, provocative pansexual revelry, undertones of doom, and a fresh-faced cast of rising stars — yep, it must be Gregg Araki! The filmmaker behind many a cult classics brings his flair to TV in the new series Now Apocalypse and it’s every kind of crazy you’d expect. Araki brings the playful, candy-colored queerness and decadent weirdness of his films to the small screen with the new half-hour sex comedy/alien invasion sci-fi created executive produced by Steven Soderbergh that launches (appropriately) on Starz this weekend.
An essential auteur of New Queer Cinema (the filmmaking movement that also launched careers of the likes of Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and Jamie Babbit), Araki spent decades making some of the most provocative and idiosyncratic films on the indie scene. His hypersexual, drug-fueled, and sometimes shockingly violent tales captured the exploits of teenagers and twenty-somethings hellbent on living life to the fullest, always with his dreamy, hallucinogenic lens and snappy, profanity-laden dialogue delivered by swooning teens and famous faces in the making.
If Araki has always been fascinated by the explosive passions of youth, he’s equally fixed on a sense of impending doom, beginning with the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy that made him an indie icon — Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997) — and as recently as 2010’s Kaboom. Whether he’s tackling the subject through the lens of HIV, Y2K, or millennial malaise, Araki’s always kept a finger on the pulse of apocalyptic anxiety. “In these fucking dark and scary times, it’s easy to adopt a ‘what difference does it make?’ attitude, so I often find myself in these situations where my heart’s pounding so fast I can barely breathe and I can’t tell if it’s excitement or terror or both.” So goes the first line of Now Apocalypse, but it could just as well be a thesis on his own work.
Araki made his directorial transition to the TV medium in recent years after a number of failed attempts to get a series off the ground. But highlight episodes of teen hits like Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why harnessed the filmmaker’s gift for youth culture, and with Now Apocalypse, he finally gets to put his stamp on a series of his own. The result is a bright and boisterous B-movie spin on a Sex and the City-tinged comedy of sexual errors that infuses the familiar half-hour format with Araki’s signature cocktail of paranoid hedonism. Which is to say, it’s extra af and very happy to be so, thank you very much.
Araki and Starz are a match made in heaven, as his anarchic eroticism is right at home on a network built around pushing boundaries and, frankly, pornifying prestige TV. Araki is also joined on the creative end by co-writer Karley Sciortino, the sex and relationship writer for Vogue’s Breathless column and the creator of the fearlessly sex-positive brand Slutever, which started as a website before spawning a book and a fascinating VICE docuseries of the same name. The pair make perfect bedfellows; both committed to an all-inclusive appetite for human sexuality and treating the subject with too rare candor, which is no doubt why Now Apocalypse thrives when it leans into the sex and romance elements of the story and the charm of the young actors throwing their all behind the madness.
Assembling a cast culled from teen dream heartthrobs and Instagram heavyweights, Now Apocalypse centers on one of Araki’s signature archetypes: another wandering burnout sweetheart in the mold of Nowhere‘s Dark (Jimmy Duvall) or Kaboom‘s Smith (Thomas Dekker). This long-haired, sexually fluid hipster is Ulysses (Avan Jogia, Nickelodeon’s Victorious), or Uly for short. A lost and lonely post-collegiate millennial who can’t find a sense of direction in the imperiled 21st Century dating and art scene. “Movies are even more irrelevant now than books,” Ulysses laments, “and thanks to Instagram, art and photography…all that’s pretty much obsolete now too.” Naturally, he turns to vlogging, hookups and Tinder dates. On the stranger side of things, he also falls down the rabbit hole of YouTube conspiracy theories after having visions of lizard people and an apocalyptic alien invasion.
Ulysses also has a secret crush on his himbo BFF and roommate Ford ( a scene-stealing Beau Mirchoff, from MTV’s Awkward); “a rare Kinsey zero” and an aspiring screenwriter who seems utterly unaware of the effect his bulging muscles, glimmering grin, and sculpted chest hair seems to have on everyone around him, regardless of age or gender. Ford is a doting boyfriend to his statuesque and anti-monogamous girlfriend Severine (Roxane Mesquida, bringing a new slant to secretive femme fatale type she played for Araki in Kaboom). Ford is head over heels and wants to commit, but Severine is all logic and polyamory, not to mention a brilliant scientist working for a company that seems to have some conspiratorial skeletons in their closet. Finally, there’s Carly (Kelli Berglund, Disney XD’s Lab Rats), Uly’s other best friend; an aspiring actress who stays cash rich as a cam girl and online dominatrix. Portraying a character inspired Sciortino, Berglund is a sharp-tongued highlight of the series, handed the best of Araki’s signature zero-fucks-given one-liners — a contoured and highlighted Instagram-age update on Amy Blue with sass and smarts to spare.
Araki and Sciortino also point their wry satire at the vapid vultures of Hollywood, who chew up and spit out the young, talented, and beautiful. The supporting cast is packed with lecherous, Weinstein-adjacent deviants eager to abuse their position and power to take advantage of the farm-fresh babes hungry for fame, acclaim, and meaning. Now Apocalypse is in no way a meditation on the Me Too movement, but Araki has been shining his strange light on the abuses of youth for decades, especially in light of the excesses of Hollywood. As ever, Araki is also eager to highlight the absurdities of Tinsel Town, giving his fantastic cast of actors opportunities to deliver delicious deadpan takedowns. “A good actor can express anything, even complicated mathematical equations, by simply moving their eyeballs,” says Carly’s self-important acting coach in a particularly overt moment of skewering.
Now Apocalypse is best when it’s fun and breezy (and yes, very very sexy), though it doesn’t cut as deep or feel as consistent as some of Araki’s most enduring films, it’s also a lighter, easier watch than some of his more provocative outings. There’s still a whiff of nihilism to it all, the sense that anyone with half a brain can’t help but feel like it’s all about to come toppling down, but there’s not as much of the volatile emotions and churning anger in some of Araki’s earlier works. The 59-year-old filmmaker may not be in the throes of juvenile angst anymore, but he hasn’t lost his empathy for it either — that endless fascination with the follies of youth and the search for self-discovery fuels the best moments of the series. Now Apocalypse zips and zings when its characters are making wild swings at self-exploration, or in the aftermath when Ulysses and Carly are gabbing about their follies over sun-soaked brunches. Araki still has a gift for queer masculinity and empowered female sexuality — forget about slut shaming, Araki doesn’t shame sluts, he honors them — and as a filmmaker who always refused to label or box in his characters, Araki has finally been handed the reins to a series when culture is catching up with his irreverent refusal to play by normative rules.
But even in the age of sex-positivity, dick pics, and dating app culture, Araki still pushes boundaries and, as ever, his work is not for everyone. There is no doubt that Now Apocalypse will leave some (perhaps most?) cold with its confounding weirdness and commitment to explicit sexuality. Even for Araki enthusiasts, there’s no denying the quality wavers, and in the first five episodes provided to the press. Now Apocalypse often loses the thread of the larger plot and sometimes forgets to be a sci-fi series at all. But that’s very on-brand for Araki, who’s never been a plot-driven filmmaker, and the good significantly outweighs the bad — especially for Araki completists, who will be thrilled to get a series-length dose of his unique sensibilities, not to mention several callbacks to his previous works. Yes, the alien lizard from Nowhere, the silly-sweet romance of Splendor, but there are plenty of other parallels, be it themes, iconography, or character archetypes that reward the dedicated viewer of Araki’s resume. At times the series feels like a culmination of his career… a buffet of payoff for those of us who’ve been savoring every morsel along the way.
You probably know by now whether or not this show is for you (you probably knew a few paragraphs ago), and if it’s not, fair enough. Araki has always fired at a small target. But if you’re one of the queer kids, punks, stoners, or outcasts that found a rare place to thrive in the filmmaker’s unconventional bullseye, Now Apocalypse is a welcome update on his familiar motifs with a “fuck it” panache that feels right at home in 2019.
Now Apocalypse premieres Sunday, March 10th on Starz.