If John Hughes had ever written a teen-centric story set in the aftermath of the apocalypse, it might’ve looked something like Daybreak. The post-nuclear war high school comedy may not have the actual Hughes to help craft its end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario, but it does owe the late filmmaker an enormous debt of gratitude.
A cheeky teenage comedy set in a bizarre Southern California following a nuclear attack, Daybreak wears its genre inspirations on its sleeve. That approach is evident in everything from its casting of Matthew Broderick as the high-strung high school principal Burr to its mashup of various elements of popular culture; namely, the zombies and irradiated mutants and hyper-violent tribes of survivors who terrorize the not-so lone survivors of the apocalypse. In that regard, Daybreak could have exercised greater self-restraint in choosing which elements it wanted to include in its literal teenage wasteland. Instead, the nuked-out SoCal setting feels at times like a glib pastiche of elements drawn from the work of George Romero, George Miller, and Richard Matheson — among others — only to then be filtered through the fourth-wall-breaking, extraordinarily self-involved lens of one Ferris Bueller.
In this case, the Ferris Bueller analogue is Josh Wheeler (Coin Ford), a totally average C-student and recent transfer to Glendale, who, despite being mostly forgettable addition to his high school, finds he excels in the day-to-day survival of the end of the world. Josh’s direct address to the audience becomes the primary device through which series creator Brad Peyton introduces this particular world, turning the protagonist into a mix between a would-be leading man and a tour guide of the apocalypse. For his part, Josh is all too happy to participate. In the six months since the world ostensibly came to a screeching halt — an end that’s attributed to a certain world leader’s unhinged Twitter tirades — Josh has become something of a lone wolf, moving from shelter to shelter, avoiding dangerous gangs, gigantic mutated pugs, and the bloodthirsty rage monsters (not zombies, exactly) almost every adult has turned into, while turning the audience into his only friend. That is, until he forms an unlikely tribe of his own, as he searches for Samaira “Sam” Dean (Sophie Simnett), his crush who disappeared in the fallout of the nuclear blast.
Nothing in Daybreak makes much sense. The show has an almost gleeful disregard for logic, which is understandable as reason would get in the way of what it’s mostly concerned with: a familiar brand of ‘00s-era withering snark and eye-rolling disdain toward anyone not in on the joke. The approach eschews things like a backstory for Josh (at least right away), and instead has him spouting somewhat hackneyed bromides about how high school life is a lot like the apocalypse. (Though, to be fair, a joke about how many kids in his high school are named Jayden is pretty funny.)
This approach actually works in the show’s favor, as Daybreak seeks to compare a heavily pop-culture inspired vision of the end of the world to a heavily pop-culture inspired vision of high school. The comparison is obvious to the point of being generic, but, thankfully, it is not without certain charms. Those charms come mostly in a compact, possibly psychotic package known as Angelica — because even names are laced with irony in this world — a pint-sized terror played by Alyvia Alyn Lind, who winds up joining Josh on his quest after falling victim to a group of violent, obnoxious dorks formerly known as the school’s golf team.
Angelica is a chaotic counterpoint to Josh’s more methodical, even-handed guide to living in the apocalypse. Meanwhile, Wesley Fists (Austin Crute), Josh’s letterman jacket-wearing bully has gone full samurai — perhaps in another ironic nod to the series’ awareness of things like cultural appropriation and whitewashing — adorning himself in the attire of his pop-cultural obsession. Like Angelica, he joins a reluctant Josh on his quest to find Sam, and, well, carve out some sort of sustainable existence in the new world order.
Daybreak’s intent is to have fun with its genre excesses, almost to the point of being a spoof of the very films and television shows it’s so heavily inspired by and/or constantly making reference to. In that regard, it’s arguably more entertaining and successful than Netflix’s recent The Society, which also pitted teens against one another in a topsy-turvy world. For one, Daybreak is intentionally trying to be funny. The success of that endeavor will likely vary greatly among those watching, as snark, it could be argued, has supplanted punning as the lowest form of wit.
But, much like its protagonist, Daybreak doesn’t claim to be smart — a kind of preemptive defense against inevitable criticisms — instead it revels in its appropriation of familiar genre ideas and cliches about high school cliques and teenage tribalism. It’s not an entirely unsuccessful combination, as Daybreak excels in another area, one familiar to Netflix subscribers: that of being bingeable above all else.
Daybreak season 1 premieres Thursday, October 24, exclusively on Netflix.