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It says something about the state of the news that Daybreak, Netflix’s new series about an actual apocalypse, feels like cheery escapism. To be fair, though, it’s not just that real-life society is so messed up that doing away with all that seems almost enticing; the post-apocalyptic setting of Daybreak also seems a whole lot more fun than your average wasteland.
“I'm tired of smelly apocalypses now, because it just looks like it smells,” Jeff Fierson, one of Daybreak’s executive producers, told SYFY WIRE during New York Comic Con. “Don't you want a fresh, clean-smelling apocalypse?”
“Don't you want a little pop of red in there?” adds fellow EP Brad Peyton, alluding to the washed-out, brown-and-gray palette of most post-apocalyptic shows. “A little bit of blue, maybe?”
Daybreak, which is based on Brian Ralph’s comic series of the same name, follows a group of high school students in Glendale, California, after some sort of nuclear holocaust destroys most of civilization. Everybody over the age of 18 who didn’t die in the blasts has instead been turned in a shambling, zombie-like creature. Naturally, it’s up to the teens to rebuild society as high schoolers would do, splitting up into Mad Max-style gangs based on their old cliques (watch out for the jocks, as always). But pretty much every character is making the most of it.
“That's probably what we all wish happened to us in high school. Like, get me outta here!” Peyton says. “Oh, the apocalypse happened? Great! I'll get a samurai sword and drive a Ferrari!”
The elevator pitch for Daybreak is essentially “Mad Max meets Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and Ferris Bueller himself, Matthew Broderick, even features in Daybreak as Principal Burr in the many pre-apocalypse flashbacks. But don’t think that logline is all there is to the series. The showrunners are aware of your expectations (they cast Broderick, after all), and they aim to subvert them.
“We know that the audience is actually very genre-literate. They've watched everything, we've watched everything,” says Aron Eli Coleite, the third executive producer and co-creator alongside Peyton. “So we're now at this place where we can actually comment on all of it at the same time. If we want to do something fresh and reinventive we have to subvert everything. If you know where the story is going, we have to make it twist.”
Part of the way Daybreak does this is by ensuring that there’s always more to its characters than you’d initially assume. Josh Wheeler (Colin Ford) is the ostensible main character on a quest to find his girlfriend, Sam (Sophie Simnett), who has been missing since the bombs fell. Wesley Fists (Austin Crute) is a reformed bully who has abandoned the jocks in favor of becoming a pacifist samurai who's steeped in the tradition of black kung fu. Angelica Green (Alyvia Alyn Lind) is a little younger than the others, but the formerly home-schooled girl is a genius, if not necessarily well adjusted.
“We kind of made our D&D campaign of, like, who do you put together, and what are their superpowers, and how do they all need each other and complete one another?” Coleite says of the main group.
All three main characters — and almost every other character who rounds out this sunny, post-apocalyptic world — have surprising depths and twisty backstories (and it would be a shame to spoil them any further). It makes for exciting, unpredictable television, but the creators say it’s also true to high school, in that these characters are figuring out who they really are.
“This is a high school show for all intents and purposes, and in watching a high school show, you want to watch a coming of age,” Fierson says. “The backdrop of our coming-of-age story is the apocalypse. And these kids have to start the world over again, and they're going to have to create the world in their own image.”
Amid all the twists, turns, and hilarious fourth-wall-breaking, Daybreak doesn’t forget the stakes — the end of the world can’t be all fun and games, after all. The adults-turned-zombies (known as Ghoulies) are a deadly threat, as are some of the conflicts between rival high school gangs. Still, Daybreak’s apocalypse is mostly a chill hang, except for when it isn’t.
“We knew that we wanted a world that felt dangerous, but we didn't want it to feel so dangerous or focused on survival,” Payton says of the show’s balance between the amusing and the apocalyptic. “It became less fun, you know?”
Save the nitty-gritty of the end of the world for The Walking Dead, The Rain, The 100, or any number of more-serious shows in the genre. Daybreak’s creators say most of those shows are doing a great job of what they’re trying to do — it’s just not Daybreak’s vibe.
“The news is bad every single day. So let's not do that. And it feels like the world is ending,” Peyton says. “We need to escape someplace where we feel like there's some hope and there's some optimism and there's some fun and it's a show that you want to watch and want to binge and it's a world that we want to be a part of. So it made sense to make the apocalypse the best place.”
Catch Daybreak when it hits Netflix on Oct. 24.