If you watched the first two episodes of Netflix's post-apocalyptic high school comedy Daybreak, you probably felt like you knew what to expect. Sure, whatever dangers await in the Mad Max-esque wasteland of Glendale, California, are a surprise, but no doubt our stalwart protagonist Josh Wheeler will survive them and find his missing girlfriend Sam, all while breaking the fourth wall to let the audience know what's happening.
Except then Episode 3 starts, and suddenly Josh isn't the main character. Instead, one of his companions, 12-year-old Angelica, takes the reins. A one-off? Nope, because Episode 4 is Principal Burr's time to shine, and in Episode 5 RZA narrates Wesley's story. You'd be forgiven, though, if a lifetime of white male TV protagonists trained you into thinking Daybreak would follow suit.
"You thought this was just Josh's story? The cis white male guiding you through the end of the world?" Angelica says in Episode 3 when she takes over. "TV testing says people like a warm gravity blanket of familiarity so they can second-screen their Insta feed."
"Leading with, you know, the cis white male — he's the perfect lead. He's exactly who you would expect," explained Executive Producer Aron Eli Coleite during an interview with SYFY WIRE at New York Comic Con ahead of the series premiere. "And, as Angelica says, he's this blanket of conformity that you're used to, that we are using to lull you into this state where you think you know what you're gonna get."
The decision to make Josh a decoy protagonist isn't just wokeness, although Daybreak is very clear about putting its progressive, diverse, anti-gun bona fides front and center. It also shakes the audience out of whatever complacency they might've been developing, offering new points of view and stylistic choices.
"Nothing is what the audience expects it to be, and that's our hope," added fellow EP Jeff Fierson.
By focusing on other characters, Daybreak gets to tell different stories, like that of bully-turned-samurai pacifist Wesley Fists. That character description certainly sounds fresher than "cool outcast looking for his love interest" (no offense, Josh), and it lets Daybreak explore some interesting cultures and archetypes.
Wesley is very much of the tradition of black kung fu fandom, and Coleite especially credits one of the series' writers, Calaya Stallworth, with educating his fellow showrunners about the connection. When RZA came in to record narration for Wesley's episode, Fierson says that the dialogue they had for him was echoing the recent Showtime documentary series about the Wu-Tang Clan.
"Half of the things we're saying in this show about [black kung fu] the Wu-Tang is saying through that documentary about why they embrace kung fu, where it came from," Fierson recalled.
"It's not like we're not doing a TED Talk," explained Brad Peyton, another EP. "We're able to do it through a fascinating fashion, really through Wesley's POV. You needed to be educated about why he loves kung fu."
Even when the other "main" characters aren't sneakily offering cultural history legends, they're still able to take Daybreak places that it couldn't go; it was just focused on Josh and his journey — which the creators admit is intentionally a little trite ("a quest to find the love of my life, my girlfriend in high school," Fierson knowingly called it).
Josh's story remains the ostensible backbone of the show, but Daybreak makes its post-apocalyptic world a more surprising place when it doesn't limit itself to his experience.
"What I want as an audience is to be surprised at every as that every step of the way. I want to feel that the storytellers have control over the narrative and that you're going to surprise me," Coleite said, and in a series full of surprises, Daybreak's third-episode protagonist twist might just be the biggest.