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What the zombies reveal about our true fears

The young man, who looks distinctly like a member of one of those roving gangs of the undead that you see a lot on TV these days, says, "I am a partially-deceased-syndrome sufferer." Indeed. What the young man, Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry), is really saying, to a doctor, is this: "I am not a zombie,"

In the Flesh (Saturday, Space, 10 p.m.) features Kieren as the central character. This much-praised BBC series takes an intriguingly earnest approach to the zombie genre. Set in the near future, it's about Kieren's attempt at rehabilitation and return to his home town and family. See, there was a sudden plague of the dead rising from their graves, feeding on the living, and causing a near civil war in England. Now, as the series opens, a cure has been found that can allow the "partially deceased" to function in society. That society is, of course, deeply suspicious and hostile to the once-dead, now-undead, moseying around like normal human beings.

What that means is that In the Flesh is about fear of others, intolerance, small-mindedness and the search for forgiveness. The great thing about the zombie genre is that it can be used for such multiple storytelling purposes. The same applies to the vampire and werewolf genres, but the zombie thing is the thing of the moment. The Walking Dead, the most important zombie drama, is a huge hit for multiple reasons – the horror-action, the tension, the allure of a world without order, communication or modern technology. In part it's about recreating society and culture from the ruins of destruction. The BBC series Being Human and its U.S. remake are the closest to In the Flesh in terms of theme. While not strictly a zombie drama, Being Human presents a vampire, werewolf and ghost as people trying to cope and fit into contemporary life.

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There's an awful lot going on with In the Flesh, which is both its strength and its flaw. It's a flaw if you're expecting traditional horror and dread. The kind of dread that does emerge is, for example, a young gay man's dread of coming out. Or an immigrant's horror at being forced to fit into a closed society that loathes him.

Kieren returns to his home village of Roarton, in northern England. Complications arise immediately. The village is dominated by a paramilitary group that fought against the undead during the crisis of roving zombie gangs preying on the living. Even Kieren's sister was a paramilitary fighter and doesn't want him back. The local vicar is one of the leaders of the forces outraged by zombies being reintegrated into normal life.

Thus we get wave after wave of multiple meanings. This village represents England; and its tensions represent fear of gays, fear of those with AIDS, fear of immigrants and the loathing of foreigners who are seen as a threat to a traditional way of life. The paramilitary group is a stand-in for right-wing political parties that are anti-immigrant and, essentially, anti-change.

For all of that, In the Flesh is poignant, moving and smart about family tensions and small-town life. While it's a horror-fantasy in some ways, reality is never far behind. It's a fine, delicately wrought entry into the ever-expanding zombie genre.

Also airing this weekend

My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me (Saturday, CBC documentary channel, 8 p.m.) is broadcaster Jane Hawtin's powerful doc about what Montreal writer and poet Gina Roitman discovered about her birth and background. Essentially it is about "the systematic murder of 52 Jewish babies in a displaced-persons camp in the American military zone after the end of the Second World War." Troubled by her mother's stories, Roitman returns to her birthplace, the German town of Passau. There, where young people today struggle with the stereotypes imposed on them because of Germany's past, she uncovers a truth so forbidding, she has to reassess everything she thought she knew about her own and her mother's history.

The 2013 Billboard Music Awards (Sunday, ABC, CTV, 8 p.m.) is totally pop, not rock music or anything remotely challenging. You can be sure everyone involved is promoting the summer song they want to get into your head. Tracy Morgan hosts. Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Pitbull, and Selena Gomez perform. Taylor Swift, Rihanna, fun., Maroon 5, and Carly Rae Jepsen compete for awards. But the big deal is a performance by Prince. Depending on his mood, it could be stunning or mystifying.

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North America (Sunday, Discovery, 9 p.m.) is narrated by Tom Selleck, of all people. The seven-part nature series about the continent is lovely-looking and, says Discovery, "captures a land where life collides with hostile, untamed wilderness in the most diverse, deadly environment on Earth." Where we live, in other words.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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