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New NBC show walks line between drama and comedy

By Devon Shuman, Senior Staff Writer

The apocalypse has become something of an obsession for writers and producers. From a storytelling standpoint, it's a simple, yet brilliant, premise.

When your characters are navigating an unpopulated Earth, void of the chaos of everyday society, it suddenly becomes much easier to characterize them and construct an intriguing narrative, all while making a sophisticated commentary on the nature of humanity. On the other hand, it can be a risky genre, as bad apocalypse stories (e.g. M. Night Shymalan's disastrous film "The Happening") are often exceptionally bad, lacking strong characters or any sense of direction.

The latest attempt to successfully navigate the genre is "You, Me and the Apocalypse," which premiered in the U.K. last fall and is now airing in the U.S. on NBC. The pilot episode opens with a diverse group of characters huddled in an underground bunker as they watch the world ending on TV. It then jumps back 34 days to chart the three storylines that led them to the bunker.

There's a British banker named Jamie (Matthew Baynton) who is suspected of being the leader of a cyberterrorism group called Deus Ex Machina. Despite the mountain of evidence against him, his solid alibis and quiet demeanor quickly make it clear that he can't be who the police think he is.

In the Vatican, a humble nun named Sister Celine (Gaia Scodellaro) begins working with the delightfully vulgar Father Jude (Rob Lowe) in the recently reopened office of the Devil's Advocate. Far from a typical priest, Jude works diligently to confirm the legitimacy of Christian miracles and, in general, call BS on the Church as needed.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Rhonda MacNeil (Jenna Fischer) is sent to a New Mexico prison after taking the fall for her son who was charged with treason by the NSA. While locked up, she meets Leanne (Megan Mullally), a white supremacist who offers her protection in the cutthroat world of prison.

With this initial set up, "You, Me and the Apocalypse" (YMATA) immediately draws in viewers in. Despite the ostensible independence of these three storylines, we know that the characters will eventually all end up in that bunker, so we are left guessing how they are all connected. This element of mystery effectively drives the plot forward.

There are some overused character tropes at play here, such as the timid suburbanite who, after losing his wife, craves a life of monotony and structure. But, with only one episode under their belt, the writers have plenty of time to flesh out the characters. Not to mention, the characters who already seem to have found themselves more than pick up the slack.

Rob Lowe leads the pack as Father Jude. If the image of a chain-smoking, potty-mouthed priest wasn't humorous enough, Lowe piles it on with rapid-fire witticisms that poke fun at the conservatism of the Catholic Church.

"Do you find the phrase 'Christ on a bike' offensive," he asks Sister Celine. "Because I just used it in a meeting and you would have thought that I'd performed an abortion on the table."

Hidden behind the mask of sarcasm and tobacco smoke, however, is a man who clearly believes in his work. Lowe crafts a sympathetic character by successfully achieving this delicate balance.

The most frustrating aspect of "YMATA," apart from its title's lack of an oxford comma, is Jenna Fischer. I was eager to see her in a role outside of "The Office," but even though I was seeing her in a prison cell and not behind a desk, I still felt like I was watching Pam Beesly.

It's undoubtedly a different character, but Fischer is playing her the same way, balancing a general reserve and humility with brief sparks of passion and enthusiasm. At times she reveals a unique arrogance, such as when she simultaneously flips off Leanne and the leader of the Latina gang, but if she really wants to develop this role, she will need to build on that arrogance and bring the right amount of depth to the character.

At this point, "YMATA" seems unsure as to whether it's a comedy or a drama - but that's a good thing. Apocalypse stories often see these genres as mutually exclusive. Without a lot of humor, "The Walking Dead" gets dry at times while, sticking solely to comedy, "The Last Man on Earth" lacks a meaningful plot. By toeing this line, "YMATA" can achieve a perfect blend of the two.

Furthermore, unlike many other major network comedies, "YMATA" seems to understand that jokes work best not when they're aggressively stuffed down your throat, but ratherwhen they're subtly passed across the table, inviting you to dig in.

There's certainly room for improvement, but the pilot episode provides the building blocks for a potentially great dark comedy.

3.5/5 stars