(Jenna Fischer, Megan Mullally) (Photo: NBC)

On the surface, You, Me And The Apocalypse looks like a wacky romp playing on broad tropes: Rob Lowe in a cassock as a world-weary, potty-mouthed promotor fidei—a literal Devil’s Advocate—interviewing radiant, sheltered Sister Celine (Gaia Scodellaro), Megan Mullally Pensatuckyed up and then some, a tightly wound bank employee (Mathew Baynton) and a quiet librarian (Jenna Fischer) accused of international cyber-terrorism. Then, to compound human chaos with astronomical chaos, a comet is knocked off its harmless path, now hurtling toward Earth, where its impact will cause an extinction-level event in 34 days.

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This 10-episode miniseries could easily be a little pat, a little flat, and a little too flip as it kisses goodbye to Earth. But in its premiere, You, Me And The Apocalypse exploits the epic possibilities of its premise, taking advantage of its hour-long format to create an expansive, lived-in world. The show hits its beats with assurance, and if some of those beats are a little telegraphed, it’s not the end of the world. (Except it is the end of the world.) When the Devil’s Advocate repeats that his applicant should be tenacious and thick-skinned, he ordains their interview to end with Sister Celine’s spunky comeback, and his satisfied “When can you start?” Mrs. Winton’s announcement that “I only have one son” and the police evidence of an exact DNA match add up to Jamie asking somberly, “Mum? What aren’t you telling me?”

If “Who Are These People?” has a major flaw, it’s that tendency to telegraph and broaden. When buttoned-down Jamie Winton (Baynton) times his morning soft-boiled egg with two clocks and his housemate Dave (Joel Fry) does everything possible to disrupt that routine, the message is obvious; Dave actually saying “Embrace the chaos!” is overkill. But in a show of this scope, it’s forgivable—even desirable—to boldly signal character and themes. Like that comet, this story is big, and it’s hurtling toward us at 27 miles per second.

Even amid foreshadowing, the episode builds tension, large and small, with simple dramatic omissions, never cheating its audience, but letting us dangle in suspense. Terrified librarian Rhonda McNeil (Fischer) tiptoes through her first day behind bars—greeted by fellow inmates as “quite the celebrity,” lawyer reminding her “the charge stands at treason”—before it’s revealed she’s charged with hacking the NSA, and that she’s covering for her teenaged son. Sister Celine dashes off to an interview without a hint that she’ll end up at the Vatican. Jamie’s mourning for his lost love hangs in the air long before we learn that the mystery of Layla’s disappearance haunts him as much as her memory.

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Then there’s the episode’s biggest tension. The show starts in a bunker, where its occupants—weeping, praying, screwing, or staring blankly at a TV screen—count down the seconds until the end of the world… then cuts to 34 days earlier. That breathless, apocalyptic dread hangs over the entire episode, and could hang over the entire miniseries.

“For the record, I would’ve chosen this for you.” (Photo: NBC)

“Who Are These People?” is an apt title for an episode introducing central characters and hangers-on, but there’s more to it. You, Me And The Apocalypse succeeds because it’s about more than a wacky disaster. It cares who these people are and what they care about. The first-episode characterizations are necessarily brief, but they’re intimate, too. Fischer gives a glimpse of the verve buried under Rhonda’s fear when, thinking she’s made bail, she flips double birds to the gangs she’s caught between. As Sister Celine points out, Father Jude’s irreverence is a defense mechanism, but he’s warm and earnest when he commends her crisis of faith because “there’s no faith without doubt.” Even the barely-named DCI Higgs (Natasha Gordon) gets a touch of personality, abandoning the Slough police station as the world goes mad, but not before packing up her cactus and running shoes.

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Maybe the biggest surprise is Mullally’s Leanne, the white-supremacist prisoner trying to take Rhonda under her wing. The juxtaposition of her big gold cross pendant and the cruder, crueler symbol of the swastika scrawled on her forehead packs a wallop of foreboding, but it’s her eyes and the set of her mouth that spooked me. Mullally’s familiar glittering, sometimes frantic sparkle is subdued here, and Leanne’s seasoned practicality, her grim silences, and her occasional breezy asides make for an uneasy, weirdly maternal mixture.

You, Me And The Apocalypse is impressively cinematic in its presentation, not just in the global reach as it jumps from New Mexico to Slough to Vatican City, but in its elegant, eloquent visuals. Before the revelation of his unknown twin wreaking havoc out in the world, Jamie is repeatedly shown doubled: talking to his own image in the webcam as he records his 2,610th message to Layla, observed through a one-way mirror as his interrogation plays out on a nearby laptop, and most strikingly, slamming himself against that mirror as he screams “She’s my wife! I have a right to know!”

“She’s my wife! I have a right to know!” (Mathew Baynton) (Photo: NBC)

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Other scenes are as striking: the overhead view of Rhonda at a dining-hall table, isolated until she’s swarmed with antagonists; Father Jude shrouded in his own smoke as he sits in his cluttered, shadowy office, questioning Sister Celine with avuncular antagonism and declaring miracles to be “bullcrap”; the hands of frantic prisoners silhouetted against security glass, clamoring for freedom as the President intones the planet’s doom in the foreground and White Horse breaches security to carry off Rhonda. (“We’d like to wish you a pleasant future, however short that may be, and if I may, I’d just like to say the words penal system over a loudspeaker again.”)

This comedy embraces the high drama and frank emotion of its premise, giving its humor and its characters depth. Though You, Me And The Apocalypse portends the death of an entire planet, it’s the details of their lives that tie these people together, and that make them and their stories matter. Like that comet, each of them—each of us—is hurtling through the universe, ready to be knocked off their trajectory and into disaster or joy by any random connection.

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Stray observations

  • The Slough location seems like a tip of the hat to The Office.
  • It amazes me that Jenna Fischer doesn’t have a mantel full of Emmys, an oversight I attribute to her naturalism in even the most absurd comic scenarios. One of my favorite quiet jokes in this episode is Rhonda vigorously nodding at her lawyer’s appalling news as she says, “I don’t understand.”
  • “You’re like that woman in the book.” “You might have to narrow that down for me.” “The cobwebby one.” “Spiderwoman?”
  • In addition to its cataclysmic tensions, You, Me And The Apocalypse seeds smaller questions throughout its first episode. When White Horse busts Rhonda out of Fort Bellfield Penitentiary, she’s wearing standard-issue yellow. So how does she end up in a blaze orange Death Row uniform in our first glimpse of her, 34 days later in the bunker?
  • “Yep, it’s Judgment Day. The actual apocalypse. And where am I? I’m deep under the suburbs of suburbia, watching it on telly.” I appreciate the cheekiness of a TV show whose first lines indict the act of watching the world go by (or go BOOM) on television.

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