‘Black Summer’ is Style over Substance, and that’s Okay

I guess I should preface after that title that style over substance is not inherently a bad thing, I mean one of my favorite filmmakers is Nicolas Winding Refn so I can’t cast stones. But what I mean to set up here is that Netflix’s Black Summer could have easily been a derivative, nothing show if not for how ambitiously crafted it is. The premise of the show is simple and well-trodden: a group of survivors fight to survive during the early days of a zombie outbreak. The main thrust of the first season is Rose (Jaime King) trying to get to her daughter at the evac site in a downtown stadium. We’ve seen this story and these characters countless times. But in the very opening shot of the series, it’s clear that this is going to be a cut above.

Shot and edited to look like one long take that lasts a good ten minutes, the show states it’s intent forcefully. It’s now that I must disclose that I am the world’s biggest sucker for one take sequences. I love every single one that has ever existed. I am this show’s mark. Black Summer’s style hinges on two things: long one take sequences and excellent stunt work and choreography. That’s my kind of stew. Nearly every scene, it’s like they just sit down and figure out how they can do it in one long take, or as few takes as possible. They fragment out each episode into separate little vignettes that throughout each episode, effectively buildup to an almost puzzlebox setup of storytelling. You don’t get the whole picture until the episode ends. 

The characters and their motivations are pretty surface level, but don’t let that sound like a knock on the actors’ performances. They’re constantly performing intense, physical scenes and each bring authenticity to the characters to elevate the otherwise standard stereotypes they’re portraying. Jaime King gives a strong performance throughout. Justin Chu Cary gets to shine in his own episode in season two. Christine Lee is so damn effective, Bobby Naderi gives an understated performance as season two’s villain, and I was particularly drawn to Sal Velez Jr.’s performance in season one. Across the board, this is effective acting that elevates tired tropes of characters into something we get attached to. 

The man responsible for Black Summer’s distinct style choices is John Hyams. One of the more undervalued filmmakers out there, Hyams is probably best known for making the last two Universal Soldier direct-to-dvd action film sequels, 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration and 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Both are superbly made action films with terrific fight scenes, and it’s here we see Hyam’s stamp – long takes and excellent stunt work and choreography. Hyams makes both films a real cut above your standard expectations of a straight-to-dvd action film. (Disclosure: I love straight-to-dvd action films.) Day of Reckoning in particular is perhaps the most bravura, swing for the fences straight-to-dvd action film ever made. It’s somehow deeply spiritual, essentially making a Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? movie out of the Universal Soldier property. If Alfonso Cuarón was a straight to dvd action film director, he’d be something like John Hyams. Hyams brings the same philosophies to Black Summer, and it’s precisely why it’s as great as it is.

You spend much of Black Summer just in awe of how much they can pack into one long take. Gigantic firefights and battles will play out in one long take, and the magnitude of it all is mightily impressive for a show that doesn’t have Marvel or HBO money behind it. It outdoes the production value of shows with ten times its budget. It’s one of the more technically impressive and ambitious shows right now, and what they pull off from a technical aspect in each scene is on par or greater than something with the endless pockets of Disney. Two seasons in and it just feels like we’re only starting to reach the potential of what this show could be once the writing catches up enough with the practical filming of it. It overcomes the standard/non-existent character building and plot by simply outhustling on the technical end. Please give this show a shot and just marvel at the expert craft on display.

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