As Netflix’s profits have begun to wane, some business analysts have argued that, when compared to rivals like HBO Max or Amazon Prime, Netflix has a “quantity over quality” problem with its content. Critics have joined this bandwagon, turning on the streaming service’s wide array of original material. This trend manifested itself most recently in the wake of the release of the television series Resident Evil, loosely based on the Capcom survival-horror video game from the 1990s. A week after its July 14th release, the show has been snubbed by critics, earning a 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as absolutely savaged by viewers who rated the show on that website, leaving a bloodbath of one-star reviews and an “Audience Score” of 26%.
Given the history of the Resident Evil movie franchise—six schlocky Milla Jovovich vehicles that contained, in total, exactly one memorable scene; one forgettable 2021 prequel—this kind of critical drubbing might be the expected outcome. And Resident Evil is not alone in using zombies as an excuse to deliver subpar entertainment. Indeed, as a paid-up member of the Zombie Research Society and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, I have devoured my fair share of the zombie oeuvre—and most of it is not very good at all.
In this instance, however, the critics have overreached. True, Resident Evil is not the second coming of The Wire. Like Amazon’s Reacher, however, the show is an improvement on the pre-existing films, and eminently binge-able. Indeed, it is more diverting than Black Summer, Netflix’s previous contribution to the zombie genre, and a relief compared to the unrelenting grimness of AMC’s The Walking Dead. And in casting Lance Reddick, the show exploits a secret weapon that puts it head and shoulders above most brain-dead television.
Over eight episodes, Resident Evil follows two plotlines. In 2036, the zombie apocalypse has happened and Jade Wesker (played by Ella Balinska) is traversing the globe trying to figure out how to stop it. On the run from the Umbrella Corporation, Jade investigates how the T-virus is mutating. The other plotline occurs in 2022, as teenage Jade (played by Tamara Smart) and her twin sister Billie (played by Siena Agudong) move to New Raccoon City, in South Africa, with their father, Reddick’s Albert Wesker, who is director of research at the Umbrella Corporation, which runs the town. Jade and Billie attempt some inept animal rights activism that eventually leads to the end of the world.
Not everything in this show clicks. The biggest problem is the character of Jade, who is, regrettably, super-annoying in both timelines. Teenage Jade is volatile and insufferable, an archetypal overprivileged suburban adolescent. In the future timeline, Jade keeps delivering variations of the line “This is all my fault,” as the calamities pile up. By the end of the show, I was nodding vigorously at that sentiment, even as the show’s other characters kept letting her off the hook.
Most of the show works quite well, however. The 2036 plotline will feel more familiar to fans of the zombie genre in general, and Resident Evil devotees in particular. Lots of post-apocalyptic action is afoot. The showrunners make smart use of extras at times, with the shots of large zombie hordes having the desired chilling effect. Lickers, an inventive artifact of the pre-existing Resident Evil universe, make a memorable cameo during a fraught attempt by refugees to use the Chunnel to escape the reach of Umbrella, which, in the post-apocalyptic world, seems mostly intent on acting (and dressing) in as fascistic a manner as possible.
The 2022 plotline, by contrast, operates as a paranoid thriller. It will be unsurprising to anyone vaguely familiar with Umbrella’s role in the Resident Evil franchise that the corporation town of New Raccoon City radiates malevolence (one character warns, “Umbrella does shady shit, like Facebook shady”). The Wesker girls navigate a new school and an Umbrella facility that contains many dangers. Because we know the lay of the land in 2036, the 2022 plotline has the added advantage of mystery. What happens to Jade’s sister Billie? What about Albert? Exactly what is Umbrella boss Evelyn Marcus (played by Paola Nunez) up to?
Of the two, the 2022 plotline is the more compelling one. Because we know that things will fall apart but not how they fall apart, a sense of dread permeates the entire narrative. And Umbrella is creepy enough on its own, before the living dead show up. The TV spots for Umbrella’s new “Joy” drug—think Paxil on steroids—are takeoffs of our familiar pharmaceutical advertisements that occupy the uncanny valley. The single most disturbing scene in the entire first season happens when a supporting character unknowingly takes the Joy drug. It’s not that it doesn’t work, but rather that it works all too well. (Cleverly, this is also the only time the word “zombie” is said.)
Most importantly, the 2022 plotline has Lance Reddick, God’s gift to genre, whether it’s sci-fi or the John Wick-verse. Reddick has always been able to act as if there is plenty going on beneath the surface; there’s a reason John Wick respects his character, Charon. Reddick effortlessly brings that authority to Netflix. In Resident Evil’s first episode, Reddick has a standout scene in which he confronts another parent in the principal’s office, in a meeting called after Billie gets in a fight with that parent’s child. When the scene starts, the other parent is berating Billie and threatening her with incarceration. Then Reddick enters the scene and shifts the entire vibe.
Without raising his voice, Reddick-as-Wesker spells out the precise power dynamic in the room, explaining just how valuable he is to Umbrella, as compared to everyone else. After Wesker threatens to have him blacklisted by every tech company, including PornHub, the other father meekly surrenders, even getting his daughter to apologize. After that scene, you can believe that Albert Wesker will defend his children, while also possessing the capacity to do Umbrella’s dirty work. But the character also has dimension. In the season’s penultimate episode, Reddick gets a surprising chance to flex his comedic muscles. There is an Olive Garden joke than kills—in a good way!
The show’s overarching theme is similar to much of the zombie canon: what humans will do to stay alive. One character says, “We’re Weskers. Self-preservation is what we do.” In contrast to the cynicism of George Romero or The Walking Dead franchise, however, Resident Evil hints at the possibility of grace in a fraught world. At one point Reddick’s character explains, “We’re all just doing our best in a world where it’s way too easy to do your worst.” As morals go in the zombie genre, that one is more hopeful than most.
The end of Resident Evil sets up a possible second season. Maybe Netflix’s woes will cause the service to cancel this show prematurely, as it did with the underrated Daybreak. I hope not, however. In a genre with a few highlights and a lot of dreck, Resident Evil offers up solid B-grade entertainment.