Filmmaker Gregg Araki has skirted the mainstream more than a few times since his early rise in the New Queer Cinema movement of the early ‘90s.
The USC film school graduate’s third feature, “The Living End,” was shot – sometimes “guerilla style” – for a mere $20,000. A kind of queer “buddy” movie, it was the story of two HIV-positive gay men who go on a nihilistic road trip after one of them kills a homophobic policeman; purposefully blurring the lines between comedy and drama, it was a groundbreaking cinematic statement about AIDS at the time. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, it’s now considered a cult classic.
His follow-up to that success was an ambitious series of films – now referred to as the “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” – which told three separate stories focusing on the lives of dysfunctional adolescents, most of them queer, or at least somewhere on the spectrum. Transgressive in tone and experimental in style, these tales of teen alienation and sexual ambiguity received polarizing reactions from critics and audiences; they were not widely seen, and their flawed reputation has been held against them outside of the director’s solid core of fans.
Since then, Araki has more than recovered from that perceived failure. His 2004 “Mysterious Skin” proved his skills as a director while introducing him to a whole new generation of young queer audiences, and a subsequent Cannes Festival prize – his 2010 “Kaboom” won the first-ever Queer Palm award – brought official luster to the “underground prestige” his name already enjoyed.
He’s also taken to working in television – including directing episodes of “13 Reasons Why” and “Riverdale,” which have helped to introduce him, yet again, to a new generation of queer fans, though they may not know his name or history.
It’s in this new medium that the director, more than 25 years after he began his controversial trilogy, has returned to the themes that drove it – this time with a decidedly comedic approach – with the self-referentially titled “Now Apocalypse,” which began its first ten-episode season March 10 on the cable network STARZ.
Set in Los Angeles, saturated in a palette that might be described as “blood-and-candy-colored,” and filled with unapologetically gratuitous nudity and sex, it’s the kind of edgy, youth-driven show that is sure to stir up a buzz – which has already happened, thanks to the inclusion of former “Teen Wolf” Tyler Posey in the cast, and his highly publicized role as half of a hot-and-heavy same-sex couple.
The series focuses on a group of LA twenty-somethings, centered around Ulysses (Avan Jogia), a former actor and artist who now believes those pursuits to be irrelevant and spends most of his time smoking pot and going from hook-up to hook-up with random guys; one of these, the elusive Gabriel (Posey), has sparked a growing obsession that may or may not be connected to the strange, hallucinatory premonitions he has begun to experience.
Ulyesses’ roommate, Ford (Beau Mirchoff), is his best friend from college, who came to LA to pursue a career in writing; good-natured and optimistic, he’s all beefcake – though to Ulysses’ eternal disappointment, he’s completely straight (as of the first episode, at least).
Ford is in a relationship with Severine (Roxane Mesquida), an “astro-biological theorist” who is much smarter than he is, which causes him a bit of endearing insecurity; rounding out the quartet of friends is Ulysses’ best gal pal and confidant, Carly (Kelli Berglund); a struggling actress, she makes ends meet by granting fetish-y requests to voyeuristic tricks as a video-cam girl online – while finding herself growing sexually distant from her own boyfriend, Jethro (Desmond Chiam).
These four characters provide a chance for Araki to explore the conflicts and quirks – sexual and otherwise – of post-millennial experience across multiple layers of the LA cultural landscape. Tying them all together is Ulysses, who claims to have a touch of the psychic about him; in the first episode, he serves as an engaging – though possibly unreliable – narrator, offering mysterious visions of a dark, other-worldly presence fast encroaching upon this sunlit, sexually-charged fantasy of life in the City of Angels. No spoilers here, but the first episode cliffhanger reveal will surely appeal to followers of the theories of David Icke.
What makes “Now Apocalypse” both edgy and commercial is the delicious mix of sex and sci-fi that it dwells within; there’s a giddy atmosphere of discovery evoked by this combination of youthful impulses, one that has long been co-opted from exploitation cinema into the canon of subversive, even radical filmmaking. In Araki’s version of it, it’s the sex part of the equation that gets most of the focus, at least for now, and he’s not being precious about it – episode one begins with an explicit-for-TV gay sex scene, right out of the gate, and that’s just the first of many in-your-face sexual moments. Indeed, there’s a joyous quality to the show’s sexual encounters, even though they tend to be frustrating for the characters involved; when things actually do come together for them (pun intended), it’s downright celebratory.
Even so, there’s a darkness in the show that comes from more than just the foreboding word choices of its title. When Ulysses tells Carly his unsettling visions suggest a world “teetering on the brink of total annihilation,” she tells him, “Well, that’s every fucking day now in this tragic shit show era we’re living in.” That line alone makes it clear; we may be at the beginning of a sci-fi scenario that will likely embrace its own ridiculousness, but it’s a stand-in for the circumstances we face in our own real world.
Fortunately, Araki populates his pseudo-dystopian allegorical fiction with a collection of fresh, attractive, sexually-and-ethnically diverse people who just might inspire the hope of endurance in the face of whatever strange, reptilian threat may be coming our way. There’s a spirit of rebellion to them that comes, perhaps, from their sexual adventurousness and fluidity – stripped of shaming, it becomes a self-actualizing path to claiming personal power long suppressed by our current cultural influences.
In a way, “Now Apocalypse” harks back to Araki’s first breakthrough – and not just in the recurring end-of-days theme that has woven through much of his work. The characters in “The Living End” chose to turn their backs on social restrictions and taboos in the face of an impending doom which they were powerless to prevent. That impulse, transformed by time and experience into a means of triumph, has come full circle with this new project, and has been reborn within a young generation who may not have faced all the old demons, but must be prepared to fight against new ones, nonetheless.
It remains to be seen whether the show can retain the heady sense of off-the-wall excitement its first installments have promised; given the confidence with which STARZ is promoting it, odds are good that it will live up to expectations. Either way, with his deft and savvy injection of inclusive, sex-positive storytelling into the mainstream culture, Gregg Araki has pushed one step further in the filmmaking journey he started all those years ago.