Although its overtly sexy overtones may indicate the contrary, Starz’s bizarrely intriguing new half-hour series “Now Apocalypse” isn’t simple to categorize. Officially it’s described as a “coming-of-age comedy” that follows a group of millennials living in Los Angeles as they navigate the ever-morphing landscape of dating and romance.
One might also describe it as a 10-part experimental film that wrestles with existential crises. And this is before the central character stumbles across a bi-pedal lizard (or more accurately, a guy in a rubbery lizard costume) banging some dude.
Let's start with what we know: Our wandering and perpetually stoned hero, appropriately named Ulysses (Avan Jogia), begins having frightening visions of . . . something weird? This happens when Uly sleeps, as he’s climaxing with various hot pieces, in many places and during odd situations. His snarky best friend and confidante Carly (Kelli Berglund) aspires to be taken seriously as an actress but pays the bills as a webcam model.
His roommate Ford (Beau Mirchoff) is a good-natured himbo who doesn’t let his deficiency as a deep-thinker get in the way of pursuing success as a screenwriter. Ford is dating a minimally emotive French woman, Severine (Roxane Mesquida), who works in a lab populated by unnaturally beautiful people, including twins. Maybe they’re all robots. Who knows?
Along the way, and pretty much within the first minute of the series opener, everyone is having sex. Bad sex, great sex, sex in the context of relationships, no-strings-attached sex facilitated by mobile apps. Sex that makes holes rip open in the universe. Sex brought to one character by a delivery man. Sex that is only pleasurable to another, Ford, if he says "I love you."
They’re also philosophizing about attraction and the why of it all, tossing out banter that casually incorporates phrases about the female gaze and the Kinsey scale and terms such as “flexisexual,” along with questioning the validity of Coachella.
If “Now Apocalypse” weren’t created by film festival king Gregg Araki, director of such films as “The Doom Generation” and “Mysterious Skin,” alongside “Slutever” host and Vogue sex columnist Karley Sciortino, one might be tempted to write it off as the sort of soft-core skin flick premium cable channels used to slide into their schedules after 11 p.m. to keep the lights on.
The fact that it does evoke such programming may or may not be intentional. Anyway, it’s on Sundays at 9 p.m. — that’s prime-time to you, me and the teenagers sneaking off to watch it — and its cast are legitimately talented actors, including alumni of several teen-targeted shows. (“Awkward” viewers may recognize Mirchoff from that wonderful MTV series, for example.)
A few episodes in “Breaking Bad” alumnus R.J. Mitte shows up. Sooner than this, Henry Rollins emerges as a player in the story. By the time these guest stars appear you're likely to have a lot of questions about what in the heck is happening on your TV screen.
I know I did upon viewing “Now Apocalypse” for the first time about a month at ago. Luckily a few hours later I was able to sit down with Araki and Sciortino, appearing at part of a press conference to support the series, and coax out a few answers and clarifications. What follows is our conversation, the text of which has been lightly edited for clarity.
To get us started, at this point I've seen a couple of episodes of “Now Apocalypse.”
Gregg Araki: Only two?
Yes. But I watched them very closely, and I watched each twice. So believe that I am very serious when I say: Please tell me exactly what it is that I watched.
Araki: "What the hell is this?"
Karley Sciortino: "What is that show?"
Obviously I want to talk to you about some specific points that I pulled out, but since I have you here, I’ve gotta ask. Seriously, what is it that I just watched?
Araki: I've been making independent films for the last 25 or 30 years, and I really wanted to do something that was really different. This show is very similar to the sort of universe my films lived in. It was very much the idea of this show that's kind of like an HBO R-rated sex comedy, à la "Sex and the City" or “Girls,” but that it has this extra element of the whole sci-fi, alien conspiracy mystery, with a very sort of “Twin Peaks”-y, surrealist vibe to it. Where it expands the universe to the point where you don't know what's going to happen, and kind of anything can happen.
Araki: I feel like it's hard to make just a regular millennial sex comedy now because there are so many of them. It's so done as a genre. You quickly run out of stories and run out of situations and run out of stuff to tell. Whereas the idea with this show is that the universe of this is so open, that creatively the sky's kind of the limit for us. Which for me, as a filmmaker, is exactly what I where I want to be. It's a very exciting place. Truly the show is different because it's coming from this place of imagination. Sort of like "what's possible?"
Karley, you've explored the sexual diaspora across the country with “Slutever.”
Araki: I love that. "Diaspora. The sexual diaspora".
I mean, that’s what the Vice show is, right? Now that HBO has basically deprecated their entire late-night brand that was dedicated to sex, you’ve stepped into that space and gone into all these different communities, and exploring all kinds of proclivities without any kind of judgment or even voyeurism about what different people are doing.
While I was watching this show, I noticed how few examples there were of what would be classically thought of as "true" connection during sex or as a result of it. We see a lot of people having intercourse, connecting with their bodies, but missing emotional connection almost entirely. Was that intentional?
Araki: I feel like there's connection. I mean, it was very important for me and Karley to do a show that was very non-judgmental and there was no guilt or no shame attached to the sex. These sexual adventures that these characters have are all different. Avan was talking about how his character's kind of a sexual astronaut.
Araki: Sexuality has always been a very big part of my movies. I feel like it's really a way that people learn about themselves, and sex and sexuality, those experiences really shape you and form you, and you learn about yourself. Even a bad sexual experience — as long as it's not terrible, like an assault — they affect your life. You become who you are because of these experiences that you have. So, to me I was interested in making a show about these young people who are 25, and there is a lot of confusion, a lot of "I don't know exactly what I want." So much of it is about finding yourself. And the sexuality is a huge part of that.
Sciortino: Yeah, and I think that the connection comes in strange places. These people are, they're really sexual. They're adventure-seeking and they're sexually curious and they're sexually resilient. Like the Carly and Jethro characters, they're having independent sexual experiences together and then they sort of fall into this BDSM interaction, right? Where she's spanking him and they subvert their normal power roles. He's submissive to her, and then suddenly they have this moment of unexpected connection.
I think that that's really interesting because you rarely see men in positions of submission in sexual situations on TV, unless it's sort of like humiliating. It's cool that they found a connection in that, and I love that the probably most sexually connected moment in the series is Avan on a Grindr date, having mutual jerk-off session in a gross alleyway behind a dumpster.
And then the universe opens up.
It's just an explosion of purple and pink in the night sky.
Araki: There's a spectrum I think, of sexual experiences on the show. Which is, to me, a big part of what the show's about. Like, Severine and Ford are in this weird journey of exploring non-monogamy, and there are like these weird adventures for Ford that are new and out of his element. And, you know, there's a lot of different shades to that. I don't see it all as being this kind of mechanical exercise. There are aspects of the Ford-Severine story where it is a whole exploration of this new world for Ford that Severine is introducing him to. Whereas with Uly, he has these odd Grindr hookups that are sort of like a thrill-seeking type thing for him. But there is a lot of stuff loaded into the various sexual encounters in the show.
It is interesting to have a show where the sex is right at the forefront and central to the storytelling. And the series itself is aesthetically quite beautiful, with load of saturated colors.
Araki: It's eye candy.
But to go back to the previous point, I’m thinking about something Dr. Ruth Westheimer recently said, that a lot of millennials don't come to her wanting to know anything about the mechanics of sex. There is so much sexual content out there that’s easily accessible, so they kind of have that part down.
Instead, what they want to talk to her about is loneliness, this sense of not knowing what to do to connect with others. So, to see “Now Apocalypse” from that perspective is fascinating.
Araki: Yeah, I mean in that context, it makes perfect sense to me. Because I do think that the show is very much a millennial show, set in this generation. It is that weird world of Grindr, Tinder, instant connection. In fact, Carly talks about that in episode 1, where [she says older people are] just jealous ‘cause we don't have to troll gross bars like they do for sex. It's so easy with the internet, with phones, with everything. Everybody is so connected but at the same time, not connected. And that is a very specific aspect of this generation.
So, I do feel like they're searching for connection. Certainly Uly is kind of like a romantic character and he's searching for connection. But they're all kind of, to me, searching. They're all searching for something and you know, being young, they haven't found it yet. They're not to the point or experienced enough to even probably articulate what they're looking for. They just know they're searching for something. And I do think that that restlessness and that desire is a big part of what motivates them. That hunger is what sort of gets you out into the world.
Sciortino: And to me, with the millennial generation, there's so many options. Never before have you had so many things on the menu. It's like, "Am I gay? Am I straight? Am I bisexual? Should I be in an open relationship?" Women have the option of being more promiscuous without judgment, right? So, the landscape of sexuality is cracked open in a lot of ways.
But sometimes having more options doesn't make life easier. It actually makes it harder. And I think, like in the case of Ford, he is representative of a lot of people I know where it's like a lot of people talking more and more about non-monogamy as a real option for relationships. Probably now more than ever if your partner suggested that to you, you might be like, "Oh, OK, I'll try that. I've seen that on TV, I know other people that do it".
You're seeing these characters searching, but they're fumbling and trying to find their place in the world, find their sexual identity and yeah, searching for love and connection. But it's not, like, a smooth ride, you know?
Araki: Searching for love and connection. In Hollywood.
Referring back to classic shows like HBO’s "Real Sex" and you know, ye olde “Skinemax” — rest in peace — there is a tradition of this kind of show being relegated to a certain time slot in late night. Yet this actually is an artistically serious, almost prestige enterprise. Could a show like this have even happened like five years ago?
Araki: No! I mean, that's why I'm so excited it. You know, TV has sort of broadened with all of its groundbreaking shows like "Breaking Bad.” . . . . And the most surprising thing about watching all 10 episodes, when we were finished with it, was how accessible it was. Like, it has a kind of punk rock attitude to it, just in the way we're gonna go there with sex and open relationships. But, and this is a testament to the cast and how fantastic they are, the show has a real sweetness to it. And my experience with the show thus far, amongst the small group of people that have seen it, is it's a really user-friendly, a kind of empathetic show. You really go along for the ride. And for me, maybe I'm just jaded or something, but the sexuality is definitely there, it's definitely unapologetic, but I kind of forget about it. I'm not paying attention to it.
There's an entire episode where about half of it is like going back and forth between a couple of encounters.
Araki: No, episode 8 is literally, I literally wanted to do an episode of the show where they were just having sex for the whole episode.
Sciortino: It was an experience.
Araki: Episode 8 is literally, the whole show, it's like the sex episode. And it is definitely there, but it's why I'm interested in doing a show about sex and sexuality. I feel like that is the moment you learn about a person, their character, in a way and in those intimate moments that is never revealed to anybody else. Everyone has their public persona, everybody has "me sitting in this chair talking to you," but people who have slept with me know me in a completely different way. And that is the direction I'm super interested in. Those moments of intimacy.
Those are the moments where I don't really think about it being a sex scene. It's really to me about those characters. And that's one of the things I thought was kind of interesting about the show. There is obviously a lot of very unapologetic sex, but as a testament to the actors, there really are those character moments that you're really coming away with , so I sort of forget about those sex scenes.
Sciortino: The sex is an entry point for vulnerability. And what I wanted to say about your question, if you said five years ago there was going to be a show on TV with the main character being a biracial, sexually fluid man, and his best friend is a very sexually promiscuous woman who works in the sex industry, and neither of them were victims of their sexuality or circumstance, I would've been floored. I think that's just a testament of how far we've come as a society and the way we think about sexuality, gender, female promiscuity, the existence at all of male bisexuality.
I'm going to ask one last question. There are many choices you could have made in terms of an alien: You have the guys with the tiny bodies and gigantic heads. You could have had, I don’t know, a ray of light. Why a reptile person?
Araki: One of the things I love about the show is I think a film school person would notice there's so many levels of symbolism, homage, film history. There's a scene later on in the show with the Severine character where she has this whole thing with, like, what we call a "rear-window man” — it’s a call back to Hitchcock and all that. As a filmmaker, this show is just this incredibly fertile ground of all the different kinds of things it can be. All these different references. All these different motifs. And all these things from me going to film school and being interested in punk rock music and everything.
There are also a lot of mythological references. And you’re pulling from a variety of film genres, too.
Araki: That's the idea. I'm so proud of the season. We were like, “This show is so crazy and we may only get one season," so we just poured everything we had into these 10 episodes. That to me was where a lot of that stuff comes from. It's just every crazy image in my head, my imagination unleashed through these 10 episodes. That for me was the most exciting, fun thing about the show.