16 Post-Apocalyptic TV Shows, but Zombies Had Nothing to Do With It

16 Post-Apocalyptic TV Shows, but Zombies Had Nothing to Do With It

Though end-of-days narratives date back to ancient Mesopotamia at least, the pop culture of past few decades has us convinced there’s at least a 70% chance the apocalypse will specifically involve hordes of shambling undead. When it comes to the final days, it’s mostly George Romero’s world; we’re just all dying in it.

Mostly, but not entirely. Apocalyptic tales are as popular now as ever, and rich fodder for filmmakers and television creators. For some reason, the worse things get in the real world, the more we like to imagine the end will literally consume us. Maybe it’s comforting to remember that, indeed, things could get worse. Or perhaps we like to imagine that we might be the ones who would rebuild something better.

Whatever the reason, TV is packed with these shows. The latest hit example: HBO’s The Last of Us, an adaptation of the award-winning PlayStation game.

No two apocalypses are shaped in exactly the same way, but the best shows either exploit old tropes, or sidestep them entirely. Zombies are a staple of the form (one The Last of Us makes use of, after a fashion), but they’re hardly omnipresent. Here are some great non-zombie shows to watch at a palate cleaner between episodes.

The Last Man on Earth (2015 – 2018)

Creator Will Forte stars as Phil Miller, a former banker who believes, for about a year, that he’s the only survivor of a plague that wiped out humanity…until he meets Kristen Schaal, a notary from Delaware. The two don’t have much in common, but decide they’re responsible for repopulating the earth. Frequently genuinely funny, the show winds up striving for a larger purpose than parodying end-of-the-world narratives, exploring our obsession with the end times.

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 – 1996)

The complex mythology of Neon Genesis Evangelion offers up a truly unique apocalypse: in the year 2000, a scientific expedition attempted to make contact with “Adam,” a forerunner of life on Earth, and of extraterrestrial origins. As it turns out, awakening Adam wasn’t the greatest idea, as the explosion that resulted shifted the Earth’s axis and melted the ice caps, wiping out half of the Earth’s population. Fifteen year’s after Adam was subdued, his “children” become a threat to Tokyo-3. For all of that wonderful weirdness, this landmark anime is grounded in its approach to its human characters and the trauma they face on a regular basis.

The Rain (2018 – 2020)

Leave it to those melancholy Danes to centre an apocalypse around precipitation. In this three-season Netflix import, a virus spread by rainfall that wipes out most of the population of Scandinavia. Siblings Simone and Rasmus emerge from their bunker six years later, setting off across Scandinavia with the hope of finding a safe haven, and maybe their father. It turns out that one of them holds the key to wiping out the virus and saving the world. It’s not the most original premise (The Last of Us game came out five years earlier), but the setting gives it a unique feel, and the series comes to a decisive ending.

Now Apocalypse (2019)

New Queer Cinema pioneer Greg Araki followed up his neon-tinged apocalypse in Kaboom with Now Apocalypse, a successor in spirit. Avan Jogia plays Ulysses Zane, living in sun-soaked California with his best friend Carly (Kelli Berglund), a struggling actress and sex worker. He keeps having bizarre dreams about an alien invasion that feel increasingly like they might be premonitions…or possibly just anxiety delusions brought on by too much weed. The show only lasted one season, and never quite made it to its own prophesied apocalypse, but it was definitely fun while it lasted, and definitely offers something a bit to the left of the typical dreary end-of-the-world.

The 100 (2014 – 2020)

At seven seasons, the CW’s YA The 100 is likely our most deeply explored apocalypse, telling the story of the descendants of the refugees of nuclear devastation who return to Earth from their habitat in space to encounter the remnants of humanity who’d survived on Earth. Naturally, the first people sent to scope things out are the juvenile delinquents (better them than me, honestly), and they discover that three civilizations that have risen up in the aftermath of the apocalypse, and they are all pretty darned scary (though the aren’t zombies, one group is not bothered in the least by cannibalism). The show builds an impressive mythology over the course of its run, leading to a conclusion that’s borderline metaphysical.

Battlestar Galactica (2004 – 2009)

A far cry from The Last of Us’s earthbound setting, Battlestar Galactica still captures an end-of-all-things vibe that stays just this side of hopeless — barely — thanks to the inspirational speech from Edward James Olmos’ William Adama that concludes the first episode — never mind that it is quickly revealed to be a bullshit morale-booster. The monotheistic Cylons (created to be our android workforce) have rebelled and see it as their literal God-given mission to wipe out their forerunners (meaning: us) via a simultaneous sneak attack on the 12 colony worlds that are home to all of humanity. The survivors escape on an increasingly rickety fleet of ships without much of a plan (initially) beyond staying alive. The show endlessly reminds us of the stakes by keeping a running tally of the ever-fewer survivors in the opening credits (it starts and 50,000 and drops from there.)

Snowpiercer (2020 – 2023?)

Rebooting Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 masterpiece into a weekly drama, Snowpiercer sees the remnants of humanity packed onto a (very long) train following a climate crisis — as long as the train keeps moving, it’ll generate the power to keep the lights on for humanity. Of course, all of our real and metaphorical problems get on with us; early episodes see Daveed Diggs leading the poor and oppressed “tailies” against the Jennifer Connelly’s oppressive regime, which finds an entitled few living in luxury while the majority starve.

Unfortunately, Snowpiercer has fallen victim to the recent trend of shows being shelved to dodge royalty payments to creators. TNT, owned by prime offender Warner Bros. Discovery, has elected not to air the announced, advertised, and completed final season. That might not be quite the end of the world, provided it eventually sees the light of day, but the burying of otherwise popular shows to save a few bucks on the backend certainly feels like the end of TV as we know it.

Chernobyl (2019)

Without intending to make light of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the real-life story makes for drama more harrowing than any straight fiction. The HBO miniseries feels like the kick-off to an apocalypse as, of course, it must have to those who were there, many of whom were consulted in the making of the series. The real Chernobyl meltdown prompted many an fictional apocalyptic narrative, so it’s not surprising that the real thing is even more terrifying.

The Leftovers (2014 – 2017)

A riff, perhaps, on the Left Behind series, in which non-Christians and Catholics are punished over the course of 16 books and several movies for making Jesus sad, Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers picks up three years after an event referred to as the “Sudden Departure,” during which 2% of the world’s population disappeared mysteriously. There’s apocalyptic drama in the show’s three main settings (upstate New York, Texas, and Australia), especially with the emergence of cults trying to make sense of the disappearances, often coming to unwarranted and dangerous conclusions, but the show is a bit more metaphysical and psychological in its exploration of the ways in which we respond to unexpected shifts and trauma.

Sweet Tooth (2021 – )

What if the apocalypse…but not so bad? It’s not that “the Great Crumble,” the virus that wiped out most of the world’s population, wasn’t rough, only that the show’s perspective is a bit more optimistic. Gus (Christian Convery) is one of the half-human, half-animal hybrids who were born in the aftermath of the end of the world who joins a very reluctant traveller called “Big Man” (Nonso Anozie). Gus hopes Big Man will help him find his mother, who he believes might be alive in Colorado. Survivors live in fear and distrust, particularly of the animal people, but the show has a fairy tale-feel, and Gus suggests ways to connect with others when everything has fallen apart.

The Last Ship (2014 – 2018)

It’s perhaps not the most intellectually minded of the many TV apocalypses, but TNT drama The Last Ship blends genres in a fun way, combining an apocalypse with the kind of military/procedural thriller that broadcast and cable TV excel at. Eighty per cent of the world’s population has been wiped out by a plague, but the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Nathan James remains unaffected, and becomes humanity’s last hope for a cure. It’s the apocalypse by way of Michael Bay.

American Horror Story: Apocalypse

A crossover melding three prior American Horror Story series, Apocalypse still largely stands on its own, an appropriately weird take on the end of days. Ryan Murphy’s plotting jams in just about every apocalypse trope imaginable, starting with a nuclear catastrophe and involving underground bunkers, genetic mutants, and witches facing off against the literal Antichrist. If you’re familiar with the franchise, you have some idea of what you’re in for here…but this is one of the series’ best seasons.

Station Eleven (2021 – 2022)

The miniseries, based on the Emily St. John Mandel bestseller, was released at either the best time or the worst possible time, the story of a flu pandemic twenty years on hitting HBO square in the middle of COVID. The show follows two tracks, one introducing Kirsten Raymonde, a young stage actor whose performance in a production of King Lear is cut short by the onset of a virus with a 99% fatality rate. We also visit Kirsten twenty years on, still an actor, in a world very much changed. It’s a slow-burn, picking up steam only after a couple of episodes, but ultimately, the series makes a moving case for the power of art, even (or especially) in moments when survival is on the line.

12 Monkeys (2015 – 2018)

Though the series at first felt like a pointless retread of the Terry Gilliam film (and of La Jetée, on which that was based), 12 Monkeys, the series, eventually began to luxuriate in its extended timeline and use it to ruminate on ideas of free-will versus predetermination, even while throwing in plenty of action. Well before the end of the first season, the show found its sometimes confusing, but always heady groove. It’s sort of a pre-apocalypse story, with time travellers from a pretty rotten future sent back into the past to seek out and stop the release of a virus that will ultimately kill seven billion humans, and that’s expected to continue to mutate and eventually wipe out everyone left.

Into the Night (2020 – )

The sun is the disease in this Polish drama, which finds a NATO soldier hijacking a plane in order to save the passengers from a plague that kills any living thing outside in daylight hours. The clever take became popular enough internationally to inspire a Turkish spin-off set on a submarine (Yakamoz S-245, also available on Netflix).

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017 – )

Imagine a future in which religious extremists at the highest levels of government have dismantled the church-state divisions and enacted laws that strip women, particularly lower-class women, of their bodily autonomy and place them at the disposal of men for whom they’re little more than breeding stock — events precipitated in part by declining birth rates and a violent insurrection directed against Congress.

Wild, right?


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