A deadly new airborne virus is spreading rapidly! Sound familiar? It’s happening in real life and also on HBO Max’s stunning new apocalyptic drama, Station Eleven! Ugh, right? As my good friend texted me when I mentioned that I was binging the screeners earlier this week, Pandemic TV? No thank you!
Except…Station Eleven is really good. Like, really good. Critics are calling it uplifting and cathartic. “It’s a work that celebrates humanity by celebrating humanity’s drive to create,” raves The New York Times’ James Poniewozik. It’s “hands down, the best new show of the year,” according to Vogue.
Based on Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, the series essentially splits its action between two timelines: the years leading up to and immediately following a devastating flu pandemic that kills all but one in every 1,000 people on earth; and 20 years after as humanity soldiers on. Mackenzie Davis plays the show’s hero, Kirsten, who is an eight-year-old child actor in Chicago when the flu hits. Two decades later, she’s still acting, but now with a band of Shakespearean performers known as The Traveling Symphony who travel the Great Lakes region putting on plays for the various settlements.
Yes, there are dangers in this new world, but this isn’t The Road or The Walking Dead. There are no cannibals or zombies stalking Kirsten and her friends. Station Eleven isn’t interested in the degradation of humanity in times of crisis, but in its flourishing and resilience. You know that Mr. Rogers quote about looking for the helpers? That’s what this show does. Kirsten and the Symphony travel the countryside entertaining the communities they encounter. They bring joy and catharsis through their performances. They help.
Everyone in this world has had to struggle to survive, but more often than not they encounter people who are willing to help, communities that are welcoming, that know that they are stronger when they work together than when they try to fend only for themselves. It’s the few loners in this adaptation of Station Eleven who fare the worst, whose humanity is most at risk; it’s being welcomed back into the brotherhood of man—or the sisterhood or the otherhood of us—that saves them.
Are there moments that echo the tragedies of the past two years? Definitely. Is this show an eerie glimpse at a possible future? Maybe. But if what you’re dreading is more trauma porn and nihilism, that’s not what this show is about. Station Eleven shows us that when the worst thing happens, it’s still possible to find hope. You’ve been through a lot the past couple years; we all have. But I think you can not only handle this post-apocalyptic pandemic show, it may even bring you hope.