I’ve been thinking a lot about survival at all costs lately — ever since theaters, bookstores and museums closed and I started reading a post-apocalyptic novel whose protagonist lives by the motto “survival is insufficient.”
So I’ve found the new TNT post-apocalyptic drama Snowpiercer compelling and timely. The 10-episode series premiered May 17 in the US and is airing one new episode each Sunday after that. The first two episodes became available internationally on Netflix May 25, with new episodes released weekly after that.
Snowpiercer’s showrunner is Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson. It’s based on the 2013 Bong Joon-ho movie of the same name starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. The show is also an adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperneige that inspired Joon-ho’s movie. The South Korean director serves here as an executive producer.
In Snowpiercer, the show, Earth has finally succumbed to humanity’s excesses. The planet is uninhabitable, its core frozen after “men of science” tried to fight off global warming with extreme cold. The only survivors aimlessly circle the planet inside a train 1,001 cars long. They’ve spent almost seven years in this experimental and fragile ecosystem. If the engine stops, life on Snowpiercer won’t survive.
Jennifer Connelly gets the juiciest role in Snowpiercer. She plays Melanie, the train’s head of hospitality by day and a Yale and MIT-educated engineer by night. The woman literally does everything aboard Snowpiercer. She can smooth a squabble in first class over sauna use (the Europeans are body shaming the American passengers by forgoing bathing attire), take control of the train engine, or try to figure out how to make up for the lack of methane gas when the cattle on Snowpiercer suffer an accident.
“You have to make sacrifices,” she tells a young engineering apprentice. “The needs of the train are more important than your own happiness. We’re engineers — we keep the world alive.”
The Academy Award winner for A Beautiful Mind is magnificent playing this many-faceted woman. She can be warm and welcoming, commanding and authoritarian or simply menacing in a matter of instants. It’s a role that proves, once again, that TV tends to reward established actresses with opportunities hardly found in movies.
Melanie, also “the voice of the train” and uses Snowpiercer’s PA system to keep passengers updated, has a big problem to solve when the show starts: There’s been a murder in third class. She summons the only homicide detective aboard the train to try and find the killer because everything on Snowpiercer “survives at the mercy of its balance.” The victim was an informant and another killing could mean a greater imbalance in the system.
The summoned detective, Andre, is played by Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs. Andre also happens to be one of the reluctant leaders of the so-called Tailies, the unticketed passengers who survive crammed on the last wagon of the train.
The murder investigation brings a whodunit aspect to Snowpiercer in its first episodes. You can almost see parallels with Murder on the Orient Express, snowdrift and all. But this is no The Killing: Apocalypse Edition. The murder is a plot device that gets Andre out of the Tail and, with him, the viewer gets to learn some of the train’s intrigues. By the time the killer is uncovered, you’ll be more interested in a dirty little secret at Snowpiercer’s engine.
Andre describes Snowpiercer as a “fortress to class,” and that’s the theme at the heart of this show. Snowpiercer comments on class and immigration with a population categorized as Tail, third, second or first. Class grants very distinct privileges and rights to its members. We are told about checkpoints and borders to separate passengers. The process of upgrading from one class to another echoes the immigration system of many developed countries. The Tail is the most oppressed of Snowpiercer’s castes. Tailies are malnourished and lack access to running water, daylight or medical care. A new rebellion is always brewing on the Tail, but we learn the Year 3 uprising meant 62 dead and 15 arms taken.
This intriguing TV adaptation lives independently from the movie. It shares ingredients like the constant mentions to Wilford, Snowpiercer’s mastermind. Both address the addiction to a drug called Kronole and use human-size drawers as a form of population confinement.
But the TV show is less crude and disturbing. Its violence is less stylized. There’s no chatter about how babies taste. It doesn’t feel the need to spell out the ingredients of the protein blocks fed to the 400 souls in the Tail as dramatically as the movie does.
The TV version of Snowpiercer made me think about the delicate balance between power’s capacity to corrupt and the needs of the greater good. All while keeping me entertained and rooting for most characters, even if they were on opposite sides of the conflict brewing on board. The show also finds room for welcome moments of human connection, including romance and sex.
Music is sparsely used and wielded with deliberate intent. Like the vinyl version of Sealed with a Kiss by Bobby Vinton one of the characters in first has the liberty to play. Or the version of Frank Ocean’s Bad Religion the madame of the Nightcar sings in front of a hypnotized audience.
Survival is insufficient. Fortunately, we still have scripted TV.