"The apocalypse was the best thing that ever happened," is what Josh Wheeler (Colin Ford), an average and unremarkable 17-year-old LA transplant, says to kick off Daybreak. One of the best genre entries of the year, Netflix's post-apocalyptic dramedy about teenagers living through the end of the world starts with an invitation to have a goddamn good time. But as this unusual cluster of survivors battle through gang territory (demarcated by high school cliques), rampant ghoulies (this universe's version of zombies), and a horrifyingly eclectic mutating landscape (pugs the size of a house, anyone?), Daybreak offers up much more than remix of favorite fandom tropes. Beneath a boisterously fun viewing experience lie complex narratives exploring the gray areas of identity and cultural appreciation.
As is the case in every teen show worth its salt, "any really good coming-of-age story is about trying on different identities, about the search for who you are," said Aron Eli Coleite, showrunner of Daybreak, in an interview with TV Guide. And Daybreak's characters are in the thick of reconciling who they are with who they'd like to be. There might be a boss bitch waiting to actualize underneath that lonely academic; perhaps a kind-hearted and empathetic leader waiting to blossom from within a high school bully who finally understands the consequences of his actions. And as with any period of discovery and growth, the teens of Daybreak begin their journeys mostly as tropes.
Coleite, a massive Dungeons & Dragons fan, crafted the pilot with an instantly recognizable framework. "You need a mage, you need a healer, you need a tank, etc," said Coleite. "We [needed to] understand who was complementing each other and that they had different skill sets." The core trio — Josh, Wesley Fists (Austin Crute), and Angelica (Alyvia Alyn Lind) — are respectively "the heart, the soul, and the mind" of the show. Josh's (Canadian) survival skills, Wesley's unending quest to exact justice, and Angelica's chaotic brilliance combine for a cadre who can not only survive the apocalypse, but thrive in it. The not-so-heroic band of Daybreakers first join forces out of convenience, but they soon find themselves inundated with new family as they unintentionally create a refuge for stragglers without high school tribes.
The show really sings, however, when these basic tropes (nice white guy, queer blerd, child prodigy, etc.) are tested and evolve. Coleite acknowledged that this evolution was always part of the game plan, but said he was astonished to see what happened when the writers' room started "mining our histories, our biographies, our stories to give these characters dimensionality and complexity."
Nowhere is that more evident than in Episode 5, "Homecoming Redux or My So Called Stunt Double Life." Narrated from Wesley's point of view, by the legendary RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, the episode dives deep into Wesley's cultural anxieties about growing up black, queer, male, and lower middle class. Even more importantly, it explores why someone who isn't Japanese (and from the Edo period) is walking around talking about living that samurai life and honoring the Bushidō code.
Wesley describes himself as a ronin (a samurai without a master to serve), and his interest in samurai culture is apparent from his very first appearance in the pilot. Suited in his best approximation of a jingasa (the military version of the iconic conical hat more commonly referred to in most of Asia as a coolie), a silk shirt with Japanese characters (which translate into the show's title, Daybreak), and a katana, Wesley is the picture of modern-day cultural appropriation: culture worn as a costume. If social media still existed in the apocalypse, Wesley, despite being an outwardly confident jock with real social capital, would immediately be canceled by Asian Twitter. In fact, he gets called out multiple times by his friends and family in the show. Wesley's cousin Emmett, his best friend from his hometown of Compton, lands the most devastating blow in a pre-apocalypse flashback: "You ain't no samurai, you dumb blerd," Emmet spits at Wesley at the Homecoming rally. "Why you tryna be something you ain't? You frontin' Asian? You frontin' white?" Later in the episode, Wesley admits to his (white) boyfriend, "Maybe [Emmett] is right! Maybe I am frontin' so I can fit in around here. Acting all ninja so y'all would dig on me or some sh--."
Even RZA, Wesley's omniscient narrator, reminds Wesley he doesn't know what he's talking about. "You're so damn twisted, you don't even know what's true or false," narrates RZA in a fourth-wall-breaking confrontation with Wesley. "There was never even a movie called The Man With The Poison Crown, yo! You're mixing up Shogun Assassin with Master of the Flying Guillotine, which is offensive, right? Because kung fu and samurai are different cultures." Wesley, reprimanded by his hero, responds, "Sh--, Emmett was right! I am a fake. I'm no samurai."
But then Daybreak acknowledges a factor that's skipped over in many conversations about cultural appropriation: the longstanding intermixing of diaspora and minority cultures in countries where they are collectively defined Other. RZA goes on to narrate not only Wesley's backstory, but the backstory of an entire generation of black artists and creators who were influenced by Asian culture, including his own.
"It's not your fault you want to be a samurai," says RZA. "See, that's the economical pressure being expressed as warrior code. It started when young black men couldn't afford to go to the movies, so we watched kung fu reruns. We found beauty in things that had been neglected." He explains the socioeconomic forces that raised a whole generation of "blerds," spinning out into everything from Jim Kelly to The Last Dragon to Kendrick Lamar's "Kung Fu Kenny" to The Boondocks to Wu-Tang Clan itself. The only thing missing from RZA's primer is the fraught side of this cultural exchange (which cuts both ways): the question of who exactly is profiting off of this cross-pollination of cultures? In Wesley's case, Daybreak neatly side-steps the issue by eliminating money altogether in a post-apocalyptic barter economy.
"I'm oddly a huge fan of The Last Dragon," said Coleite of the legendary 1985 martial arts movie that stars a cast of black American actors. "I point to Episode 5 [of Daybreak], which really helped me understand it. With Wesley, it's less cultural appropriation and more this moment in time that led to [the question]: Why is there this African American infatuation with kung fu and samurai culture? Why does that exist?"
Coleite credits Ira Madison III and Calaya Stallworth, two of his staff writers who were entrenched in that subculture, for illuminating the answer. "[Calaya explained] this was what was on public access. It was what they could watch, so they became huge fans of it. It's basically driven out of economics, and then they began to own it and transform it into their own strange subculture of African American culture."
Coleite attributes his diverse writing staff, particularly Stallworth, a novelist and professor who grew up "living down the hall from Method Man," as the reason that RZA agreed to do the episode. "When RZA read the script, he was like, 'How do you guys know this? How did you understand this?'" said Coleite. Coleite told the rap OG that the second he recognized (but didn't quite understand) the pop culture reference his writers were pitching, he knew he had to include it in the show. But the overarching idea per Stallworth — particularly for RZA's role — was to "not make it into a TED Talk, but really make it into... let's actualize this," said Coleite.
"We're not trying to make things taste like medicine," said Coleite. (After all, most TV shows that attempt to define cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation end up sounding like a Macklemore track about white privilege.) "By delivering things through humor and entertainment, we get to talk about things very honestly," said Coleite. "The core goal is about entertaining all of us, and not being preachy. That opens these little doors where we have these opportunities to talk about all the really important stuff...and we're going to take them, but we're not going to do it in a way that beats anybody over the head."
The way Daybreak actualizes this subculture — which, while problematic on the surface, actually points to hidden depths of diaspora cross-pollination — is through an exploration of what Bushidō code could mean to a black teenager in modern-day, post-apocalyptic America. By the time we get to Episode 9, "Josh vs. The Apocalypse: Part 2," Wesley is able to encapsulate his episode-long (but really life-long) struggle into a few simple sentences. "It's different being black. And it's different being gay. And it's different, different being black and gay," says Wesley. "That why I found kung fu. It is so straight and so queer. It's martial arts, and it's dance. You can be down with Wu Tang and silk pajamas."
Wesley might not understand the true cultural roots of the myriad martial arts cultures that are often homogenized into one pan-Asian stereotype in America. He definitely doesn't understand kung fu or samurai culture in the same way as a first-generation Chinese American or Japanese American teenager who grew up watching the same movies but also understood the respective religious and cultural philosophies from which they sprang. But one of the core tenets of those classic martial arts movies — a type of masculinity defined by compassion for and service to a community — is a principle that Wesley internalizes. Throughout the series, he not only makes it his mission to "guide lost spirits through the wasteland" to atone for his past sins (read: high school bullying and violence), but he ends up helping to free a group of kids enslaved by one of the main villains of the series. And when it comes time for Wesley to choose between his jealous, violent boyfriend, whom he loves, and the numerous friendships that sustain him and allow him to be the best version of himself, he (eventually) walks a righteous path, even though it means temporary heartbreak.
Wesley borrows only a small portion of the philosophy (and a lot of the aesthetics) of a culture he admires, leading to a flawed expression of ideals he loves but doesn't quite understand. And the reason individual characters in Daybreak have room to overreach as they figure out who they are is because the series does the work in the background — through devices like RZA's narration, which contextualizes the cultural pollination that led to this subculture.
Coleite notes the kind of subcultures that allow for both black kids to create Emmy Award-winning anime and Asian kids to form international renowned dance crews, à la Jabbawockeez, have existed in American history for generations. "You can't make this global statement about 'this is what it's like to be this whole swath of people,'" he said. "This is a very specific story based on these specific characters."
Instead of trying to draw the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation for communities that are inextricably entwined — and which he's not part of — Coleite aimed to create a narrative that is "specific, authentic, and true" to at least one person, starting in the writers' room. "My hope, and my takeaway, is that Wesley felt relatable to somebody," said Coleite, emphasizing that he'd rather create a single connection with a character who defined his identity as messily as people in real life do than try, and fail, to depict a whole subculture.
"We're telling the same story to the audience, giving them the same data points," said Coleite. "But based on everybody's individual likes, dislikes, biography, they watch the same thing and have a completely opposite reaction."
In fact, love or hate Daybreak — and the audience appears to be evenly divided — the only reaction Coleite would consider a failure would be no audience reaction at all. "It's not okay to feel is nothing. That's where a show or a writer fails," he said. But Coleite needn't worry; thanks to Daybreak's ever-expanding character roster, there are plenty more specific, authentic, and relatable perspectives to explore. They'll be just as messy and earnest as real life.
Daybreak is now streaming on Netflix.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)