If, like me, the thought of a second season of the BBC's revival of Survivors fills you with about as much excitement as a holiday in Herne Bay then don't give up the show yet. The preview discs for episodes one and two came into the office just before Christmas and, knowing how little there was to watch on TV over the festive period, I picked them up thinking, “Why not? They've got to better than Ten Best Celebrity Masterchef Souffle Disasters Of 2009."
And you know what? It was. To the point where, at the end of episode two, I was actually screaming in angst that I'd have to wait so long for episode three. See – being a professional reviewer does have its downsides.
Of course, it's traditional for shows to up the ante in a second series, but Survivors has made a mountain out of its ante hill.
I've got to be honest, series one left me a bit cold. One phenomenal episode aside (the one where the shaky, self-appointed Prime Minister executed a guy just to secure her position) it all seemed a very cosy post-apocalypse, with more in common with the hearty back-to-the-land ethos of The Good Life than the horror of the struggle to survive. The plots tended towards the predictable, any sense of jeopardy was fleeting and the characters seemed listless rather than desperate. Not exactly terrible, but rather half-hearted.
So maybe going in to series two, I've been blindsided by low expectations. But for whatever reason, I'm suddenly not just enjoying the show but loving it.
Series two opens with an episode that must surely be interpreted as a new mission statement. It feels bleaker, edgier, scarier, more urgent. The characters feel more realistic, and act more how you'd expect desperate survivors to act. When they argue, it doesn't feel like artificially-injected drama, it feels authentic. There are moments of tenderness and humour that don't feel out of place, but achingly poignant. All the main cast have moved their performances up a notch, with Max Beesley as the morally dubious Tom Price still the stand-out character; he may have been pretty much the stock loose cannon archetype in series one, but his "look at the size of my gun" shtick is nicely subverted this time round, as the moral cost of that kind of thinking is explored. Admittedly, I was also put in a better frame of mind by the fact that my least favourite character, Julie Graham’s insipid Abby Grant, and her dull search for her missing son both take a back seat for much of these two opening episode. Then again, she does come good.
Production-wise it feels slicker and more expensive. Last year when you saw a deserted street you couldn't help but feel that the traffic was just being diverted to the next street along. This season, Britain looks truly ravaged and empty. There's a massive action sequence in episode one which looks spectacular, but it's the aftermath that spurs on the real drama. There are also a couple of scenes (one involving a couple of near feral kids, another involving a harrowing personal sacrifice one of the lead characters is forced to make) that really ram home how all the rules of survival have changed.
The scripts also manage to throw up some surprises, both of the "intriguing developments" variety and sudden shocks. In the second episode there's even a wonderfully manipulative piece of misdirection (in that, you realise you've been manipulated by the director, but you don’t mind because the trick works). You also genuinely feel these characters are in peril. I can honestly say that halfway through the episode I thought it was possible that any one of three (or maybe, two of the three or even all three) would be killed off. And maybe they all were. Or maybe none of them were. I'm not telling (but it did make me appreciate the fact that, not being a fan of the series, I knew no spoilers about it, so had no idea if any of the actors were leaving).
The second series also reveals a lot more about what those dodgy scientists are up to, and it's gripping stuff, opening up whole new avenues for the show to travel down. But you're not discovering what they are here. It's more fun learning it yourself.
There are still wobbly moments, when the melodrama goes overboard, or plot coincidences seem overly contrived, or the overwrought nature of the beast would do with a smattering of gallows humour, or the guest stars’ tattered costumes can't disguise their plummy, stage school accents.
But the show is much, much better and launches into series two with new force. And it looks like it has enough momentum not to revert back to its former pedestrian ways.
Survivors series two premieres on BBC1 on Tuesday 12 January at 9pm