Fear the Walking Dead has had a monumental creative resurgence in 2020, as the struggling show finally found its stride in its sixth season. There’s a lot of reasons for that success, not least of which is Lennie James, whose character has been reborn and has finally become the true lead of the zombie spinoff series.
Lennie James, of course, is the only character in The Walking Dead universe that remains from the pilot episode (although, James disappeared from the series for the better part of four seasons). He is a veteran actor who has been in the business since the early 1990s, although until The Walking Dead, he was best known in America for his role in the cult favorite, Jericho, a recurring role in Showtime’s Hung, and as a co-lead along with Mark Strong in a grim detective show, Low Winter Sun, that never took off on AMC.
James, however, has been a constant presence on British television for three decades, and despite his work on Fear over the last several years, he’s also managed to write, create, and star in a Briitish series called Save Me. The first six-episode season of the series premiered in the UK in early 2018 to stellar reviews, which led to a second season renewal that premiered in April of this year.
Because of the pandemic, and a shortage of new content in all these new streaming networks, Peacock — the Universal/NBC streamer — licensed the rights to the series and began re-airing it last month. I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead universe, but not exactly the type that will follow stars of the series to all of their other projects, except in the rarest of cases. Lennie James is just such a case, because — like Danai Guria, Michael Cudlitz, and Jon Bernthal — he’s always stood out in The Walking Dead universe as someone who could truly excel outside of the series.
Save Me puts his talents as both an actor and a writer on full display. In it, James plays Nelly, a likable barfly whose life hasn’t amounted to much. He doesn’t have a home of his own, but he does have two girlfriends, and it’s a testament to how charming Nelly is that (when they find out he’s teen two-timing them) neither can bring herself to hate him, exactly (in fact, one of those girlfriends begrudgingly continues her relationship with him).
In the meantime, Nelly also has an ex-wife, Claire (Suranne Jones), with whom he had a child, Jody (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), 16 years prior. Jody decides one day to track down her father so that she can meet him, but en route, Jody is abducted. The chief story centers on the mystery surrounding Jody’s disappearance. Nelly is initially the prime suspect, though it soon becomes apparent that he was not involved. Despite having no relationship with his daughter, however, Nelly finally finds purpose in endeavoring to save her. His investigation runs parallel to the police investigation, and it entails digging into the lives of some of his shady mates at his local pub, because it is apparent early on that whoever abducted Jody knew a lot about Nelly, because he or she used their knowledge of Nelly to lure out Jody.
It’s an intense series, but not altogether bleak, like so many other British mystery shows. Much of that is due to the acting talents of James, who the audience continues to root for, in spite of the fact that he’s a deadbeat cad. The series also features a lot of great British character actors, some of whom are familiar to American audiences, like Kerry Godliman, Stephen Graham, and Lesley Manville.
Save Me, which is two seasons (12 episodes in all) long, is a compelling mystery, but it’s also an entertaining and high-stakes character-driven redemption arc for James’ character. It’s better even than Fear the Walking Dead, and while that might not have meant much in its first five seasons, that’s surprisingly high praise, given how improved the AMC series has been this year.