Add Netflix’s ‘Carol & the End of the World’ to Your Doomsday Bucket List

What would you do if you knew the world was ending in the near future? After the initial wave of panic and terror subsides, it stands to reason that, with a finite amount of time left on Earth, many people would feel free to live the life they had always wanted to live. They’d check

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What would you do if you knew the world was ending in the near future? After the initial wave of panic and terror subsides, it stands to reason that, with a finite amount of time left on Earth, many people would feel free to live the life they had always wanted to live. They’d check off items on their bucket lists, maximize quality time with friends and loved ones, and generally embrace all kinds of pleasure, even if it’s just a way to avoid confronting the total end of humanity.

The animated limited series Carol & the End of the World (streaming on Netflix Dec. 15) treats this outlook as an assumed, majority-held worldview: The giant planet that will collide with Earth in seven-and-a-half months renders jobs a thing of the past and allows people to fully embody their most indulgent, impulsive selves. Yet the series takes a decidedly different approach to the apocalypse story by following a person who doesn’t feel liberated by the end of the world. Carol Kohl (voiced by stand-up comedian Martha Kelly), a mild-mannered middle-aged woman, doesn’t have any grand dreams to live out and has no interest in embracing a hedonistic lifestyle. What she craves is something society has done away with after realizing they’re all doomed: the routine of the workaday world.

Enter The Distraction, the accounting department in seemingly the last semi-functioning office building, which Carol stumbles upon after aimlessly following a besuited woman off the train. When she enters the office, which is filled with rows and rows of workers sitting at desks intently typing away on computers, she’s immediately handed a cup of coffee and almost just as quickly given a job as an administrative assistant. Carol is soon thrust into the mundane white-collar world—complete with corny elevator jokes and headaches around replacing printer toner—where she ultimately feels right at home, away from the mass of hyper-promiscuous partiers and windsurfers and faux-enlightened travelers that make up the rest of the population.

Still Carol is intrigued and disturbed by a few elements of the office culture. No one will reveal details about the job itself, like who they’re working for or what they’re actually doing—and no one seems to care to find out either. None of the employees acknowledge each other’s existence; names, personal interests, identities are nonessential details. Through persistent politeness and amiability, Carol eventually cajoles two coworkers, Donna (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) and Luis (Mel Rodriguez), into becoming work friends where they share their theories about the job, but it’s telling that Donna initially shuts down Carol’s queries by saying, “Who cares how it works? It just does.” It’s clear they are there to simply go through the motions of a 9-to-5 job, a daily action that diverts attention away from their imminent demise, something they can’t avoid when surrounded by oppressive debauchery and joy.

Carol sits at her desk in a still from Carol & The End of The World

Netflix

Despite its broadly familiar premise, Carol & the End of the World admirably diverges from genre convention and narrative expectations. For one thing, it completely circumvents the mystery of The Distraction, even when it expands upon its origins, because the series simply isn’t interested in traditional serialized plotting. Carol & the End of the World operates as a slice-of-life existential portrait of civilians who tend to slip through society’s cracks, the kinds of people who would be background extras in the stories of others. The series celebrates the interiority of Carol, Donna, Luis, and a coterie of other lonely people who have found no comfort in impending calamity. Counterintuitively, they find working a literally meaningless job to be the best diversion from confronting their myriad fears and regrets.

Creator Dan Guterman’s comedic pedigree, which includes writing stints on Rick and Morty and Community, might lead one to expect a humorous or outlandish approach to this material. But while the series has its occasional laughs, it largely works within a dramatic mode, and it’s all the better for it. Instead of pandering for attention with flashy hyperactivity or fast-paced, joke-heavy dialogue, Carol & the End of the World plays in a minor tonal key, with lots of silences and pauses. It’s content to merely observe its characters and operates under the belief that everyone is worthy of a spotlight. Moreover, its animation style resembles a graphic novel where each panel’s composition is the main aesthetic priority. Images like rays of sunlight hitting a photo album through a car’s passenger side window or a spare paper clip being vacuumed by a cleaning woman still on the job carry a melancholic weight of their own.

Guterman also doesn’t burden Carol & the End of the World with too much worldbuilding or apocalyptic lore. The series gradually reveals elements about society that have changed or disappeared in the face of certain doom. Money no longer has any value and looting has become normalized. While the military maintains a constant presence (though their purview remains obscured), “law and order” as a concept has basically collapsed, yet everyone seems unperturbed by this. People celebrate holidays of their own choosing every single month. Carol & the End of the World never treats these details with too much importance, nor does it indulge in hoary exposition. It simply shades in a believable environment on the brink of destruction.

The series frequently digresses from Carol’s story into the lives of various secondary and tertiary characters, to the point where it sometimes resembles a collection of short stories. Carol’s elderly parents (Beth Grant and Lawrence Pressman), two proud nudists in a loving throuple with their nurse, Michael (Delbert Hunt), embark on an end-of-the-world cruise that’s ultimately abandoned by its captain and crew. Eric (Michael Chernus), a seemingly gentle stranger that hits it off with Carol before coming on too strong with his romantic affection, finds renewed purpose in life when he decides to bond with his teenage son. One episode chronicles Carol and her upbeat, extroverted sister (Bridget Everett) on a weekend-long hike. Another episode uses items in a lost-and-found department to offer brief snapshots of the various Distraction employees, effectively capturing entire lives and specific psychologies in very little screentime.

Michael puts his arms around two naked old people as Carol looks on behind in a still from ‘Carol & The End of the World’

Netflix

Carol & the End of the World defies easy descriptions. Sometimes it plays like a surreal version of Dilbert, especially when fantastical dream sequences converge with the depiction of the Distraction office. Other times its deadpan sensibility resembles the films of Fallen Leaves director Aki Kaurismäki. It’s easy to imagine someone being turned off or bored by the series’ measured pace, the flat affect of some of the voice performances, or even its plaintive sensibility. But anyone able to vibe with the series’ unique wavelength will likely find themselves moved by its celebration of patchwork communities, especially those of colleagues from very different walks of life.

In the series’ best episode, Carol vows to learn the names of every one of her coworkers amidst the sudden death of a Distraction employee, and the lingering effect of that small gesture causes a slow, positive ripple effect in the office. Carol & the End of the World generously argues that the act of remembering someone’s name means that they’re worthy of being cherished, even if all you really know about them is that they had a mustache or that their lunch always smelled nice.

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