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NBC’s ‘Apocalypse’ goes to the end of Earth for laughs

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Jenna Fischer (left) and Megan Mullally in “You, Me and the Apocalypse.”Ed Miller

NBC's new series "You, Me and the Apocalypse" stars a few notable cast members from some of its brightest Thursday night lights. For a moment, it seems as though the now-comedy-starved network is using casting as hypnotic suggestion, floating subliminal hints of past NBC excellence into our brain space. They want us to see Megan Mullally from "Will & Grace," Jenna Fischer from "The Office," and Rob Lowe from "Parks and Recreation" and play bongos on the like buttons, whether or not the show is worthy.

But evil must-see plot on our collective unconscious or not, "You, Me and the Apocalypse" is a genuine treat. No subliminal persuasion needed. The 10-episode series, which premieres Thursday at 8 p.m., is wacky, likable, unique, and, at moments, effectively dramatic. It's a goof on our cultural fixation on Armageddon, a canny riff on Christian notions, a satire of radical hackers, and a look at what really matters in the long run. It overlaps with other end-of-the-world comedies, such as the Seth Rogen-James Franco film "This Is the End" and the fantasy novel "Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; but it's also quite original.

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The show contains a lot of UK DNA, which adds to the specialness and to the story's global sensibility. NBC co-commissioned it with the British TV channel Sky 1, it was created and written by Iain Hollands of a British TV comedy called "Beaver Falls," and more than half the cast is British. Indeed, "You, Me and the Apocalypse" was originally going by "Apocalypse Slough," so named after one of its English settings, the same unhip town where the original "The Office" took place. Perhaps NBC feared American resistance to a foreign location? The British cast is top-notch, by the way, particularly Mathew Baynton, who co-created and costarred in Hulu's "The Wrong Mans" with James Corden. With his wide eyes, long face, and cleft chin, Baynton is the endearing, sympathetic everyman in the ensemble.

The show leapfrogs among a few seemingly disparate plots, whose many connections emerge gradually and slyly. It's a common approach in TV dramas such as "Sense8" these days, an approach that reaches from Robert Altman's 1970s movies to "Lost," but it's less common in TV comedies. And then all the plotlines and characters are united by the giant fact that a comet has just been discovered racing toward Earth, and it's scheduled to destroy the planet in 34 days. That bit of news is clarifying for everyone.

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In New Mexico, Fischer's Rhonda McNeil is a librarian who's in jail for hacking into the NSA. She's not tech savvy, though; she's taking the fall for her teen son, Spike (Fabian McCallum). In jail, in what plays a little like a spoof of "Orange Is the New Black," she gets Ping-Ponged between rival gangs. Finally she gets stuck with the leader of the white supremacists, played by Mullally with the amusing amorality and distinctive timing she's known for. Baynton plays Jamie Winton, a bank manager in Slough who is obsessed with his wife, who disappeared seven years ago. Why do the police think he's the leader of a cyber-terror group called Deux Ex Machina?

And Lowe is Father Jude, a priest at the Vatican who is a professional Devil's Advocate. A chain smoker who doesn't hesitate to take the Lord's name in vain, Father Jude tries to prove that candidates for sainthood don't deserve the honor. He's the Vatican vetter. When news of the apocalypse comes, and false prophets arise in the chaos, he expands the scope of his investigations. He's a wise guy and a wise man, and he chooses his assistant — Gaia Scodellaro's eager Sister Celine — well.

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Lowe takes full advantage of the opportunities of the role, and it's a pleasure to watch him. In "The Grinder," a little of him goes a very long way; he brings no variety to his smarmy delivery as a sparkle-toothed star, perhaps because the writing is so repetitive. In "You, Me and the Apocalypse," he's aces.

If you prefer a more conventional approach to TV comedy, if you like a sense of where it's all heading, you might find the show frustrating. It moves at a brisk pace from scene to scene, but the stories are in no rush to connect. Mass annihilation might be on the way, but the truth surfaces at its own speed.

YOU, ME AND THE APOCALYPSE

Starring: Mathew Baynton, Rob Lowe, Jenna Fischer, Megan Mullally, Joel Fry, Gaia Scodellaro, Pauline Quirke, Kyle Soller. On NBC, Thursday, 8 p.m.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.