If a plague wiped out most of mankind, what kind of people would you expect to find among the survivors? To be more precise, given that the plague itself would kill indiscriminately, what kind of people would you expect to survive the years of privation and violence that followed? Former law enforcement officers, as in Mad Max and The Walking Dead? Religious fanatics, as in The Leftovers? Bands of marauders and scavengers, as in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Angry, paranoid bunkervolk, as in an entire cottage industry of self-published prepper lit?

How about actors? This is the conceit of HBO’s new miniseries Station Eleven, a post-pandemic postapocalypse ripped not from recent headlines but from Emily St. John Mandel’s award-winning 2014 bestseller. Twenty years after a swine flu has killed off 99% of humanity, a troupe called the Travelling Symphony follows an annual circuit through the wasteland, performing Shakespeare for scattered small communities. The premise may seem far-fetched — surely the drama club would have been killed and eaten by the football team — but it has a solid precedent in the itinerant players of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Besides, the wasteland is perfect for actors: no shortage of skulls to address.

Station Eleven, created by Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers) and directed by Hiro Murai (Atlanta), takes a few liberties with Mandel’s novel but preserves its greatest strength: plot. A Hollywood star, Arthur (Gael García Bernal), suffers a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear in Chicago. Jeevan (Don’t Look Up’s Himesh Patel), the audience member who rushes to his aid, has an instinct to help but no relevant training. In the ensuing chaos, a child actor named Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) is separated from her minder, and Jeevan offers to walk her home. But as news of an ultracontagious flu begins to spread, and with no word from Kirsten’s parents, Jeevan buys several cartloads of food and supplies and takes Kirsten to the apartment of his reclusive brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan).

Elsewhere, Arthur’s loved ones are having very different pandemic experiences. His second wife, Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), son Tyler (Julian Obradors), and estranged friend and failed actor Clark (David Wilmot) are trapped but safe in the airport in fictitious Severn City, Michigan, detained en route to Arthur’s funeral. On the other side of the world, Miranda (The Harder They Fall’s Danielle Deadwyler), Arthur’s first wife, has sealed herself inside a hotel room. A logistics executive by day, Miranda has devoted much of her life’s free time to writing and drawing a sci-fi graphic novel called Station Eleven. Though a self-published labor of love, of which only a few copies exist, the legendary book takes on the weight of scripture in the post-pandemic world, like the Dead Sea Scrolls if they were printed in Comic Sans. Young Kirsten, to whom Arthur was a father figure, is obsessed with it. In this, she is not alone.

Twenty years later, Kirsten (now played by Mackenzie Davis of Halt and Catch Fire) is an A-lister with the Travelling Symphony. Jeevan is gone. The Severn City Airport is now something of a utopian commune, led by Clark with just a hint of demagoguery. It has its own gardens, schools, and quarantine protocols. The permanently stranded — what better symbol of civilizational collapse than the end of air travel? — even maintain their own homely Museum of Civilization, with displays cellphones and iPads, their printed circuit boards now as inscrutable and useless as hieroglyphics.

Notwithstanding the end of the world, these post-pandemic conditions feel idyllic. But a religious fanatic known only as the Prophet stalks the land, leading a Children’s Crusade of “post-pans” whose mantra is, “There is no before.”

It is this subplot that keeps Station Eleven, an otherwise sophisticated show, uneasily on the edge of young adult territory. The Prophet (Daniel Zovatto), when we meet him, looks pointedly like Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild, or maybe Charles Manson. He is a foil for the show’s vision of humanity as fundamentally good and kind. He is the boy who won’t participate, won’t cooperate, won’t share. Make no mistake, he’s also enacting some evil plans, some ISIS-tier evil plans. And yet—

And yet, the Travelling Symphony may be too good for Station Eleven’s good. It’s no surprise that a show celebrating art and culture, storytelling and civilization, would advance a humane moral order in which the prodigal son may always choose to come home. But the Symphony is too much the smug fantasy of its creators. The Prophet commands a guerrilla army of dirty, miserable Dust Bowl children. The Symphony is a beautiful, carefully curated motley crew in the fashion of the Rebel Alliance or the Lost Boys from Hook, an advertisement for the ideal of the “found family.” Everyone is either laughing and tumbling or frowning sympathetically and giving out hugs. Kirsten lives in a gypsy vardo and fights with throwing knives but maintains the flawless skin and messy braid of an Anthropologie model. (Let us not speak of all her vintage 1970s athletic wear. In real life, these people would be wearing Realtree Under Armour and old Ed Hardy T-shirts.)

It’s a good rule of thumb that if children are good at hand-to-hand combat, you are in the realm of young adult fantasy. But Station Eleven compensates for its wish-fulfilling impulse with other kinds of sophistication. The show’s approach to time is better than deft; it jumps freely between time periods and perspectives without generating much confusion. Revelations are paid out gradually and with superb control. The cyclical nature of all things, from the course, or “wheel,” that the Symphony travels to the gestation of post-pandemic babies, is one of Station Eleven’s insistent themes. Man’s lot is to struggle, overcome, and struggle again.

Station Eleven, like its source material, boasts unusually well-rounded characters for having such a large dramatis personae. Poor Clark struggles with envy and resentment and a desperate desire to be of use. Grim, invulnerable Miranda harbors a tragic secret, but more intriguing than that is her willingness to make art that practically nobody else will see. Station Eleven is a tribute to that great and many-faceted artist known as Anonymous. It reminds us how much of human civilization is the work of painters and singers and actors we can’t name but whose ideas and personalities are transmitted like DNA through their creative efforts.

Station Eleven really is about the stewardship and transmission of culture. It hangs on something as trivial and ephemeral as a self-published graphic novel (“So pretentious!” Jeevan calls it, perhaps envious of its hold on Kirsten) to show how arbitrary and strange the test of time can be. The wonderful found-object costumes worn by the Travelling Symphony further emphasize the vulnerability and transience of humanity’s “brief candle.” We aren’t much more durable than discarded gloves and cut-up cardboard boxes. Still, we insist on leaving something of ourselves to posterity.

All this may sound dreadfully earnest and depressing, but Station Eleven is a lot of fun when it gets going. It’s full of bizarre set pieces and indelible images: a man attacked by a wolf, a Walgreens full of women about to give synchronized birth, a woman riding a horse through a minefield. Lori Petty. David Cross. Beautiful, verdant shots of buildings reclaimed by nature. Snow-covered aerial shots to make us feel small and insignificant. The Symphony’s motto, borrowed from Star Trek, is “Because survival is insufficient.” Man can’t endure without his creativity. As Clark says of the Symphony’s climactic performance of Hamlet, “This isn’t art therapy. This is f***ing civilization.”

Stefan Beck is a writer living in Hudson, New York.