Effects creators ask “Wouldn’t it be cool to see..?”
When effects creators make television everything revolves around the cool effects shots and the story is cobbled together to make those shots fit. That’s how Z Nation feels after watching four episodes of the new zombie show on Syfy Channel.
There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what the show wants to be. Some of the most interesting points of Z Nation are the visual concepts. Zombies gumming up a petroleum tank. A zombie tornado. A tiny zombie caught in a truck’s wheel well. Bowling with The Liberty Bell. All these things sound awesome and even look cool. If that’s what you want from a zombie series, you’ve found your counterpoint to The Walking Dead right here. Don’t think too hard, just go with it.
The episode concepts are pretty cool. It feel like what the Zombieland series on Amazon should have been. The season arc involves a cross-country trek aided by a mysterious, Dungeon Master-like voice connected by satellite (DJ Qualls playing a discount Todd Rage from an arctic “NSA” station). There’s black humor and some genuine tension and scares as they run gauntlet after gauntlet on these mini-quests to find fuel or escape the crazy ministers or the crazy army people.
I think that’s the main problem with this show. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a serious horror series with moments of camp… or a campy zombie story with moments of horror to drive the plot. Unfortunately for the show, the effect concepts are what determine the tone of each show. Given the performances seen so far, there is a lot of potential here.
Keith Allan is a standout here as Murphy, “Patient Zero*”. He’s a criminal and a coward, but he’s also allegedly the last hope of finding a cure for the zombie plague. Allan doesn’t overplay what could be a Dr. Zachary Smith role (The pain, the pain of it all…) and his transformation across the first five episodes is probably the most inventive arc of the series.
Russell Hodgkinson’s “Doc” is just quirky enough to keep me watching. He shares custody of all the snarky lines with Murphy and the two characters seem to be forging a bond that will later determine if Murphy stays in the light or gives in to whatever he’s becoming.
After playing Second-in-Command to a weary looking Tom Everett Scott for six episodes, Kellita Smith’s Roberta Warren becomes the leader of the group. Smith and Scott gave the series a level of realism that was needed for me to suspend my disbelief. They carried much of the human drama and gravity of things while the rest of the cast played up the comedic or melodramatic elements. The problem is that the two worlds don’t mix well. The question is how Smith’s character will continue providing that anchor of reality to a show already heading full-steam toward zombie parody without the benefit of Zombieland’s sense of humor. On the other hand, it is nice to know that the group leader is a female woman of color. This is a bold choice for the network and about damn time. Smith is more than capable of holding an audience. I hope the writers are capable of writing to her level.
Tom Everett Scott seems out of place here, not quite ready for the post-stardom gallery of actors like those who head up SyFy movies and series. Scott is also quite talented. You can tell he spent a lot of time working out in his head how to make some of the crippling dialogue work for him. Most of the time he’s successful. He never strikes me as a military type, though. He’s not even a Rick Grimes type. He played the affable everyman. It’s just through sheer force of talent and experience that he holds sway over the rest of this cast. Unfortunately he seemed to be just a little too expensive an actor to hold down for a full season.
We’ve got our Sarge in the character of “10K” who is part Darryl Dixon, part ninja, part boy band frontman. He represents the last of the quirky/remarkable cast members. Everyone else will live or die by the quality of their screen time.
Finally, DJ Quall’s “Citizen Z” seems to be the hardest fit here. As I said, he is not really part of the team, but broadcasts from the arctic. He plays music that people across the nation can hear and provides news, like the most convoluted meteorology I’ve seen outside a preschooler’s improvised recap of the evening weather report**. His role – as far as I can tell – is to guide the main characters to a base in California. We know that there’s a chance (pretty good chance, actually) that the destination is already compromised, but we’re going to follow this plot anyway. Most of Citizen Z’s time is spent filling the hour with poorly-scripted antics like chasing a zombie dog through a dark warehouse, getting drunk and playing records (“Good morning, survivors” indeed) and magically phoning in the plot to an honest-to-goodness phone booth in the middle of a New Jersey refinery. So far, there’s not a lot of value here except to remind us that the writers have little understanding of military, combat, weather, technological, biological, computer, communications, or government concepts.
All this leads me to believe the show will not appeal to zombie survivalist fans or the fans of Walking Dead looking for well-scripted human drama, but will appeal to those who watch for things that explode and splat. I’ll keep watching as a guilty pleasure and report as things change…if they do.
*Calling Murphy “Patient Zero” is one of the scientific inaccuracies or inconsistencies that bother me about this show. He is not the first carrier or Index Case. He is a significant offshoot of the zombie virus (or whatever), much like Grey Anders in HG World.
** “Home Sweet Zombie” can’t seem to make up its mind if there’s a hurricane coming up from the gulf or a big storm coming across the plains. The expensive maps in Citizen Z’s bunker show that our heroes are in…Atlanta, not central Illinois…but the storm shown in stock footage is an actually hurricane over the Atlantic. The storm itself spawns three different-looking tornadoes standing in for one relatively pedestrian Class-1 funnel that is unique in that it throws zombies. Also, when a zombie is thrown through a tornado and launched thousands of feet at speeds over 200 miles per hour, I expect to see it splat when it hits not land, shake its head like Wile E Coyote and continue hunting.