You cannot get away from zombies. By that, I do not mean escape from their deadly clutches. In pop culture they are probably second to vampires in that they dominate our genre landscape, and have done since their inception. Ever since George Romero unleashed Night of the Living Dead on to the world, the resurrected brain eaters have served as a staple to scare us, while being a means to indulge in dissections of society socially, politically and satirically.
It takes a lot to find a way to do something fresh with the genre, no matter how enjoyable it is, but many zombie affiliated works feel as if they owe their debts to Romero’s work. No surprise that Rob Thomas, the creator of Veronica Mars, could find a way to take the zombie genre and do something new with it, mainly adding it to a crime procedural mix while indulging in a long form story arc that takes in themes of social hierarchy, the distrust offered by big business, the media and the military, as well as engaging characters and witty wordplay.
Right away the series felt like a spiritual cousin to the adventures of the teen private eye; female protagonist, somewhat of an outsider from the mainstream after being a major part of it, quirky group of friends, a keen investigator working on cases of the week while playing a major part in a bigger story arc going on around the fringes of each episode. The formula worked brilliantly once again, and as it’s about to enter its fourth season, it shows no sign of showing down.
Coming in at a lean thirteen episodes, the first season was tightly constructed and brilliantly put together. Based upon the Vertigo comic book series created by Chris Robertson and Michael Allred, this television adaptation did take liberties in places; in the comics the character is named Gwen Dylan, where in the TV series she is called Liv Moore (Rose McIver); in the comic she was a grave-digger, here’s she’s a coroner; the comics have more in the way of supernatural elements, such as werewolves, while in the television show there is little in the way of fantasy elements. Even the zombification element comes about because of drugs and an energy drink as opposed to any supernatural occurrence.
While fans of the comic may take umbrage (this reviewer admits to never having had a chance to read them, although would very much like to), Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright’s adaptation works wonders throughout thanks to witty dialogue, fast paced plotting and superbly constructed mysteries. It is very much a superb companion to Veronica Mars.
At the centre of it all is McIver’s superb performance as Liv. The show’s rules means that when she consumes brains she also takes on the personality of that dead person whose brain she has consumed, which allows the series to have a lead actress who never plays the same part in every episode. This mixed variety of personalities allows a plethora of comedy, drama and pathos, with great witty humour, funny dialogue, and even a portion of slapstick, to an extent that it comes as a great disappointment that more acclaim hasn’t been thrown McIver’s way. It is without a doubt one of modern television’s most underappreciated and brilliant central performances.
Of course, a series like this is nothing without a great ensemble to have to play off and iZombie has one of current television’s great ensembles; Rahul Kohli, David Anders, Malcolm Goodwin, Robert Buckley and Aly Michalka, everyone is great throughout. Kolhi in particular is a series highlight as Ravi, Liv’s boss at the morgue who has a way with a one liner while also being a sympathetic presence throughout, while central villain Blaine is another brilliant villain for David Anders (Alias) to add to his CV.
Being a Thomas/Ruggiero-Wright series, there are a number of references to Veronica Mars dotted throughout iZombie’s first season, with a guest appearance from Ryan Hansen (Dick Casablancas from Veronica Mars), and an atypically brilliant recurring turn from Daran Norris, who shows up and pretty much steals every scene he is in.
With a case-of-the-week format, the series offers some of the best procedural stories on network television, but being a show from Thomas and his key Mars collaborator Ruggiero-Wright, there is also a fantastic long game which sees much of the show’s story arcs running from episode to episode, and season to season.
One of the things that is so fantastic about any series bearing Thomas’ name, particularly those with a thriller or genre element, is how the series throws so many elements into the air that it threatens to come apart but always comes together beautifully, and iZombie is no exception, with a throwaway reference to the drink Max Rager in the “Pilot” being a set up for a bigger storyline that takes hold at the end of the season and beyond.
Filmed in Vancouver, the series has a similarly grey outlook that recalls the works of Chris Carter from the 90’s (the “Pilot” actually boasts former X-Files DP John S Bartley), not to mention bringing a degree of imagination to what is essentially a crime procedural.
While divulging in wonderful cases of the week and bigger arcs, the series is also not afraid to combine comedy and drama in an emotional way. The series gives Liv a family that are unaware of her condition and a fiance that she has rejected. Amazingly, the fiance character, Major (Robert Buckley) is never some damp squib of a character, and with a performer like Buckley, manages to be a very charming and engaging presence, not to mention something of a punch bag for the show. The family stuff is a little less assured, and that might explain why it’s pretty much discarded at the start of season two.
The season does throw in a zombie love interest for Liv in the shape of Lowell (Merlin’s Bradley James), but just like in Veronica Mars, iZombie is not afraid to go to dark places, or throw emotional pain at its characters, so just as we get accustomed to Liv being happy, the relationship is violently ended when Lowell is killed at the hands of Blaine.
Although never gaining spectacular ratings, the series has gained a hardened cult following, some of which probably came from having watched Veronica Mars, as well as great reviews from critics. In terms of network television, it’s without a doubt the best genre series on television right now. Engaging, very fast paced and a wonderful ensemble, while combining arcs and stories that be resolved in the space of an hour, it recalls not only its creators’ previous series, but also the high watermark of genre television from network television of the 90’s, such as the Carter’s and the Whedon’s, while forming its own brilliant destiny.
The return of each season is always an event, and the series has amazingly gotten better with each season. That more people don’t watch it is somewhat criminal, especially since it only gets better again after this.