Tuesday, June 9, 2015

iZombie, You Zombie, We All Zombie

Rose McIver
iZombie Tuesday 9 ET/PT on The CW

   How you responded last year to the news that the CW would be producing new series, iZombie, has a few different implications:

  1.  You are a Romero purist who still loyally watches AMC’s The Walking Dead even after most of us packed it in because  a) we understand Atlanta, GA is more black than white and b) when you find out everyone is infected with the zombie strain—you don’t kill the only scientist you’ve come across for 2 seasons. If this describes you, you were also likely offended by the suggestion that a zombie can be attractive, solve crimes, and have relationship problems. 
  2.  You are a Marshmallow. A die-hard Thomas/Ruggerio-Wright fan who would watch anything with their name on it. If this describes you, you were likely a Veronica Mars kickstarter backer, and when you meet someone else who watched Party Down you have a friend for life. 
  3.  You had no idea, you didn’t care, and you still don’t. 
  4.  You are a less extreme shade of one of the three, or demonstrate hues of all of the above.
Either way, here is what you should know about iZombie and why you should be watching it. 

Rob Thomas was, in fact, scheduling pitches for his own zombie apocalypse show when the news of Darabont’s deal with AMC broke. It was many years later that Warner Bros. approached Thomas with the idea of adapting DC/Vertigo comic, iZOMBIE (Chris Roberson and Michael Allred). They were soliciting on behalf of the CW for another compelling female lead. After completing the Veronica Mars movie, Thomas recruited Diane Ruggerio-Wright, his right hand on Veronica Mars and also a self-proclaimed comic book nerd and zombie zealot, to help write the show. The pair resuscitated the worn out and predictable zombie genre, placing it in, as Ruggeri-Wright says, "part of the pop culture”, and paying much credit to the source material (the comic of the same name) and the 2013 feature film, Warm Bodies. The previously heavily invoked parameters of the zombie genre have been begging to be exploited and subverted. True fans of television will be grateful for how the medium can stretch the expectations of a zombie show while also establishing it’s own preternatural rules and story universe.  
iZOMBIE (Chris Roberson, Michael Allred) DC/Vertigo (2010)

The comic, iZOMBIE, is the DNA for the show, but production of the series for television dictated a few deviations. The protagonist Gwendolyn Price (Gwen Dylan), a recently undead gravedigger whose best friends are a ghost from the 1960s and a were-terrier, absorbs the memories of the people whose brains she must eat to maintain her own humanity. The comic has a rich and sometimes bemusing mythology that is disseminated in it’s 28 issues. iZOMBIE's supernatural monsters and world threatening theology tend to strike more of a Buffy chord than a Veronica tone—two comparisons that fans and critics are have been busy debating. 
Strong female lead

    If I wish to stay true to this essay's epigrammatic tone I have to omit further discussion of the “strong female lead” place card the network put on the table (and the frustration that invariably follows every conversation regarding the burden of representation in storytelling). I only hope we can agree that the comic iZOMBIE, the tv series iZombie, and the other three television series I will discuss, Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Tru Calling, all have strong female leads, generically speaking. But it is not this label alone that has brought so much attention to these show's congruencies. 

While there has been no shortage of great television series and diverse characters in recent years, it is difficult to dispute that the conclusions of Buffy and Veronica didn’t leave somewhat of a hole in prime time. Those two shows accomplished a considerable amount with regard to genre, fan culture, and female empowerment. They have been celebrated, scrutinized, academically praised, and even adopted by the next generation of viewers. It is because of this vacancy—this desire for something supernormal that is still very much grounded in emotional reality—that tv producers and tv consumers alike are hopeful to name iZombie as successor.

So why are people comparing these shows? What do they have in common and where do they diverge?

Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas

   Both Buffy and Veronica’s stories originate in high school and depict some very dark storylines including rape. In both series the boyfriend is apprised of the protagonist’s abilities/adversities, both operate at times without their mother, and both make the transition to college (the kiss of death for most teen dramas). The heroines are quick-witted, sharp, and don’t take shit from anyone. Veronica, in spite of her reputation and recent alienation from the cool kids club, has much more confidence and takes things in stride. She may be a pariah but while everyone in Neptune is floundering behind their secrets, Veronica has nothing to lose and this makes her fearless. Buffy Summers finds strength in numbers (i.e. the Scooby Gang, Angel, Spike, and the potential slayers) but she still very much carries the “bare it alone” burden that Liv Moore (iZombie) feels and she is habitually making sacrifices. Buffy is a hero in many rights, most notably for saving the %$# damn world from demons and hell monsters.

To be compared to these characters is both the biggest compliment and the most intimidating expectation. 
Kristen Bell; Sarah Michelle Gellar

*From this point forward, the article contains numerous spoilers for both iZombie and Tru Calling*

There is a fourth show I would like to mention, as I haven’t seen it in any discussion yet. I find iZombie to be worthy of comparison to Fox’s Tru Calling (2003-2005, John Harmon Feldman). 

Zach Galifianakis; Eliza Dushku

     It is difficult to overlook the irony that Tru Davies, a morgue attending who relives days and saves the lives of the prematurely deceased, could possibly be the only one capable of saving Olivia "Liv" Moore, but we still have a rat named Hope, and a chance that Ravi might find a cure. At a glance, this is what they share in common: 

There are bold differences between these two programs but none as glaring as this one single contrast:  PACING

What Tru Callling took nineteen episodes to accomplish, iZombie achieved in the pilot. 

Important milestones in Season 1 of Tru Calling
Tru Calling

Those same milestones in the pilot of iZombie

There is a good reason Tru Calling is missing from the iZombie discussion. In truth, Tru Calling is absent from many discussions. An injustice that can be traced back to the show's absence from your living room. Why weren't you watching? Let’s look at the series' time slot. It aired on Fox on Thursday night—up against:

Extreme Makeover
WIll and Grace
The O.C.

   So who the f#@% is left to watch? Nearly every market is tuned into something else. In 2003, television audiences still largely watched by appointment and very few homes had adopted relatively contemporary recording practices like Tivo. Widespread integration of cable provider DVRs didn't occur for another year or two and even then Neilson didn’t begin to measure DVR numbers until 2006. 

   Why should you have been watching it? This Groundhog Day-esque procedural drama was Buffy alumn Eliza Dushku’s first starring television role and supporting characters played by Zach Galifianakis, Jason Priestley, and Shawn Reaves offer three more compelling reasons to watch. Most of the comedic relief was delivered from Shawn Reaves’s character, Harrison Davies, Tru’s layabout younger brother. Davis, the man without a last name, portrayed by Zach Galifianakis, might be the show's single most endearing character. It is easy to see that the character was written to be introverted, awkward, and perhaps a little slobbish, but Galifianakis fills the role with a debonair quality that feels sincere. It’s not a stretch to imagine a show with Davis as the leading man. Jason Priestley as Jack Harper is nefarious while being totally cool. He is a perfectly unsuspecting villain. You want to give Jack Harper your lunch money because he was suave enough to just ask for it. 

   Tru Calling is a pretty flower that opens slowly and reveals more beauty. You’ll wish you had more like this in your garden. But pretty isn’t everything. Or is it? On the Fox network, details of Dushku's shorts, tops, skirts, and lip glosses were meticulously plotted. There were many, if not far too many, shots of the track star running through the nondescript city. Dushku is undeniably sexy, but so was the story premise—and the battle between the two was fraught with lip gloss. I predict Tru Calling would have experienced more success and longevity at a network like the CW. 

The success of iZombie seems all but certain. The source material is distinctive and fun; the creators of the show have a strong voice and are invested in the characters they share with us; the series has a home on a network that not only campaigned for the show’s creation, but also continues to promote it with heart; the cast is winsome and engaging, the kind of  characters and actors you want to spend time with and get to know.  

iZOMBIE illustrator, Michael Allred, designed the opening credit sequence for the television series in a similar style and mood as the comic. The title cards used in the sequence are a perfect and succinct summary of what the pilot accomplishes.

The framework for the show is expertly established in the pilot, similar to Rob Thomas’ immaculate Veronica Mars. The rules, or zombie cosmology, are laid out in the course of the pilot. 
  1. Must eat brain to maintain “human" qualities (i.e. anti-Romero zombie).
  2. Side effect of eating brain, see visions of what the vessel saw/experienced. 
  3. Guess what? When you eat the brain you also absorb abilities or traits of the deceased.
  4. When you get excited/mad/threatened you go into “full-on zombie mode” or “raging out” (depending who you ask).

     Since its premiere in March, every episode has been a thrill ride and you find yourself wondering how you ever survived without a Zom/Dram/Rom/Com. The last three episodes leading up to the finale, “Mr. Berserk”, “Astroburger”, and “Dead Rat, Live Rat, Brown Rat, White Rat”, have challenged Liv in ways you didn't think could happen in a Season 1 arch.  The emotional stakes have been raised for everyone, not just Liv, and tonight's finale will devastate your previous conjectures about what to expect from a television series. 

The season finale of iZombie premieres tonight at 9/8c on the CW.

Watch all of Season 1 on cwtv.com, Hulu, Amazon, or iTunes.

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