There's nothing on television like Z NATION. There's never been anything on television like Z NATION. A lot of the bits and pieces that are put into this Crazy Blender have been flung over the airwaves over the decades. Tonight's installment "Down the Mississippi," for example, took pieces of, among other things, Mark Twain, DELIVERANCE, Southern Lost Cause culture, Huey Long-style down home demagoguery, bluegrass and BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID but what comes out when it's all blended together is, as usual, like nothing television has ever seen. And it can be truly glorious.
In my articles on THE WALKING DEAD, I spend a lot of time engaged with the mechanics of that series' formula, cataloging it, outlining its narrow and rigid contours, dwelling on the tired, shopworn nature of it and noting the series' utter predictability as a consequence of it. In this respect, Z NATION is like the anti-TWD. When you sit down to watch it, you never know what the hell is going to happen next. It's a free-for-all. One week, it's a Mad Max-style adventure up a road in the middle of nowhere, the next, it's a sci-fi tale of gruesome experiments resulting in a greenhouse full of zombie/plant hybrids, the next, it's delivering a human/zombie hybrid baby in a Mennonite community and everyone trying not to die from anthrax. This diversity is the sort of thing some would see as a potential liability. And, indeed, if handled poorly, it could make a series seem scattershot, unfocused, without a center or soul. ZN's ability to tell great, entertaining stories within it week after week and not suffer these potential pitfalls has made it one of the series' greatest assets. You never know what's going to happen next but after a while, you do start to realize it's probably going to be something great. And you can't wait.
"Down the Mississippi" featured the return of Doc's relentlessly entertaining pals Sketchy and Skeezy, allegedly fresh from looting Graceland, full of magnificent bullshit and plotting their next move. While trekking down the river, our heroes' boat gets caught in a "zombie jam"--exactly how is sounds--and the characters are separated. 10k ends up with S&S and the trio go off on a series of hilarious (and Huckleberry Finn-ish) adventures while the others search for their young sniper and debate how much effort they should put toward this at the expense of their primary mission. The ep puts a lot of focus on the relationships between the characters, particularly Doc's strong connection to 10k. This last has sort of receded into the background lately; tonight marked a welcome return (and a great performance by Russell Hodgkinson). I still don't like Murphy's hacking away at 10k over Cassandra while no one objects, a dramatic problem with last week's ep. Vasquez is a needlessly disagreeable prick throughout the proceedings and this with his early insistence on simply abandoning 10k did little to endear to me a character for whom I haven't developed any affinity anyway. To put the matter of Vasquez bluntly, the sooner he's gone, the better.
"Well, the Mississippi sure ain't as mighty as it used to be," notes Doc, and indeed, the mighty Mississippi seems to be reduced to a much more modest and budget-conscious river but the cinematography eschews the usual washed-out color palette (of which I'm not a fan) for a more natural look with some most agreeable results in those moments along the river. Best of all, the ep is, like last season's excellent "Welcome To The Fu-Bar," shot in full scope. A way to my heart, I'll confess.
Tonight's excursion was written and directed by frequent ZN hand John Hyams, who was last seen pulling those same duties on the awesome "White Light." This was another feather in his cap and a pleasing return to form after last week's creative misfire.
More generally, ZN continues to mix wild-and-crazy ideas and familiar influences in new and entertaining ways. There's nothing on television like it. There's never been anything on television like it. ZN's detractors would probably say that's a good thing. Having seen a lot of the petty and absurdly superficial reasons so many of them insist they dislike it, I pity them. They're missing out on something very special.
I, on the other hand, have no intention of missing out on it. Keep up the good work, ZN; I'm with you for as long as you do.
 Tour-de-force performances by Mark Carr and Doug Dawson as S&S--this ep gave them what would be a great end if they never appeared again but I'd definitely prefer to see more of them.