Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Few Words on the First Season of Z NATION Version 2.0

The original version of this article probably wasn't the worst thing I've ever blogged here, but my impression of it wasn't a terribly favorable one. Z NATION deserved better, so I've re-excavated this particular trench and, digging a little deeper, perhaps I'll get to some quality, in situ observations, instead of something that belongs on the spoil heap.

--j. (13 Dec., 2014)

How do you end the first season of a series about an apocalypse?

If you're Z NATION, you do it by launching another apocalypse.

The curtain fell Friday on the freshman season of SyFy's end-of-the-world zombie tale. It ended not with any mere bang but on the verge of two very big ones that threaten to incinerate its entire cast--a great capper to a great finale to a great season.

ZN's trek, since its September debut, has been the tv-show equivalent of a ROCKY picture. It began life as the ultimate underdog. A product of both SyFy and the Asylum, neither noted for the particularly high quality of their original productions, it launched in the shadow of THE WALKING DEAD, tv's long-established zombie apocalypse, then at the absolute height of popularity. It was a budget affair--its entire 13-episode season cost about what AMC spends on every three eps of TWD. Yet with everything seemingly against it from its conception, ZN, after a slow warm-up out of the corner, started steadily slugging away, and creatively speaking, it has not only bested but thoroughly thrashed the ossified TWD week after week.[1] Budget-imposed rough edges and all, it has proven a far better series. That was the conclusion of my comparison of the two, banged out after 9 eps of ZN had aired; subsequent eps of both have only confirmed my verdict.

An amusing irony to be found in that particular match-up is that TWD is an adaptation of an actual comic but as a consequence of (among other things), relentlessly polishing up, dumbing down and mainstreaming the material, it bears almost no resemblance to a comic, whereas ZN, a production original to television, is very much like a comic book come to life, capturing the spirit of that glorious American medium in a way that's rare to see on the screen, even in this age of abundant comic-to-screen adaptations. It's both a prodigious generator and a voracious consumer of ideas, a "crazy blender," as I've called it, that has as its goal telling a good story, and recognizes, in the pursuit of that goal, few boundaries. It certainly takes a particular delight in knocking back a shot, drawing its machete and gleefully plunging into the heart of all of those places TWD fears to tred. While TWD is a flat, low-grade melodrama that aspires to be nothing more, ZN can do anything.[2] As long as it can afford it.

ZN's creators have, in their public statements, stressed the show's use of humor, their idea of putting some fun back into zombies, and I've highlighted this element in my own comments. It's a show wherein you'll encounter ritalin-addicted zombies--they twitch and run very fast. The restrictions of television mean we don't get to actually see the zombies in the same ep who have been exposed to Viagra, but the reaction of the cast at the sight more than sells it. If an ep features an ill-fated aviatrix, she has to be named Amelia; if the same ep features a (non-animated) nuclear plant supervisor, he has to be named Homer. A zombie is killed with an electric egg-beater. Another has its brain blown out--the entire brain. When Murphy, a fellow under the influence of a serum that has been inducing a strange and frightening metamorphosis in him, actually sheds his skin, another of our heroes wants to save the leavings of the process because it would make a killer pair of boots. It's that kind of show. The humor is high and low, the one-liners often fast and furious.

I should say, however, that in recent weeks I've come to think the emphasis on this aspect of ZN risks doing it a serious injustice. The nexus of horror and black humor is something fans of the genre will understand (or at least should), but for the uninitiated, "funny" may be interpreted as lightweight or overly silly, inspiring those looking for something more substantial to take cover while it passes. A cliché to which sympathetic reviewers often carelessly gravitate is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Unsympathetic ones use this to knock it. Neither are correctly representing the series. ZN is funny, very funny, but it's a horror story, not a comedy, and it's not the brainless horror where the stupid, top-heavy lass fleeing the killer runs up the stairs instead of out the door; it's smartly written, densely plotted and full of interesting characters trying to make their way through a very ugly world. It does character drama in spades, and mirth doesn't trump matter--ZN frequently goes to incredibly dark places. Dark places in themselves, dark places through its humor and dark places contrasting humor is used to render even darker.

On perhaps the darkest journey is Murphy, the aforementioned skin-shedder. Locked up for mail fraud before the world fell apart, he was forcibly injected with an experimental serum aimed at defeating the zombie virus. As the others try to get him to California where, it's hoped, the serum can be reverse-engineered from his blood, he finds himself progressively taking on the physical appearance and even the predatory characteristics of a zombie. In one episode, a zombie is blown by a tornado through a window near him and coming face-to-face with it, he has a quiet and quite unexpected emotional reaction. What does he see in the creature's eyes? Pity for it? Sympathy? His fear of what he's becoming? There follow no long, inflated TWD-style monologues in which he lays out his feelings about what happened; viewers must decide for themselves.[3] Eventually, the zombies stop identifying him as a potential hot lunch, which makes for several creepy moments. When our heroes, too long without food or water, are forced to take shelter in a morgue while a massive zombie herd passes outside, Murphy goes out among the dead, discovers a woman and a young child holed up in a building and takes their food and water! The woman's husband had unwisely gone outside and been killed, and as Murphy leaves, he allows the now-zombified fellow back into his family's shelter, then sits around and shares his purloined bounty with his companions, smiling and basking in the warmth of their comradery as they praise his jolly-good-fellow-ness.[4] Murphy eventually learns his transformation is gifting him with various enhanced abilities, which, in turn, lead down another very dark hole, the origin of the zombie virus in monstrous government experiments. Essayed by Keith Allan in one of those rare, perfect matings of actor and role,[5] Murphy has proven to be one of ZN's crowning achievements, the most interesting character in zombie fiction in ages.

For all the praise I heap on it, ZNs hasn't been without flaws. In my initial assessment of its first three eps, I wrote of some:

"It has little in the way of internal logic--zombies sprint or shuffle at a glacial place depending solely on the momentary needs of the plot; they're driven by a ravenous lust for flesh yet ignore live humans within arms reach in order to follow distant sounds. A lot of it doesn't make a lick of sense--Citizen Z is able to remotely tap into cameras, tvs, phones, radios everywhere in spite of their being no power; the other characters go into a large city like Philadelphia that's swarming with millions of zombies yet are able to walk around the open streets while talking, yelling and even shooting with minimal attempted molestation or even interest by the flesh-lusting corpses."

ZN overcame a lot of its initial problems as it went along. Others recur.[6] While the series has come to do straight character drama quite well, it doesn't always hit the mark--in "Going Nuclear," the youthful 10k coming to see as a father figure a fellow he's only just met is rather forced and unconvincing. In "Murphy's Law," a plot-point is made about the characters running out of ammo then, minutes later, they have ammo again. Given the narrative, they could have had more ammo stashed in their truck (which was out of their reach when they ran out) but the issue is never addressed. Such bugs are a legitimate complaint.

Less so are others. "Going Nuclear," for example, features a notably less than spectacular effects shot of Mt. Rushmore, and for radiation suits the characters don hazmat suits with a hood and visor rather than a helmet, a set-up that would no more stop radiation than it would air. The head of the cannibal clan in "Philly Feast" isn't exactly a master thespian, and the same could be said of the cult leader in "Resurrection Z," though that performance loudly invokes the antics of various televangelists and the over-the-top delivery may have been an intentional choice (if you're doing Robert Tilton, there's no way to make it look anything other than utterly fake). ZN is a low-budget series, and these sorts of things aren't really problems for seasoned b-movie vets, who quickly learn to look past budget-imposed limitations when the merits of a piece outweigh them, but they've proven a serious stumbling-block for some corners of mainstream viewership, where Hollywood slickness is prioritized and dodgy performances or questionable effects shots can immediately lead to an entire project being summarily dismissed as cheesy crap. It's an unfortunate reflex, but I don't really know what one does about it. Spread the gospel and hope those lost souls see the light.

My conclusion after my initial viewing of ZN's first few eps was that its humor was its saving grace, the thing that outweighed the flaws, but it's grown a lot of other graces since then. Its creativity, its wild, anarchistic spirit and anything-can-happen atmosphere, its darkness, its range, even its humanity. I covered most of what I thought made it such a blast in my second article on the show. That's what has held up this article for a few days--I wasn't quite sure what I could say about the series that I haven't already said. Here's the short-and-sweet of it: ZN's first season has offered a rare treat these last few months, the chance to see what could have been something between a creative abortion and a somewhat serviceable failure come, instead, to vivid, vicious life right before one's eyes and turn into a rockin', sockin' hell of an entertaining series that constantly tops itself. From a weak pilot that only really caught fire in its closing moments to a closing moment that threatened to burn eveything and left viewers begging for more, ZN is a triumph, a great addition to both zombie fiction and the larger body of horror fiction and a credit to everyone involved, at least to those who dole out attaboys for zombie and horror tales. Or for good television. I'm one who praises all of that. The wait for ZN season 2 will be a long one, no matter how short it may be.



[1] On a round-by-round basis, ZN couldn't take "No Sanctuary," TWD's season opener which aired the same week as ZN's also-good "Home Sweet Zombie" (ZN's pilot couldn't touch it either), but it has steamrolled over TWD in every other contest. Even when ZN threatened to throw a round with a less-than-stellar bottle episode ("Die, Zombie, Die... Again"), TWD blew it by offering up "Self-Help," an even more glass-jawed exercise. Season openers and finales are traditionally a thing to which tv creators bring their A-game, but "Coda," TWD's lackluster midseason finale, was easily topped by "Murphy's Law," ZN's offering that week, and was utterly decimated by "Doctor of the Dead," ZN's excellent season ender.

[2] And it's a show where anything can happen. The 7th ep, "Wecome to the Fu-Bar," for example, was written as a spaghetti Western, and it's director Abram Cox decided he wanted to go whole-hog on that idea and shoot it in full scope. So he did, with magnificent results. I throw around a lot of praise in this and my other ZN articles for the series being such a wonderful idea factory. I haven't praised that particular idea anywhere else, and it should definitely be applauded.

[3] Lasting only a few seconds, it's a great little piece of storytelling.

[4] Karl Schaefer, ZN's showrunner, has said that ep was originally going to end with a shot of zombie dad looming in the foreground while the litle girl, bright-faced and thrilled, runs up to him shouting "Daddy!" That's ZN for you.

[5] Rare but not even ZN's ony example--if ZN didn't have Russell Hodgkinson as Doc, it would have to invent him.

[6] Citizen Z's ability to remotely access nearly anything has continued to be absurd, and we can safely say experts in the various technologies aren't being regularly consulted by the writers. This is just an element of the series one must accept. Doing so has proven rather rewarding, but it doesn't offer a blank check to the writers either. Keep it in check, fellas.