Saturday, October 10, 2015

Z NATION Gives Birth To A Zombaby!

Quality film and television criticism is an art. I've been known to be rather outspoken about what I see as the generally quite sorry state of it in recent decades and it's impossible to deny the internet has degraded it even further. In discussing it, one feels compelled to put quotes around the word. "Art." At the lowest end, of course, bad criticism amounts to the equivalent of "Dude, that was bitchin'!" Or "Man, did that suck!" Either sentiment bracketing a plot synopsis of the specimen under examination. At the upper end is a mega-popular celebrity critic like Roger Ebert going into THOR on a bad day and writing a vicious review slamming it based on things he presented as inexplicable shortcomings that were, in reality, almost all things that were clearly explained in the movie but that he simply missed because he wasn't paying it the slightest attention.[1] To do good criticism--criticism worthy of the word "art" without those quote-marks--one doesn't just have to get the details right, of course. One must also have something interesting to say about a piece.

That brings me to my present conundrum regarding Z NATION. The series has been on a solid winning-streak lately. Really knocking 'em out of the park. I was into my initial write-up on last week's "Batch 47" when I realized I was basically doing a "Dude, that was bitchin'!" review. I'd felt as if I'd done the same thing with the previous week's "Zombie Road" as well. I'm particularly ill-suited for that sort of review because I think the good stuff in a good show should mostly be allowed to speak for itself. It's something people should experience while watching, not something about which they should read on some blog, so my work when it falls into this already-weak vein tends to be superficial and to skip over most of what I thought made the object under consideration so special in the first place. And even if that wasn't the case, I still consider that level of work to be beneath me. I'm better than that. ZN deserves better from me. It's a great show.

Tonight's installment, "Zombaby," was another bravura performance. The Crazy Blender turned out, among other things, a Mennonite community plagued by zombie sheep and anthrax, a building-sized cheese-wheel used as an anti-zombie device, zombified wise-men (complete with zombie camel) seeking out a newborn zombaby born in a stable under a particularly bright star and soaring above it all, the awesome presence of the hilarious, vivacious one-woman riot that is Sara Coates as Serena the Pie Girl.

In the past, I've written about how ZN's use of humor helps humanize the characters. Humor well deployed isn't, as is sometimes suggested, something that undermines the heavier, more serious stuff. Rather, it compliments that material, giving it more power and dramatic heft. Obviously, the "well deployed" part can prove a fairly significant caveat. That ZN can do it so well so often is a credit to everyone involved with it. "Zombaby!" was a real emotional roller-coaster ride in which straight farce rubbed shoulders with some very dark and difficult moments. Joy and ugliness, horror and holiness, duty, dairy products and desperation. Poorly managed, this could have been a disastrous embarrassment. Handling all of it is quite a juggling act and pulling it all together in such an effective way is a remarkable achievement, the work, in this case, of writer Jennifer Derwingson and director Rachel Goldenberg, the same team responsible for last season's "Sisters of Mercy." Hats off to these ladies.

I find myself with only two sort-of reservations. The major one is that five eps into this season, Cassandra still seems to be lost in the transformation she's undergone. She snarls and moves around like an animal but we're still getting very little indication of how much of Cassandra is left in her. Tonight, 10k, with whom she'd grown quite close last season, was infected by anthrax and became quite ill. This would have been the ideal time for her to show some concern or at least some sort of reaction but none was forthcoming and its absence was palpable. My second is one I almost hate to mention. Pie Girl has been a joy in her every appearance and while I forthrightly acknowledge the impressive guts it took to wrap up her story as this did--that's why I'm loathe to complain--I can't help but imagine the stories that could have been told if she'd been kept on for a while. It feels as if she's gone too soon and the series has lost a significant asset. A ballsy move but part of me wishes there had been a different outcome.

It isn't really true that ZN manages to top itself with every new ep. It is the case, though, that it's chapters of late are all so different but, for that impressive diversity, all so delightfully good that it can feel like it. For my part, I come out of every episode feeling great about what I've just seen. I don't know if "Zombaby!" was the best ep this series has ever produced. I do know I loved it. I don't know where the series will go next. I do know I'll be there, wherever it does. I don't know if my review of Z NATION is worthy of being called art. I do know Z NATION is.



[1] As a consequence, an upbudget Hollywood blockbuster that was actually good--a very rare bird indeed--ended up taking an unjustified black eye from a trusted Big Name who was just being a horse's ass. Worse, when he was called on this by his readers, his response was to double down and slander his critics instead of simply copping to the foul-up.

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