Friday, July 3, 2015

Too Much TV: iZOMBIE (2015-?)

DC Comics' conquest of broadcast television has been a multipronged assault. After establishing a beachhead for mainstream superheroes with Arrow, and while The Flash and Gotham consolidated that front, the comics empire tageted the supernatural audience with characters identified with its more adult Vertigo imprint. First came the unjustly neglected and canceled Constantine, featuring a character who's bounced between Vertigo and DC proper since Alan Moore created him. Infinitely better than the Keanu Reeves movie by virtue of Reeves' absence, the TV Constantine suffered from its placement in the genre death zone of Friday night; NBC had tried a Dracula show in the same slot the year before and failed. The CW was more careful with its Vertigo show, debuting it in the spring with the already-established Flash as its lead-in on Tuesday night. In another respect CW was more reckless. iZombie can at most claim to be inspired by the comics series written by Chris Roberson and drawn by Michael Allred. The inspiration extends this far: like the comics, the show features an attractive, sentient zombie who acquires the memories of the people whose brains she eats. I've only browsed at the comics, and I'm glad for that because I had no cause for prejudice when TV creator Rob Thomas (of Veronica Mars fame) departed so nearly completely from the comics concepts. The iZombie comics take place in a full-scale supernatural demimonde, in which the heroine shares an apartment Being Human style with a ghost and a friendly lycanthrope -- or canithrope, I guess, since he's called a were-terrier. Right there I think the comics were getting a little whimsical for my taste. By stark contrast, Liv Moore (former Power Ranger Rose McIver) -- that isn't even the comics character's name, though it should have been! -- and the fellow zombies she eventually encounters are, so far as we know by the end of the first season, the only monster phenomena in their city of Seattle. That seems appropriate; the modern-day flesh or brain-eating zombie is usually a phenomenon unto itself rather than part of any paranormal fantasyland, the better for the zombie horde to serve as metaphor for societal breakdown or something likewise relevant to the world we live in. Early ads offered Liv as "the face of the zombie apocalypse," and the show presents Seattle as Ground Zero, or more accurately a Ground Zero waiting to happen. The show's masterstroke is this slow-burn approach to its metaplot. Things seem anything but apocalyptic, but as the show marches on the feeling grows that one false move could change things drastically. The sting to it is that that false move could well be the thing we've wanted to see happen: the villain's comeuppance.

iZombie is a traditional genre show of the sort that Daredevil and like programs threaten to render obsolete. It's very much an "of the week" program, giving us a problem to solve that is solved in every episode while building the metaplot gradually. While the comics protagonist gets her brains because she works in a cemetery, on TV Liv, once an aspiring doctor, becomes an assistant coroner for the police department, almost immediately revealing her condition to her supervisor, the sympathetic Ravi (Rahul Kohli), who goes to work seeking a cure. Because she ends up eating the brains of murder victims, Liv finds that their memories are useful to solving their murders. She becomes an informal adviser to Detective Clive Babinaeux (Malcolm Goodwell), who accepts her account of psychic powers since it seems to work. Liv helps Clive solve a mystery each week, and each episode is made more distinctive by her acquiring personality traits of the murder victims, which may be another idea original to the show. This gives McIver plenty of comic opportunities to do broad character types, though not in a overboard sitcom way. Liv has become a gun nut, an alcoholic, a stoner, reverted to teenage, and so on. All of this complicates her personal life, already problematic because of her initial alienation following her infection and "death." She distanced herself from her lawyer roommate Peyton (Aly Michalka) and broke off her engagement to Major (Robert Buckley), an affable but increasingly hapless lunkhead of a social worker. Having found purpose in her police work, she becomes more outgoing again, but this only puts the people she cares for most in danger.

There's a murderer every week, but the villain of the series and its most ingeniously conceived character is Blaine (David Anders), who may or may not be the Patient Zero of the coming zombie plague. He starts out as a drug dealer pushing the show's mystery drug, Utopium, which may or may not be a factor in his becoming a zombie. He infects Liv by scratching her at a boat party, and at first he's the only other zombie she knows of. In time, we learn that he has become a zombie master, refreshingly on a gangster model. He's less interested in eating brains, which he must just the same, than in infecting people and making them dependent on him for their new necessities. He's turned a diverse group of people, from the predictably wealthy to a police lieutenant for protection purposes to a rock musician who becomes Liv's lover. He gets his brains from street kids, mostly -- which eventually puts Major on his trail -- though as more people discover the effects of brain-eating he begins to take requests. Immediately you can see the precariousness of his situation. What stops anyone from getting brains on their own? The simple answer is Blaine and his enforcers, whom we see eliminate both minions who try to go freelance and an impatient client who kills one of his couriers. But as Liv begins to realize the truth about Blaine and gains extra motivation to take him down, as his more powerful customers grow more demanding, and as Major pieces together the evidence, at the risk of his sanity, and tries to become a monster hunter, we begin to worry about the implications of Blaine's removal, which he's glad to explain to save his neck. And of course the season ends by bringing us to the crumbling edge of that cliff, though not in the way we necessarily expected.

iZombie still hasn't shown its full hand yet. The next season, starting this fall, is sure to take up the unfinished business of the dangerous energy drink Max Rager, its sociopathic entrepreneur (Steven Weber) and its possible role in the zombie outbreak. Its initial short season was nearly perfectly paced to get us waiting for more while wrapping up its initial storyline in a way that managed to be both satisfying and worrisome. On a week-to-week level, the show mostly succeeded in balancing its comic, procedural and fantasy elements, while retaining an ability to surprise if not shock us. The summer break leaves us asking mostly the right questions, the ones the writers want us to ask. If there's any serious flaw in their conception, it's the way Liv and other zombies can go into "full zombie mode," and out, seemingly at will. At moments of stress, Liv goes red-eyed and seems to Hulk out, gaining superhuman strength and agility and acting on almost mindless instinct. The first few times we saw this, they teased that Liv was on the brink of losing control and attacking innocent people, but increasingly it seemed that she could simply turn it off, or else it turned itself off, as if an adrenalin rush burned off the zombie rage in her. This seems a little too convenient, unless the writers have an answer up their sleeve tied in to the actual source of this show's zombieism. But this is a show that encourages you to trust the writers to come up with something. It's been a great showcase for Rose McIver and a redemption, as far as I'm concerned, for David Anders, whose storyline in the second season of Heroes was the beginning of that show's steep decline. As Major, Robert Buckley really came into his own as his storyline became more intense and he became the one character who saw things in their true horrible dimensions and tried, at first almost pathetically but later with something like Travis Bickle's zeal, to do something about it. For me, this was the best new genre show of the spring, and the best thing about is that after thirteen episodes it feels like it's just getting started.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

Watch. DC will relaunch the book next year to copy the show.

That aside, I watched the finale On Demand earlier. It does set things up for next season. To think that Steven Weber used to be known for playing the dumber brother on Wings. Now, he's working just nicely as the sleazy, money-first-before-common-sense businessman. He has that same kind of quiet menace that Tom Cavanagh expressed as Eobard Thawne/Harrison Wells on Flash. Can't wait for the DVD.