Posted by Xander Pakzad
I have this theory that in any truly good zombie story, the word “zombie” is never used. The characters refer to them as undead, walkers, crazy cannibals, flesh-eating monsters, anything except the Z-word. Zombie stories exist in their own worlds where horror isn’t entertaining. It’s real, urgent, and new. So new, in fact, that the characters don’t even have a word for it.
Syfy's Z Nation tries something new. These characters act like they know zombies. They’ve probably seen The Walking Dead and played Resident Evil. They know what to do. This lets Z Nation skip past all the cliche apocalypse stuff to create a new kind of zombie show. The stage was set to make this a series about well-developed characters, social commentary, self-aware black comedy, or any number of new takes on the genre. Unfortunately, the writers didn't get that far.
(image credit: Syfy)
The show begins with a conventional, and exceptionally rushed, exposition: a virus broke out (of somewhere) a few years ago, wiping out most of the population and most forms of organized governance with it. The world’s survivors are a mix of hardy do-it-yourselfers and a few military leftovers. One of these officers is Mark Hammond (Harold Perrineau) who is tasked with escorting a mysterious man named Murphy from New York to California. Murphy was administered an experimental vaccine which we later find out was effective in making him immune to the virus. Of course the only laboratory that can reproduce the vaccine is on the other side of the country. How else would we have a show called Z Nation?
(image credit: Syfy)
Just across a river, Hammond and Murphy reach a group of survivors who they've surprisingly never met. (You would think you’d know all your neighbors three years into the apocalypse.) Once Murphy reveals his scars and thus his immune status to these people, the group decides to help him on his journey. These very guarded people who have built an entire permanent camp leave it all behind with almost no hesitation.
At this point, the lack of backstory has gone from confusing to annoying. There’s a sequence in the middle of the show that introduces a new weapon (a spiked aluminum baseball bat), a fight that utilizes said weapon, and a chase scene with zombified schoolchildren. The writers could have cut a few of these scenes in favor of fleshing out the human characters at least a little. I could’ve done with relationships, conversation, or dark humor. Any direction to take the show in, just pick one. But no, they stuck with the spiked bat. Because priorities.
The rest of the episode is a messy, hurried attempt at creating a too-familiar world we're supposed to care about. It’s as if they got halfway through the satire process—they spent so much time setting up the rules of zombies that they forgot to break them.
(image credit: Syfy)
The show’s one feat is how they assembled a group of characters without creating a single one we give a shit about. Their focus is solely on survival; they know what show they’re on. This emotionless tone is weirdly more reminiscent of a reality show than a scripted drama. It's watching a bunch of unrelated strangers fight for a prize that doesn't matter. This could've worked great for over-the-top B-movie humor, but it doesn’t go there. None of the dialogue is emotionally affecting, but nothing is tongue-in-cheek, either.
At the very least, are the special effects cool? Let’s just say the zombie baby (the episode’s climax) is essentially sound bites of a baby laughing and a dog running while the camera jerks back and forth between empty corners of the room. So no, the effects are not special.
I wanted to like Z Nation, I really did. It’s a first draft that could’ve succeeded in multiple ways, but it never decides what show it wants to be. Maybe future episodes could make me care about what’s going on. But with so many better shows on the air, I’m not sticking around to find out.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.