This past week I set a bit of time aside to spend with Z Nation, a zombie TV show that centers on a group of survivors traveling across the U.S. Their mission is to get one man, a bite survivor whose blood may hold the key to developing a cure, to a lab in California.
Despite everything negative I’m about to say . . . I kind of ending up liking the show. It’s highly flawed, cheap entertainment but if you watch enough of anything you get used to it and by extension come to like it.
A lot of new shows suffer in their first year trying to prove themselves. The Walking Dead had a short first season and a lot of work to prove that a show about zombies could actually be successful. It’s because they paved the way that other networks have been willing to take a chance on zombie shows.
I say this knowing full well that shows like Buffy really blazed the trail for horror TV shows but we could take that back further still saying that Tales From the Crypt or way back to Alfred Hitchcock Presents which did the same.
Z nation had the confidence of the network behind them and were granted more episodes to prove themselves but had to do so on a much smaller budget. Smartly, they went for a fun, almost video-game-like experience where the characters and zombies are entertaining to watch and we don’t get our hearts ripped out and trampled on every episode. The creators of Z Nation apparently have criticized the Walking Dead for being too serious. That’s not something I would say against TWD but having had my heart broken enough times by TWD I’m willing to grant it’s an understandable argument.
The premise is totally unoriginal but it works. A rag tag group that didn’t want to be together in the first place have to pull together for the common good to transport a package, which happens to be a person to some other location. This is the same as Eugene on The Walking Dead or the last pregnant girl on earth in Children of Men or the accountant in Midnight Run. Whatever, it works.
It has LOTS of pop culture references and ripoffs.
There was an episode of X-Files that basically just copied John Carpenter’s The Thing. This happens on TV shows with 20 some episodes. They pepper in a few throwaway episodes or copycat episodes just for fun. Like their version of something. On sitcoms it can be entertaining. (Oops! Balki has amnesia! Hahah!) But it’s also a bit of lazy writing. This show does a good bit of referencing and ripping from everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Star Trek.
The Z-nado episode was a tip of the hat to Sharknado the wildly successful movie series that is not only horrible but horribly self aware of how horrible it is in the best, most fun sort of way. I have to admit Z-nado was a fun idea. The Z’s bones should have been pulverized but it was fun.
In the first episode there’s a nod to the Walking Dead when one character mentions he found out about the camp he’s in “from a cop hole up in an abandoned prison down the road with some others.” Nice.
In the nuclear reactor episode Doc says, “I’m a doctor not a nuclear physicist” in a great nod to Doctor McCoy on Star Trek. And in the same episode we see the manager from the nuclear power plant was named “Homer Stubins” in a nice nod to The Simpsons.
We get a nod to Apocalypse Now when Ride of the Valkyries is used to draw a lot of zombies in and later a character named Kurtz, a bald megalomaniac who caused a lot of this trouble. After the long trip to the source of the trouble not unlike the long trip up the river in Apocalypse Now it’s an appropriate little bit to throw in there.
There’s lots more but it basically says that this is meant to be a fun ride and you shouldn’t take it TOO seriously.
Some contextual detail is nice. The use of bullets and medicine as money is great. I really like the barter system though I find it hard to buy the rise of the saloon the way we see it in the show.
Two strong episodes actually dealt with interesting aspects of human culture namely sexual abuse and religious fanaticism. Throughout the show we see vague references to some pseudo christian spiritualism but are then shown the extremes of that when we are confronted by crazed cultists. In one case a resurrection cult and the other an all women’s camp that has gone way past normal into banishing their male children when they hit 13 and not sending them out into the world prepared.
It shows how any belief taken to an extreme ultimately hurts people. I was really happy to see these two episodes included in the series run.
The zombies themselves aren’t particularly impressive. That’s not to say the effects teams did a bad job. I think they did as much as they could on the budget they had. We almost exclusively see extras in makeup as zombies. Whereas on a high-budget show like the walking dead we get a bit more variation with characters like bicycle girl and heads and torsos. They did finally give us a horribly messed up lab tech at the end of the season and some pretty fake looking radiation zombies but I’m hoping for more variation in the next season that goes beyond just pouring oil on some extras or dressing them as firemen.
The glowing radiation zombies were ridiculous. They mention the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters a few times in that episode and I’m going to go ahead and say now that I lived in Fukushima at the time of the earthquake and left my town because of the radiation and I find the premise of glowing zombies preposterous. It would look cool in a game but on screen it just looks ridiculous. I think it ended up being something like glowing mold that was growing on them but I just didn’t buy it.
The Baby Zombie was a mistake. In the very first episode a baby zombie zips around a room like a rabid rabbit and it nearly put me off watching the rest of the show. It just wasn’t good. Sorry but babies don’t move like that and in the story, zombies don’t gain extra strength or agility for being zombies. The baby would never be able to eat anyone as we see it do because babies don’t have teeth! No matter how hard it bit or gummed at you it would never be able to hurt you.
One strong point of the show is that we start three years after most of the world has fallen apart and people have settled into a sort of equilibrium with the world they live in. The downside is that it REALLY doesn’t feel like three years later.
Is the power grid still on? It seems everywhere you go cameras and even road signs are still working. WHAT!? What are they plugged in to? How is there any power for anything? I’ll buy a certain amount of solar but for the NSA agent to be able to hack in to a construction sign on the side of the road . . . nope.
For the record I like the character and the actor but I don’t like the role he really plays in the show. I hate it when a show or movie tells me how the audience is supposed to react. Like in the matrix when the operator is watching the action and reacts like he’s watching an action movie. I hate that. I don’t need it.
How is it citizen Z can pick up a call on a cop radio all the way from the arctic? One character, citizen Z is stuck at an NSA listening post in the arctic and tries to contact the survivors over time to help them along and deliver the package. In one episode he picks up a call from a police band radio. Is that being relayed via a satellite? Ok, from what? The radio is a short wave thing that can’t reach the satellite. How is that signal being picked up and sent up to the satellite? The way it suddenly pops up on his screen in the episode makes it seem as though that one radio is the ONLY thing sending a signal anywhere? NOONE else has radios or transmitters? Because if they do, and they do, he should be picking up lots of signals all over.
The cheapness of low-budget sci-fi that doesn’t have to look the way it does bothers me. The smart thing to do on a low budget is focus on telling a great story and not worry about a ton of set dressing. But with BAD CG the temptation is there to throw in some shocking things simply because we can.
Why have a hole torn out of the Washington monument so it looks like it could topple at any moment, or an airliner sitting on top of a building like a misplaced kid’s toy. We know what airliners do to buildings and that ain’t it. In one case which I’ll chalk up to bad set dressing a spotless phone booth appears out of nowhere just when the characters need to get a call. Unless you’re Bill and Ted or the Doctor it just looks out of place.
Famous buildings in the apocalypse.
At some point the survivors have to end up some place the audience will recognize like Mount Rushmore. In this case the times when the characters come across those places it seems really flippant and offhanded. Like, “Oh yeah. Look at that. Anyway let’s get moving.” From a writing standpoint it seems silly to include these things if they are just sight gags or passing bits of filler. Without evoking real emotion or strong reactions it’s hard to see the value of their inclusion.
One last thing:
I’ve tried to avoid giving away too many details about the show here. I could say a lot about individual characters, relationships and portrayals but I’d like you to find them out along the way. It’s more fun that way. The ending was a nice cliffhanger which I won’t give away but with the season starting up soon you won’t have long to wait to see what’s next.