The scene opens on a sparse, post-apocalyptic wasteland. The colors are washed out, everything coated in grime and dust, as though lightness and joy has been sapped from the world. Suddenly, a hardy band of survivors enters the frame, fighting for their lives. Their opponents? A seemingly unceasing horde of the undead. Bullets fly as the bedraggled group works to escape.
As they flee through the streets, a sense of tension mounting, they suddenly come upon a gigantic wheel of cheese, maybe 20 feet tall. The wheel was part of some long-forgotten Wisconsin festival, and our desperate band hits upon a plan: Dislodging the enormous cheese wheel from its struts, they send it rolling down the street. Picking up steam, it comes upon the first wave of zombies—it squishes several like undead bugs, just as quickly as it manages to get another one stuck in its rind. Soon, the giant cheese wheel is rolling merrily along, picking up zombies into its soft interior, like an avalanche of dairy and mindless flesh-eaters.
This is roughly the moment the average unsuspecting television viewer would probably say, “This is fucking ridiculous. What the hell is this?” To which Syfy would proudly respond, ‘This is Z Nation. And yes, it is fucking ridiculous.”
As it approaches the end of its second season, Syfy’s entry into the ongoing boom in televised zombie apocalypses has pulled off an unexpected feat: It’s gone from ludicrously bad to ludicrously entertaining. A show whose pilot episode featured a U.S. soldier chasing a zombie baby around a garage has developed a lived-in universe, appealing characters, and yes, even actual emotional stakes. What began as a slice of Friday night Velveeta (almost as lumpy as the genuine article), has turned a corner, and in so doing, has finally begun to earn its outlandish premises.
The story is a neat twist on the standard “chosen one” scenario. After a zombie outbreak demolishes society (so far, so Walking Dead), a small band of survivors have come together with one purpose, beyond survival: Protect the only known human to survive a zombie bite, and deliver him to a CDC facility in California, where his blood may hold the cure to the zombie plague. The twist? The savior of humanity, a former prisoner named Murphy (Keith Allan), is an unmitigated jackass. On his list of life goals, helping to save the planet comes in somewhere well below finding a decent strip club. Murphy’s companions have to slowly make their way across the country, fighting off zombies, other survivors, and all manner of dangers—all while trying to rein in their loose-cannon cargo.
What makes Z Nation so impressive is that it’s had to overcome one of the biggest handicaps imaginable, one that dragged it down well before a single frame was shot. The series is brought to you by The Asylum, the studio whose bottom-of-the-barrel cinematic schlockfests have become almost synonymous with “shitty movie.” It creates mockbusters—films that are blatant ripoffs of Hollywood blockbusters, often made and released around the same time as their big-budget counterparts, in hopes of luring in unsuspecting audiences to rent or buy the film. (For example: Shortly after the release of Pacific Rim, The Asylum’s Atlantic Rim was available for purchase.) These movies are near-uniformly terrible, to a degree that one suspects quality control is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
But the studio also does a brisk business in made-for-Syfy films, movies like Mega Shark Vs. Crocosaurus and 2-Headed Shark Attack, not to mention the 800-lb. gorilla of Syfy originals, the Sharknado franchise. The company consistently delivers dumb (but decent ratings-attracting) fare for minimal cost for the network, so it’s not surprising that The Aslyum finally decided to give scripted series a try. But for anyone reasonably familiar with the brand, that association was a millstone around the show’s neck from the beginning, dissuading them from tuning in. Watching a dumb shark attack movie starring D-listers on a lazy Saturday night is one thing, but a TV series needs to give viewers a reason to become invested. The interchangeable and wafer-thin characters that populate dreck like Bermuda Tentacles aren’t going to inspire repeat viewing, even when played by actors like Linda Hamilton, who are undoubtedly hoping for an ironic, Sharknado-sized surprise.
In addition to characters to actually care about—or at least find compelling—a successful television series also needs something else that’s completely absent from the Asylum catalogue: good writing. Shows that focus on unlikable or somewhat unrealistic characters, like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, have excellent writing, and a comedic edge that lends affection to even the most despicable of its protagonists. There was nothing in the history of this production house to suggest even the slightest chance of solid dialogue, let alone an engaging narrative. If you were to compile a list of deal-breakers when it comes to the elements of a serialized TV show, Z Nation’s background would check most of the boxes.
And, to be fair, there were times during the first season when it seemed as though the producers of the series were comfortable churning out content of subpar quality. Season one not only embraced the idea of throwing every zombie-related idea against the wall to see what sticks; it damn near ruptured itself coming up with wacky, outlandish means of having its band of heroes confront zombies. Fracking-addled zombies? Check. Religious lunatics incorporating zombies into their bizarre cult? Check. Zombie tornado? SUPERCHECK. By the time a zombie tsunami (a.k.a. “zunami”) rolled around, it almost felt like old hat. No idea was too silly, or too far-fetched.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t yet a strong enough show in place to support these flights of fancy. As a result, the series was wildly uneven, more like an ongoing series of goofball setpieces and hacky jokes, delivered by one-note characters lacking a strong framework of relationships. Its possible source of narrative juice—the innate tension and dread of people fending for their lives in a zombie apocalypse—was shredded by the hammy scenarios and lack of a grounded universe. Still, it showed promise. A lot of this was thanks to producer and writer-director John Hyams (Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning), whose insightful dialogue and excellent camera work offered up the rare dramatic stakes and reasons to care about the characters. By season’s end, the show had begun to realize it couldn’t coast by on inventive gonzo situations and clichéd jokes. It seemed to be reaching for something more.
Season two delivered on that hope. What used to be trace amounts of smarts has begun to seep into the firmament of the series. The most important change has been in the humor coming from the characters’ personalities, rather than the “look at this crazy shit!” tactic that permeated the first season. The band of survivors has become an ersatz family, and the interpersonal dynamics of those relationships have given the proceedings a reason for existing. It’s so much more fun to see the absurd situations into which our protagonists are placed when we not only have a sense of how they’ll each react, but that they care what happens to the others, even black sheep Murphy. A recent episode found them in Roswell, dealing with potential extraterrestrials, and grounded by a firm commitment to staying within the everyday world. Whereas previously there was a sense that those behind the scenes just thought, “You know what’d be nuts?” and did it, the show now justifies every move, fully considering the ramifications. Even better, it’s doubled down on realistic and natural responses from each character.
But let’s not shortchange the crazy. Z Nation is proudly, almost defiantly, acerebral: It doesn’t want you ruminating on philosophical conundrums, or pondering the subtle shades of characters’ motivations. Not unlike The Flash, which has similarly created well-rounded but predictable characters, the series cares intensely about being fun. And that’s all to the good of the longevity of the series. Getting dragged into morbidity, or desultory periods of darkness, is not what this show is about.
But let’s also not oversell things. Despite some recent improvements in visual quality (a dramatic set piece at the Grand Canyon is the best special effect the show’s ever done), this remains a low-budget affair. There are still seams showing occasionally in the script and the settings, and the lack of resources often comes through in the varying talent levels of the show’s guest actors—though the aforementioned Roswell-set episode featured funny and sharp guest appearances from inveterate scene-stealer Missi Pyle and oft-disguised character actor Doug Jones. Killing off the weakest character in the main cast this year didn’t hurt things, either.
Those looking for a show that returns Syfy to the glory days of Battlestar Galactica are bound to be disappointed (though the channel’s upcoming slate seems directly geared to address that, with The Expanse, The Magicians, and in-development projects like a Hyperion adaptation promising weighty, thoughtful sci-fi). There are no weighty themes here, no resonant stories or ideas that will keep you talking, engaged, and addicted long after you finish each installment. But what you will find, and what’s in short supply on most dark and violent shows, is an uproarious sense of fun, combined with an understanding that the absurdity of the situations needs tempering with a groundedness, and emotional stakes that earn the wacky antics. It’s not perfect—that rolling cheese wheel was a bridge too far—but the fact that a mistake is called out as a rare misstep, rather than par for the course, shows just how good this series has gotten. The show has followed in the footsteps of its heroes’ nemeses: Z Nation rose from the dead.