Let’s deal with the giant, undead elephant in the room right out of the gate: The world doesn’t need another zombie thing. It would be very easy to cynically dismiss iZombie on these grounds and move on with your life, except for one thing: the show is actually a lot of fun. Just because it doesn’t need to exist doesn’t mean it shouldn’t, right? Just ask those eternal optimists at Jurassic Park!
In all seriousness, iZombie—adapted by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright from the comic of the same name (but different capitalization)—doesn’t need to exist in this pop culture universe saturated with zombie other stories, and that’s maybe why it works. This isn’t a story about surviving a brutal zombie apocalypse, or a story about a zombie apocalypse at all; it’s the story of one girl whose life is completely turned upside down when one night, she goes to a party as a career-driven human and comes home the next day as a brains-eating zombie. It’s the small-scale nature of the premise—and the way the situation is played for humor—that maybe doesn’t set iZombie completely apart from the rest of the zombie fiction field, but it at least allows it to exist alongside it in a pleasing way.
The human in question is Liv Moore (get it?), a medical resident in Seattle whose life is literally perfect—perfect job, perfect fiancé, perfect family, perfect roommate—until one night, her colleague invites her to a party, and that party is attacked by zombies. Liv wakes up the next day by zipping herself out of a body bag (amusingly freaking out a nearby paramedic) and immediately throws away her old, perfect life so she can deal with her new, awful existence as a zombie. Instead of working as a doctor on the rise, she’s now in the morgue as a medical examiner. This gives her easy access to the brains she needs in order to stay sharp (because going without makes her “duller” and “meaner”), which she basically negates by shuffling through the rest of her life with the least amount of affect possible. To her family and friends, these sudden changes read as PTSD from the party incident. But to Liv, it’s more like zombie depression as she attempts to live within the basic confines of her old life—living with the same roommate and still interacting with her now-ex-fiancé—and yet she cannot find anything worthy to live for.
It’s a tricky balance of sadness and regret, which Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright smartly lace with enough acerbic humor from Liv to outline both the outlandish nature of the problem and show that there is still a bit of a spark left in her, so when she does come out of her funk a bit it feels organic. Liv’s life starts to change when her medical examiner boss Ravi walks in on her enjoying some freshly dead brains from a Jane Doe and instead of being frightened, is absolutely delighted (“Why the hot sauce? Is that a zombie thing?”). This is quickly followed by the introduction of rookie police detective Babineaux, who is looking to solve Jane Doe’s murder. It just so happens he walks in right when Liv is receiving her first memory from eating the victim’s dead brains, and two things occur at once: A television premise is formed, and Liv finally has a purpose again. If she can’t keep people from dying by being a doctor, she can certainly help find out why they died.
This brings us to what is ostensibly the trickiest part of the premise: The case of the week. The word “procedural” is like poison in some circles, but procedural stories can encompass many different things. Veronica Mars had a procedural element that was almost always deftly woven into the fabric of the show along with character moments and mythology beats, so if anyone deserves a bit of leeway on the idea of doing a procedural show it’s certainly Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright. The case in the pilot—a twisty story of Romanian escorts, local weathermen, and the crooked cop who ends up being behind it all—isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s solid and brisk and just interesting enough to do what it needs to do, which is introduce all of the other fun things that iZombie is proposing by doing these murder-of-the-week stories. Not only does Liv see “visions” of the dead person’s memory after ingesting their brains, but she also picks up little bits of their personality, and that’s where iZombie (and Rose McIver, who’s giving a great performance in general) get to have some fun. The Jane Doe—later identified a Romanian escort named Tatiana—was a bit of a kleptomaniac, so Liv can’t help herself from stealing things. And when Tatiana’s roommate speaks Romanian, Liv speaks it right back. It’s these little fun touches that take the murder case to a place of character, and also allow for a big dose of humor and personality in the process. Wrap all of this into the fact that Liv has to pretend to be a psychic in front of Detective Babineaux in order for her visions to make sense, and it’s a great writing choice that leads to a lot of fun moments.
If everything about Liv, her job, and her new purpose as a zombie murder detective works in the pilot, the one thing that needs a bit more time to develop are the vestiges of her old life that still remain. Her ex-fiancé Major Lilywhite (oh yeah, that’s his name) is still an active force in her life, and his reasons for even agreeing to hang around after she dumped him so suddenly need to be developed much more than they’re able to here, otherwise he’s destined to feel like he doesn’t quite fit in. Her roommate Peyton comes off as more of a nag than anything else. And her mother, while serving an important emotional beat at the end of the episode, is far more cartoonish in her visage of upper middle class propriety than Liv ever is as a zombie. The essential problem is that Liv’s old, perfect life is far less interesting to watch than her new, imperfect, chaotic one, and that’s a narrative bridge iZombie is going to need to figure out how to cross going forward.
All in all, the iZombie pilot attempts to impart a tremendous amount of information and character beats into one quick episode, and for the most part navigates it with ease along with a needed dose of humor. The pop culture universe might not need another zombie story, but I’m glad it’s got this one all the same.
- Welcome to weekly coverage of iZombie! My knowledge of zombies and eyes is very weak, but my knowledge of CW shows is strong. Let’s all hope this is enough to get me through.
- Let’s talk about David Anders as the mysterious zombie man at the party and then in Liv’s visions. Bring on the Sark!
- Liv goes “full zombie” one time, and I hope they don’t go to that well too often. It was… not great.
- Rob Thomas has become a much more confident director since helming the Veronica Mars movie, and he does a fine job setting up the visual palate of the show here. Especially fun are the comic transitions between scenes and used at act breaks, which are deftly incorporated into the live action.
- How about those kick-ass main titles done by Michael Allred, the original iZOMBIE comic artist? Super cool and a great nod to the source material.
- Liv Moore. Major Lilywhite. Someone is very into illustrative names (because Robert Buckley’s face is nothing if not major, and lily white).
- Full disclosure: I am a Veronica Mars superfan, so it’s difficult for me to not make Veronica Mars connections to everything I see here. I will likely keep that chatter to a minimum (or at least try to confine it to the stray observations). That being said, welcome to my next bullet point!
- The Seattle/Neptune Connection: Listen, there are a lot of things here that echo Veronica Mars, whether intentional or not. From the Josh Kramon score to the witty Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright dialogue, the similarities are there, so I’m going to keep a running list. In the pilot, the main one is the appearance of the always delightful Daran Norris as weatherman Johnny Frost (aka Veronica Mars’ Cliff McCormack), and when Liv says she needs to “find who did this and nail his ass to the wall,” well, that sounds like it is is straight from Veronica’s own mouth (and she did say something very similar in “Charlie Don’t Surf”).
- “I’m standing in a hallway waiting to smell a call girl. This? Is vibe appropriate.” It’s the deadpan face that sells it.