Photo: Syfy

Z Nation is eager to accommodate new viewers. This is apparent not just from the way “No Mercy,” the season three premiere, jettisons the exciting narrative to which it spent all last season building, with our heroes captured, injured, or fleeing an exploding submarine, in favor of a straightforward flashback showdown. It’s also clear from how this episode is structured like a stand-alone two-hour Syfy movie, complete with goofball credits reminiscent of the limp boy-band zombie Western Dead 7—itself a pretty blatant thief of Z Nation’s aesthetic and story. (The ouroboros is strong with this channel, and its go-to production company, The Asylum.) Which is too bad, because the further Z Nation strays from the wacky ’n’ hacky mission statement of its parent studio, and the more it embraces the “actual narrative stakes, but with jokes” mentality that served it so well in season two, the better it gets.

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Still, it’s good to see Warren, Doc, Addy, and the rest of the gang back in action, even in service of a respectable and entertaining story that suffers from being overlong and stuck in the past. This story takes place somewhere between episodes five and six of last season, when Cassandra was still alive, and Murphy is hauling around his little half-zombie offspring in a cooler with holes punched in the lid. (“What’s wrong with them?” Red asks 10k, to no explanation. A lot, Red, and that’s why the young woman and baby are no longer with us.) The setup couldn’t be simpler: A mysterious mercenary nicknamed “The Man” is demanding a small group of survivors turn over a Dr. Harold Teller, or else he’ll be forced to kill them all. Our protagonists get involved and come up with a High Plains Drifter-like plan to defend the people and their hideout from The Man and his thugs. Violence ensues. When the smoke clears, Teller’s been taken, everyone but our heroes are dead, and the show has given itself an intriguing new storyline with which to play around in the upcoming season.

All of which is part of the problem. The stakes here are even lower than usual, because we already know “No Mercy” can’t create any forward momentum with character arcs or group dynamics, not without screwing up the entire previous season’s continuity. No one’s in any real danger, and nothing of consequence can happen—to the people we know, anyway. They have to walk out of this little diversion in precisely the same shape they were before, which is the death knell for any episodic television to be be compelling. Z Nation is counting on the return of its familiar faces to generate enough goodwill for the audience to overlook this glaringly obvious flaw in strategy, and it weakens what should have been a rip-roaring return for a series that worked so hard to develop its own identity and create emotional stakes in its narrative.

Which is why all the really fascinating stuff happens with the unknown villains of the episode. To begin with, The Man is a great new nemesis for the show, a creepy loner whose assemblage of quirks (sitting under an umbrella drinking a martini, waiting for marching orders) feels earned, not just like something the writers thought would be fun to include. His penchant for spitting out movie quotes is silly at best, but also perfectly in keeping with how a guy with pretensions to being cultured might approach the world, post-zombie apocalypse. Sure, there were the stereotypical slo-mo shots of him doing things as mundane as getting out of the driver’s seat (not everything becomes badass just because it’s in slow motion, directors), but his reluctant adherence to the “no unnecessary violence” moral code of his superiors gives him an interesting arc to play. It’ll be fun when he turns up again in the future.

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Similarly, the strange and remote little cosmopolitan outpost harboring what looks to be the season’s mysterious swimsuit-clad bad guys is easily one of the best ideas the show has ever had. These Aryan specimens of physical perfection are menacing in their very magazine-layout cool, and when the prisoners, with Teller at the end of the line, are marched poolside and their hoods removed, it’s smart and sinister imagery that introduces a new concept to the universe of Z Nation—namely, that there are elites who have survived the apocalypse just fine, thank you very much. They have means of communication and transportation (satellite phones, helicopters) largely thought gone from this world, which suggests they may have been the ones behind the hack of Citizen Z’s tech in last season’s finale. I hope they play an integral role going forward, because it’s about time the show’s antagonists developed a coherent and stable storyline, rather than someone like Dr. Murch or Kurian simply popping up every now and then to push the larger narrative along.

Admittedly, this week’s mutations were a gross and entertaining one. The fungus-infected folks were the kind of Day-Glo weirdness the show excels at, and their presence added some classic Z Nation silliness to the proceedings. The emotional struggle at the heart of it wasn’t much to stand on, since it seemed like Teller’s whole “keep them alive” attitude could’ve been avoided, given that he tried to blow his own brains out once Sarah died, anyway. But they sure were fun/icky to look at.

But that’s all this episode did. It gave us some cool new villains (who never even spoke a word) and then ended. The main story was treading water. It was good to see Doc and Murphy cracking wise, and Warren and Addy being badasses, and 10k getting a rare chance to flirt with a girl, but it didn’t change a thing. If anything, Murphy got to be right for once: This achieved almost nothing. Everybody died, and Teller was taken anyway. It may have been the right thing to do, ethically, but it was a dead end for us. Here’s hoping Z Nation actually begins in earnest next week, rather than killing time while a new nemesis is created.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome, everyone, to Z Nation reviews! I’m not sure if these will stick, but I’m curious to gauge interest and see if you guys are interested in talking about this odd little series that slowly won me over. (As I’ve argued in the past, this show had to overcome some serious handicaps to become as sharp and entertaining as it is.)
  • “Time out, Mowgli.” We’ve missed you, Doc.
  • Seeing Cassandra again was a good reminder of why killing off that character was a smart move. She just didn’t serve any good purpose to the show at this point.
  • There were also more than a couple clunky lines over this lengthy return. Red’s “…or you’ll be wearing red, too” might have been the worst.
  • I do admire this show for its refusal to adhere to standard TV rules involving children. No show is less shy about killing little kids, including The Walking Dead.
  • “May you all meet again soon. In Zona.” I’m intrigued by this idea, tying together last season’s finale with The Man and his henchman. A religious basis to their actions could really provide new ideas.
  • Blowing up the “Kraken” zombies with the makeshift cannon was the Z Nation awesome shot of the week.

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