(Photo by: Daniel Sawyer Schaefer/Syfy)

Part of the fun of Z Nation is the show’s willingness to embrace whatever oddball conceit the writers invent from week to week, and tease out the various possibilities of that episode’s setting, situation, or unusual premise. Area 51? No problem. Greenhouse plant zombies? No problem. (Giant rolling wheel of cheese? Slight problem.) At its best, the show fuses the outlandish idea to the universe of the series, making the ridiculous feasible and the unlikely understandable, at the very least. Providing sensible explanations for the comically strange is ingrained in the DNA of the series; some outlandish exposition, followed by raised eyebrows and a shrug of bemused acceptance from Warren, is practically de rigueur for the average installment.

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And then, there’s whatever the hell was going on in “Doc Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” arguably one of the most unjustified side adventures ever cooked up by the show. Doc is a plenty likable character, and his nonplussed reactions to much of what occurred within the walls of Serenity Falls Institution For The Criminally Insane were funny enough, but there was almost no justification for the story to have happened in the first place. Plus, the scattershot nature of the events unfolding made it hard to lock in to this story. “Look at the crazy people!” is almost always a lazy way to a joke, and on a show that already regularly makes hay of people’s mental issues, dumping a bunch of gags about being mentally ill into the mix felt cheap.

(Photo by: Daniel Sawyer Schaefer/Syfy)

I won’t spend much time unpacking that left-field beginning to the episode, because the show spent even less time trying to have it make any sense at all. Doc goes to the bathroom in the woods and somehow ends up separated from Warren and company, to the point where they can’t hear him yelling for them? Would they seriously not notice his absence? Then he gets abducted by the residents of a nearby mental hospital—one apparently near enough that Elvis and the nurse could inadvertently discover him while hunting for mushrooms, and bring him back without any of our group even noticing? It beggars belief, and not in a fun, inventive way. “To be honest, I’ve been in worse places,” Doc says, but his affable disposition is about the only thing that’s consistent in this episode. (By the second time Elvis knocks out Murphy, for no real coherent reason beyond entering a “restricted area,” every subsequent plot progression may as well be accompanied by “Eh, why not?” flashing in white text across the screen.)

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Having Doc demonstrate his skills is the best thing about this episode. Too often, he’s just the wisecracking pharmacologist, so having a reminder that he’s actually a very capable and intelligent guy is a useful thing to introduce into the narrative every so often. Claiming the diagnosis of “10k fever” for 10k made for a decent delay, but it was all just in service of the inevitable lobotomy attempts from our wannabe Nurse Ratched (or “Nurse Wretched” as Doc calls her) and Zs breaking down the doors of the institute. By the time the patients drive off in the bus, singing “99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall,” and leaving 10k and Doc on their own, most of the preceding acts were revealed as so much killing time.

Thankfully, there were a few respectable diversions en route to that lackluster ending. Elvis joining Doc during his entry into the Z ward to recover medication was a nice touch, as was having him announce his intent by singing a brief, “Only fools rush in.” Elvis’ continual posturing (and sacrificing his guitar to take out a Z) brightened up this mini-mission, just as Doc’s use of electrocution to set off the gas tanks and launching the wheelchair-bound Z into puttering forward momentum enlivened the later encounter. Though really, it was big silent Bob’s (I just now realized, literally: “silent Bob”) stomping on a head, and having a near-clean skull shoot out, that registered the biggest “Z Nation ridiculous kill” incident.

10k’s Murphy-derived illness isn’t any clearer, despite that subplot occupying the only real position of import throughout the episode. From warning Doc early on that he doesn’t “want to be blue” to his post-drug-cocktail reawakening (and insisting Murphy’s “not like that any more, he’s different,” before contradictorily insisting Warren and the rest stop him), there are wide-ranging possibilities for being under Murphy’s sway. The implication seems to be that despite possessing the ability to think on his own accord, Murphy’s influence does creep into 10k’s brain. Really, though. watching 10k behave like a drug-addled weirdo makes all the ambiguity go down more smoothly. And Bob turns out to be a pretty good guy, killing the nurse, and even blinking to register his awareness of having helped Doc.

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Still, this was awfully thin gruel to sustain an episode. Fleetingly entertaining but incredibly forgettable, “Doc Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Next” is Z Nation on auto-pilot, hoping to coast by on charm and silliness, without putting in the effort to make it hold together and integrate it all into the series. The patients may be running the asylum (and The Asylum, the show’s production company), but this episode was off its meds in an unfortunate way. At least Doc understands what happened to 10k by the end, and even intuits the purpose of the injections. Poor 10k, worried Warren and the others will look at him like they did Cassandra: Here’s hoping he has it a little easier soon enough. A break from the puppies and kittens, if you will.

Stray Observations:

  • Bob’s last great act: Opening the bus door by head-butting it repeatedly. It makes as much sense as anything else in the episode.
  • Winona the goth was also a minor character was nonetheless provided a few laughs. “Wait! We have to synchronize our watches!…I always wanted to say that.”
  • Just when you thought they couldn’t squeeze in another hacky Elvis reference, Elvis leaves the building.
  • Nice meta-joke, having Doc explain their mission to the entire group, and have them burst into laughter at how insane it sounds. That’s right: Crazy people think the plot of Z Nation is ludicrous.

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