If you tuned in on Monday, you read how what I had intended as a single blogpost had ballooned into a weeklong monstrosity. In that post I talked about my ongoing disdain for The Walking Dead. Today I'm going to talk about how surprisingly great Z-Nation is.
|Better than it looks...in so many ways...|
As much as I've come to dislike TWD itself, I do still feel indebted to it. We are experiencing what I can only describe as a renaissance in horror television, and it is basically due to the success of TWD. In the wake of TWD's first season, FX released American Horror Story, and those two surprising popular (and sometimes critical) successes have stood as pillars propping open the gate for a whole new onslaught of television horror.
In the last few decades the only horror I can think of on TV was either blended with other genres (Buffy, Forever Knight) or slipped into an anthology series (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, lesser imitators.) Now, though, we're in the unique position of being able to see horror, actual horror, on television without equivocating. FX's flawed-but-excellent The Strain debuted earlier this year, a concept for a television vampire show that had been stuck in development hell so long Guillermo del Toro finally simply published the story as a novel.
Along with the quality horror there was bound to come imitators and cash-grabs. When SyFy (which has gone so far around the bend in terms of nonsensical cash-ins and deliberate shlock that it has practically become a parody of its forebear The Sci-Fi Channel) announced that it was releasing a new show called Z-Nation, every sign seemed to point to "non-union Mexican equivalent to TWD." The fact that it was made by The Asylum, a degenerate production company which exists solely to cash in on existing properties with cheap knockoffs, seemed to billboard that fact more clearly than even the cheesy television commercials did.
|Seriously? This dumbass zombie baby was supposed to entice me? After it had already been done, and better in Dawn of the Dead (2004), not to mention Dead Alive...|
Z-Nation promised to be bad. Spectacularly bad. And the premiere episode delivered on that promise in spades. People like me who had sat down to watch it out of a sense of obligation were so disheartened that the social media backlash was instant and brutal. To call this...this thing...a warmed over rehash of TWD was unkind both to TWD and to the proud culinary tradition of rewarming hash. Horror freak friends of mine swore off it right then and there.
|And then there was this stupidity. Whoever that dude is supposed to be...what's he doing with Addy's Z-Whacker anyway? And, yup, that's actually what they called it in-universe. A "Z-Whacker."|
I'm not a sadist but I am, well, I guess "stubborn" is the best word for it. When I start a television show I almost never stop watching it. I watched Enlisted in its entirety, even after it was cancelled. And Pan-Am. I've yet to DNF a book. And I've yet to encounter a piece of zombie fiction that had nothing to recommend itself to the true aficionado. So I ground through the next episode, a somewhat tepid affair about zombies at an oil refinery. Admittedly, I did find myself grunting, "Huh, well, this has improved."
Then something astonishing happened. I'm a Philadelphia native, so when the third episode of ZN turned out to take place in Philly, I paid a little more attention than I normally would have. (Yeah, I'm that guy who's always on his phone even when watching TV.) And suddenly I was riveted.
The third episode of Z-Nation was without a doubt the best piece of zombie fiction I've watched in years. I even laughed and pulled my hands down my face because the topic under consideration was a cannibal family - the exact same storyline that TWD had been alluding to in its last season finale and was about to take up again in a few weeks when it premiered. And yet somehow this scrappy little Asylum-produced (!) show on SyFy (!!) had managed to lay down the best riff on post-zombocalyptic cannibalism I've ever seen.
Z-Nation had my attention now. It had gone from a crappy show that I had taken pity on because of my affection for the subject matter to something I was actually interested in watching. And as the weeks passed I realized that this was no rehash of TWD after all. The characters in Z-Nation actually got somewhere. Five seasons in, the cast of TWD is still futzing around in Atlanta and its environs, with only a single abortive attempt to go to Washington, D.C. to their credit. The characters of Z-Nation had started in upstate New York and by episode 7 were in Kansas.
This wasn't Generic Zombie Show For Cash Idea #17. This was a tour of a post-apocalyptic United States. Z-Nation had stated its premise right there in the title and it had simply taken me a while to catch on. The quality of the local flavor varies from episode to episode - for instance, except for some jokes about the Liberty Bell, the Philly episode could have taken place just about anywhere - but these characters are making real, genuine progress. ZN is a road trip. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with zombies!
And I realized by episode 10 there was something else ZN was doing that TWD had long since given up on. It was experimenting. The oil-coated zombies of the sophomore show had been weak sauce, but since then we've seen a zombie tsunami, speed-addled zombies (and a few, thankfully offscreen, on Viagra), a zombie hulk, and even radioactive zombies. TWD's sole idea that innovated on anything Romero had ever done was The Herd. And even that was way back in season 2.
With ZN, there's a different kind of zombie threat every week. And since it doesn't take itself so seriously, even the storytelling is experimental. A Run, Lola, Run parody? That's something that's never been combined with the zombie genre to my knowledge. A Mormon settlement comprised entirely of women? Interesting. What about a zombie messiah?
The inclusion of Murphy as a character in the beginning was a bit of an obvious McGuffin. Here was a guy, a whining, puling character of Dr. Smith caliber, who possessed a vaccine to the zombie virus in his blood. The only reason for him to be around was comic relief and as a reason for the characters to start their road trip to California. But as time goes on we begin to realize the full scope of Murphy's powers. He goes unmolested by zombies who consider him one of their own. And then, after encountering a deranged religious sect, he pretends to be the zombie messiah to escape...and realizes later that it's the truth. He can even control zombies, and begins to feel an affinity for them. Where does his true loyalty even lie anymore?
You know what? I cut myself off on Monday when I reached about a thousand words, so I'm going to do the same thing now. And what's telling to me now is that I still have a few more points I wanted to make, about how Z-Nation is braver in a lot of ways than TWD in killing off its characters, and how the characters are more real and immediate and have actual motivations...but like I said, in the interests of fairness I'll cut it off here, and wrap things up on Friday. Hope to see you then! And feel free to flood my comments section with angry diatribes. That's what the internet is for, after all.