I ZOMBIE (TV SERIES)
This is what the hasty say. We are experiencing a golden age of television. The argument is obliged to be flawed. If Elizabethan theatre was a golden age for English drama, the critics had to wait 500 years to prove it. Without knowing the future no one can know if the present will ever qualify as the golden age.
This is what the more reasonable and less hasty say. We may not know yet about golden ages but television is great right now and much better than anything we have seen so far. Well, there has been improvement in American TV but that would not have been difficult. But present day television is great? Breaking Bad was brilliant and supreme entertainment but had implausible plots and second hand themes, The Sopranos gripped and engaged but lacked a moral compass, Mad Men was sophisticated and intelligent but eventually drowned in its own smug narcissism, and the impressive scope and scale of The Wire was undermined by wildly uneven scripts and adolescent machismo. And these were the best. Yet, when placed along the network TV of the USA that audiences endured in the years before, these TV series deserve to be compared to Proust, which indeed they have been.
There has been a breakthrough. Bigger budgets and improved technology helped but cable network HBO also had the novel idea of letting writers make the decisions. Without that the big hits would have been something else, timid, sanitised and routine. There was a price to pay because sometimes the writers indulged themselves. The best series had great moments but a lot of not very bright palaver.
I Zombie is different from what has been admired and praised. In this TV series the producers call the shots. The writers are employers and not auteurs. The show may have a brain eating zombie hero, people who have sex before they are married, and restrained swearing but watching the first episode prodded memories of 70s TV shows. Anyone interested in discovering what a TV episode that combines Murder She Wrote with Night Of The Living Dead might look like should watch the first season of I Zombie. Early episodes were formula driven and always concluded with a final scene in the interrogation cell in the police station. As happened in the interminable Perry Mason series of the 60s, everything was rounded neatly with a confession from the murder suspect. When the circumstances of the plot became difficult to manage, the I Zombie writers leaped ahead and quietly dispensed past details that would hinder the development of the narrative. Characters disappeared without comment. To be fair this criticism can be levelled at War And Peace by Tolstoy. The writers on I Zombie may not have the ambition of Tolstoy or even the writers who were indulged by HBO but neither are they limited nor casual about what they do. The scribes on I Zombie may be mere employees but they are slick, professional, able and sharp.
Elizabeth Moore is the name of the good zombie hero; that is Liv Moore. The writers on I Zombie like puns. Each break for the adverts is followed by a single cartoon strip with a catchy heading. All are different and they range from the strained to the irresistible. In season three the evil zombie company is called Filmore-Graves. When Liv Moore is not fighting bad zombies and reprehensible villains, she is obliged to brood in a very comfortable apartment and worry, like all young people, about how to have fun, achieve personal growth and be a decent person. Compelled to add characterisation I Zombie somehow expanded to combine the ambitions of Murder She Wrote, Night Of The Living Dead and Friends. But that was before the episodes became complicated. By the time season two finished Liv Moore was resisting a zombie apocalypse in Seattle, where the series is filmed, waging war against the corrupt and crazy CEO of Max Rager, the company whose energy drink has created the brain eaters, saving Major her ex-boyfriend from, well that is really complicated, and rehabilitating Blaine the damaged brain-dealer who, before he lost his memory, was happy to murder teenagers so that he could sell their brains. Breathless, is it not?
Although I Zombie is filmed in Seattle the use of locations is limited which is a pity because one brief scene confirmed that the City has a great urban coastline. Maybe the makers have other concerns. The show is aimed at teenagers and those who remember being teenagers. Because the show is producer driven entertainment, the heroes are all glamorous and well groomed. Both genders should be satisfied with the eye candy on display. The actors are also talented and enthusiastic. They can be admired for qualities beyond their looks and wardrobe.
Murder investigations that require being resolved in less than 42 minutes by an otherwise preoccupied zombie need to be uncomplicated. I Zombie is based on a comic strip, so not all the ideas belong to the TV writers. Whoever or whatever, I Zombie has a cute trick. Liv eats the brains of the murder victims but, because she is responsible, she does not want to create unnecessary victims. This is why Liv took a job in a morgue. Providing she has a regular supply of brains, providing she can consume, Liv is functional and can adapt to society. In the modern world sensitive humans like Liv attempt to combine consumerism with social concern. After her digestive system has absorbed the brain cells Liz has visions that belonged to the victim. These visions provide Liz with the necessary clues and allow her to accuse the murderer of his crime. Referring to these visions as clues is understating what most murderers and even screenwriters would regard as an unfair advantage. This cheating by the writers needs indulgence from a viewer but it is given willingly because in the process Liv also acquires some of the personality traits of the victim. The fun of I Zombie is watching the personality of Liv change from episode to episode and to be lost in admiration at the versatility of New Zealand actor Rose MacIver. The changes she uses are sometimes subtle and they tease the viewer. The performance of Malcolm Goodwin as the black detective Clive Babineaux is also fascinating. Goodwin refuses to lean on his racial background for characterisation and he creates something specific to crime movies, an authentic and urgent detective that would fit into the best of 40s noir cinema.
Keeping it slick the writers also have Liv use the brains she nibbles in various recipes to provide tasty meals. This is another neat way of showing the tension between consumerist appetites and conscience in a world defined by capitalism and advertising. Liv is a young and positive person, and her boyfriend, before his zombie infection, was a caring social worker. These fine examples of modern humanity are obliged to be ambitious in a world created by someone else and with bodies that will not always be defined by makeup, diet and exercise. Like zombies, we are baffled by strangers and lose our youth and looks. It is tough in such circumstances to be light hearted but the wisecracks and wry humour in the script provide succour for the appealing heroes.
Inevitably, Liz has needed good fortune to survive. Her boss in the morgue is sympathetic to her plight. Dr Ravi Chakrabarti is from London and he is a soccer and video games fan. English viewers will recognise him as one of their own. His references to the English Premier League are a bonus even if they are London-centric. The relationship of these two characters is familiar from the novels of Henry James, Graham Greene and others. Liv is the positive can-do American, and Dr Ravi is the doubting and tentative European. His dependency on Liv and his fears for the others reflect the darker memories of Europeans.
I Zombie may be designed by producers to compete in ratings battles but the writers sneak in a few left-wing concerns. All the heroes work in the public sector, and the go ahead bad guys all have entrepreneurial instincts. Vaughn Du Clark is the evil CEO in charge of Max Rager the company that makes the destructive energy drinks. Max Rager is an alternative non-human identity for Du Clark. He, like other moguls, has become something not human. Season three provides a female and more dangerous equivalent. Capitalist moguls are men and women interested in power, in fortunes and empires that can provide ego soaked legacies. Such men and women see other humans as an obstacle to the ambitions of their company and non-human identity. Du Clark is played with relish by Steven Weber. He has a facial resemblance to John Henry, the owner of Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club. The coincidence may worry some baseball and football fans.
I Zombie may be light entertainment but it is made by people who know what they are doing. They understand the craftsmanship that needs to be taken seriously and, when it becomes difficult, what can be sidestepped. After the humourless and overwrought The Walking Dead, the zombie genre needed something less fraught. Game Of Thrones rivals The Walking Dead for popularity and is as pedestrian. Thrones may have chest-beating ambition and be willing to make imaginative leaps but watching that series is like listening to the pompous and crude music of U2. The dialogue of Game Of Thrones is tone deaf, and the invention heavy handed and absurd. I Zombie is like a great pop record. It is likeable, has a tune with plenty of hooks, the singers look great in the video, and the musicians really can play their instruments.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.