The series premiere of the new CW zombie police procedural, iZombie, throws a lot of information at its viewers and, in the grand tradition of television pilots through the decades, the foundation-laying process is not entirely graceful.
Part of the problem is that iZombie’s pilot is missing the tonal variety of the great shows it most reminds us of. One part Veronica Mars (from the same creator, Rob Thomas) and one part Wonderfalls/Dead Like Me/Pushing Daisies (basically, just pick your Bryan Fuller show), iZombie comes off as familiar despite its unique premise.
Based on a comic book of the same name, it tells the story of Liv, an over-achieving med student who turns zombie after an ill-fated booze cruise. The show’s main action picks up five months later and follows Liv’s struggles to re-engage with the life she once loved. She has quit her job, dumped her fiance, and spends her free time sitting in front of the TV rather than engaging with her concerned, frustrated friends or family. There’s also the matter of her hunger for brains.
Cleverly, Liv takes a job at the local morgue purely for the access to fresh, flavorful brains. Things become more complicated when she realizes that eating brains also imbues her with selected memories and traits from the deceased. When one of her meals turns out to be a murdered Romanian escort, she reluctantly helps cop Clive Babineaux with the investigation.
It’s a tragic premise, rife with opportunity to deliver some real emotional blows. Unfortunately, iZombie seems afraid to dwell too long in the tragic — at least in the pilot — and it is the weaker for it. The show is much more concerned with maintaining its quirky tone. Because of this, we lose much of the emotional resonance Liv’s plight should have.
We are told about rather than shown through action Liv’s struggle, mostly through the overutilized voiceover that feels lazy here when it felt inspired in Veronica Mars (perhaps partially because voiceover is such an integral part of the film noir tradition from which Veronica Mars hailed). There are brief glimpses of the tragic: the horror of the boat party where Liv died or a plea from Liv’s best friend that she not give up on life.
Arguably, the most affecting moment, however, comes when Liv’s morgue colleague, Rafi — the only one who knows about her condition — confesses that he is trying to find a cure for Liv’s zombie-ism. It’s frustrating that this option never occurred to Liv, who is a doctor in her own right, but this is one of the few moments we see (rather than are told) what Liv really wants.
She immediately drives over to her ex-fiance’s hoyse to tell him that, even if they cannot be together now, there’s still hope. She backs out at the last minute, still too concerned with his safety to go through with it, but it’s compelling nonetheless. We learn a lot about Liv in this sequence — how much she still loves Meyer, what she will give up for the people she loves — and it’s told through action rather than dialogue or voiceover. More of this please, iZombie!
Surprisingly, the most energetic moments of the show came in the police procedural. Not because the case-of-the-week was particularly compelling or because television needs more shows about people solving crimes. The credit goes to the eager, competent, and immediately trusting police detective Clive.
Clive doesn’t really care how Liv knows what she knows, he just cares that she knows it. And, perhaps because Clive didn’t know Liv before, it is in their interaction that Liv comes out of her shell. She doesn’t have to pretend to be someone she used to be and, by the end of the episode, the two have developed a charming dynamic.
This is important because one of the more promising, but risky aspects of iZombie is its underwhelmed, highly-introspective protagonist who shuffles from scene to scene with relative disinterest but for the occasional moment of engagement. This isn’t a judgment on the acting or the writing. It’s seemingly intended, and that’s interesting.
Liv is a protagonist who wants so badly to want something, she just doesn’t see the point anymore. Wanting is for other people. Instead, she sees her (undead) life already laid out before her: purposeless, monotonous, and largely out of her control. That’s something most young people can relate to (aside from the undead part).
At one point in the pilot, Liv self-diagnoses herself with “post-traumatic-ennui,” a descriptor that could perhaps be lobbed at the entire Millennial generation. It’s a tricky primary trait to pull off in a protagonist, but I’m excited to see where this goes. I’m excited to see Liv allow herself to want things again.
In the closing voiceover, Liv muses: “I’ve spent five months bemoaning all that was taken from me. It never occurred to me that I’d have something to give. A way to contribute.” iZombie’s pilot might not have gotten everything right, but this is a theme I can get behind.