Friday, March 27, 2015

iZombie: She Is What She Eats

Rose McIver in iZombie, on The CW.

iZombie is a blast. When I first heard of The CW show's Millennial-cum-zombie plotline, I immediately developed some clear, but entirely mistaken, assumptions about the series. But two increasingly entertaining episodes later, iZombie has already wormed its way into my heart (as well as into my thankfully still skull-ensconced brain.) At its core, iZombie is a light crime procedural with a fantasy conceit – a fresher-faced cousin to ABC's Forever, which also follows the adventures of a medical examiner with a secretly personal connection to death who sometimes partners with a homicide detective – and with its clever writing, charming cast, and a strong female lead with genuinely interesting relationships, iZombie has demonstrated more potential than many longer-running series.

Rose McIver (Masters of Sex, The Lovely Bones) stars as Olivia "Liv" Moore, an overachieving young medical resident with a hot, sensitive fiancé, three months from their big day, and well on her way realizing her lifetime ambition of becoming a heart surgeon. With everything going right, she decides to take an uncharacteristic night off to go to a boat party with a female co-worker – after all, "what's the worst that can happen?" as her boyfriend tells her. The party goes dangerously awry, and Liv wakes up the next morning, zipped up firmly in a body bag on the beach, shockingly pale and now possessing an ardent desire for eating brains. Cut to five months later: Liv has broken off her engagement, quit her snazzy, big hospital residency for morgue duty (ostensibly because of its easy access to fresh brains à la carte), and lost all of her drive – i.e. she's become the living dead, figuratively as well as quite literally. With her zombie secret known only to her unassuming, and geekily enthusiastic, medical examiner boss Ravi (newcomer Rahul Kohli), Liv slowly begins to find more fulfilling ways to live her posthumous life. Due to a side-effect of her new diet, she begins having involuntary visions, flashes of the memories and lives of those whose brains she consumes (not unlike the biochemical memory transfer exhibited by planaria, if my childhood memories of my older brother's nauseating high school science fair experiments serve me right here). Soon this surprising, if disgusting, skill has her teaming up with a new homicide detective, eager to clear his first case. And thus an awkward but effective crime-fighting team is formed.

iZombie was created by Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars) and Diane Ruggiero-Wright (previously Diane Ruggiero). Their collaborations have been both longstanding and fruitful: Ruggiero-Wright worked with Thomas on the original Veronica Mars series (2004-2007) as writer and producer, and she was also involved in the 2009 remake of Rob Thomas' ill-fated late-90s era romantic/fantasy Cupid (which had starred a pre-Entourage Jeremy Piven in the title role). Most recently, Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright were co-credited with the screenplay for last year's very satisfying Veronica Mars feature. The two are more clearly equal partners in iZombie – in addition to developing the series for The CW, they are both on board as showrunners – and the results are already encouraging. Together, they co-wrote the show's first hour, with Ruggiero-Wright writing the second, stronger episode.

With iZombie, Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright come back to the network that has once aired Mars, but has previously been rebranding itself beyond its original, "younger audience" mandate (the height of which manifested in its highly successful Gossip Girl). Along with 2012's often too-dark-for-its-own-good Arrow and the unpredictably addictive teen/period drama Reign, this fall CW premiered Flash, spun-off from Arrow, but eminently more fun due to its much lighter touch on the material. Still, in many ways, iZombie calls the network back to its early days – reminiscent not only of Mars, but also of one of its earliest light supernatural show, Reaper – and is further evidence of the continuing maturation of this still upstart network.

Rose McIver and Rahul Kohli in iZombie.

The new series is a very loose adaptation of the comic series iZOMBIE, published by DC under its Vertigo imprint from 2010-2012. As adaptations go, it falls firmly into the "Inspired by" category. Though the series does pay tribute to its graphic novel origins with its signature opening credits (drawn by iZOMBIE's main artist, Michael Allred, to the tune of Deadboy & the Elephantmen's "Stop, I'm Already Dead") and its intermittent use of comic book-style tags for its act openings, iZombie borrows little from the original story except for the broad conceit and perhaps a touch of the comic's disaffected, Millennial vibe. Once the initial premise is taken up – a smart, young woman becomes a zombie and temporarily acquires access to the memories of the dead people whose brains she eats – there is very little, so far, in the television series that it owes to the comic. None of that is to the show's deficit. The result is a series that feels both confidently familiar and refreshingly novel enough to more than justify its existence. (The comic-style captions the show sometimes uses also give the series a momentary but satisfying "motion comic" feel.)

With The CW's long history of reframing adult storylines for young adults (everything from Smallville, to Gossip Girl, to Reign, and to last year's unfortunately cancelled Star-Crossed – the latter which is probably best described as Alien Nation meets Romeo and Juliet), iZombie could have gone a different way entirely. Shifting more traditionally adult narratives to a far younger cast has meant viewers have to continually suspend a lot of disbelief to enjoy the stories – a task I am more often than not willing to do, but the effort needs to be exerted. But iZombie, to my relief, requires none of that. (And neither, it should be noted, did Veronica Mars.) For one, though it does boast a younger cast than most of the other light crime procedurals currently airing, they aren't all that young. Our main characters are in their mid-to-late 20s, and Malcolm Goodwin (Breakout Kings), playing Clive Babineaux, the inexperienced detective that Liv regularly helps out with her brain-inspired visions, is firmly in his late 30s.

The extended cast of characters is uniformly charming. From Ravi's nonplussed reactions to discovering Liv's secret and every subsequent revelation, to Liv's genuinely caring best friend and roommate Peyton (Aly Michalka, Hellcats), to Liv's comically well-adjusted ex-fiancé Major (full name, Major Lilywhite!), iZombie seems intent on keeping the relationships as grounded in reality as much as the show's premise is grounded in fantasy. (One quick note: Major, played with a slick confidence by One Tree Hill's Robert Buckley, is easily the most refreshingly non-neurotic male character television has seen since Ryan McPartlin's "Captain Awesome" went off the air with Chuck three years ago.) But already standing out in the recurring cast is David Anders – still probably best known for playing the oily Julian Sark on J.J. Abrams' Alias – who almost literally oozes charm and brings a sass and slickness to every line he delivers. As Blaine, currently the show's only other member of the undead tribe and the one who "turned" Liv, he looms large by the second episode, and certainly will be a big part of the upcoming storyline, for this first season at least.

David Anders and Rose McIver in iZombies.

Most of iZombie's lightness is derived in fact from its dark (undead) conceit, and most of its darkness from its more straightforwardly human elements. Liv is a good zombie because she was a good person. Her malaise in the opening episode comes from her losing her way, and she needs to redefine herself to fit her new circumstance. Once she finds that path, she rediscovers herself. The slick, former designer-drug dealer Blaine is a self-serving ass because he was always a self-serving ass. Now with a new drug to push and a new way to get others hooked, his detached charisma remains intact, and he too finds his own new way. It might be a new game, but the rules are the same. Whatever fantastic elements iZombie has in store for us, its world is inhabited by real people, albeit in unreal situations.

Despite its much lighter tone, the series also shares enough with Veronica Mars to secure at least some of the cult series' still-growing fanbase. Liv, like young Veronica, is a strong, willful and intelligent young woman who has recently lost her established place in the world and is compelled to recreate herself and her life under dramatically new conditions. (It might not even be a stretch to imply that Veronica's social status in Mars' first season was not unlike being the living dead at Neptune High, but you didn't hear that from me.) Hearing Liv's matter-of-fact, mordant voiceover narration for the first time, it was challenging not to be reminded of Veronica Mars. (Rob Thomas' particular knack for writing sardonic, female inner voices is well on display again, though when Liv tells us that her "burden is of the bear-it-alone variety," I'm sure I wasn't the the only one that immediately imagined how that line would have sounded read by a young Kristen Bell.) There was a harsh and unyielding frankness to Veronica Mars that insisted on never diminishing the sheer weight of the crimes and the lies that Veronica would uncover and was subject to – and in that way, iZombie does not compare. iZombie is much more conventionally entertaining – and quite often laugh out loud funny – and has none of Mars' neo-noir ambitions or aesthetic . Instead, it is a new, creative take on the now endemic consulting detective genre: stories which revel in the "out of the box" insight that comes from a police investigation in which an untrained amateur tags alongside the more officially limited boundaries to that profession when it comes to investigating homicides. And let's be honest: it is damn fun to get to say as characters here often do that they are solving crimes by eating the brains of the victims. (It's a feature that is so absurd that I doubt it will ever not make me smile.) Add to that the unexpected awkwardness that comes from one of the investigating parties inconveniently acquiring new traits, skills, and experiences of the victim as the investigation progresses, and we have a recipe for a weekly treat that is far more appealing than the microwaved brain, pot noodles and hot sauce that Liv regularly consumes.

The third episode of iZombie airs on Tuesday, March 31st, on The CW in the U.S. For Canadians, the series is currently available (with new episodes weekly) on Shomi, Rogers' new streaming service.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.  

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