Sunday, July 2, 2017

Je Suis Zombie: On the Third Season of iZombie

David Anders, Rose McIver, and Jason Dohring in iZombie.

 This piece contains spoilers for the third season of The CW's iZombie.

This past Tuesday, the third season of The CW's iZombie concluded with a world-shaking bang. Though the 13-episode season of Rob Thomas' zombie crime procedural also came with a significant drop in its ratings (continuing the steady decline from the heights of its freshman season), the series showed up for its third outing with all guns blazing and held that energy all the way through. If you tuned in you were treated to a more ambitious story that, while never straying from the wit and charm of its first two seasons, carefully and confidently expanded the show's themes, more than earning the right to shift the ground beneath its feet.

Last spring, iZombie's second season ended as explosively, with the conclusion of the season-long Max Rager storyline and the final-minutes introduction of Vivian Stoll (Andrea Savage) and Fillmore-Graves, a private military contracting company with its own stake in Seattle's zombie outbreak. The third season begins where the last left off, with our main characters – medical-student-turned-zombie-medical-examiner Liv Moore (Rose McIver), her police detective partner Clive (Malcolm Goodwin), her boss/friend Ravi (Rahul Kohli), and her ex-fiancĂ© Major (Robert Buckley) – now faced with a new major player in town with plans of their own. With shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's under-appreciated fourth season – when a secret government military initiative comes to Sunnydale to address its growing demon problems – our heroes (joined by a newly in-the-know Clive) is faced with the prospect of an uneasy, and imbalanced, alliance. Here Fillmore-Graves is fighting on the zombie side, but its overlapping mission, if very different tactics, raise some challenging questions for Team Z – especially in some of the early-season conversations with Stoll (whose sincerity is established early on) where she makes her reasoned case for Liv and company to join her and her company's plans for zombie survival of their inevitable discovery by the human population.

Still, despite the scope and significance of its closing episodes, the season itself progresses with a refreshingly slow burn, allowing characters and viewer alike to grow comfortably familiar with the new zombie norm. Fillmore-Graves not only comes with a large undead population, but also  infrastructure and organization: alongside training its zombie army, they have also invested in housing, behind-the-scenes political lobbying groups, vacuum-sealed brain rations, and even primary schools for its young families and their children. With this season, iZombie seamlessly transformed zombies from a small-scale and isolated risk into a community. (By comparison, it took the Buffyverse three seasons and a spin-off to call Buffy's stake-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude into question, with the early seasons of Angel opening up to the 'humanization' of demons.) Now framed as potential victims instead of potential monsters, these are diverse and entirely mundane zombies – young and old – just trying to live their unlives in peace but exposed to an increasingly fearful population of human enemies. These early-season storylines call up visions of hate crimes (and Islamophobia in particular), and the show hits that drum effectively without ever beating it. Those symbolics, to be fair, only go so far, though themes of radicalization do emerge later in other forms: specifically, the growing "Zombie Truther" movement and its leader, the zombie-hating Harley Johns (Andrew Caldwell). With its undercurrents of political disaffection, racial hatred, paranoia, militias, misinformation, 'fake news' and conspiracy theories, there is little question that iZombie takes place in 2017.

For all its visible ambition in story, the most lingering and successful elements of the season were in character, not plot. With much of its concluding episodes devoted to leading to its final events, the best of the season was established early on, with the show's deepening of its core relationship (Liv and Ravi's friendship) and especially in the attention given to Blaine (played with ever-increasing complexity by David Anders), the series' regular villain/anti-hero who ended last season suddenly human again and suffering from full-blown amnesia.

Rose McIver and Malcolm Goodwin in iZombie.

Blaine's 'amnesiac' episodes – with his short-lived relationship with Liv's A.D.A. friend Peyton (Aly Michalka), his unquestionably hilarious lounge-singer scenes, and his sincere struggles for something resembling redemption – are among the highlights of the season. It is too obvious – and unfair, at this stage – to link Blaine's storyline with Buffy the Vampire Slayer's long evolution of Spike, but the comparison does not necessarily do Blaine's character any disservice – and, hair colour notwithstanding, there are overlaps throughout, most especially in our core characters' (understandable) unwillingness to trust him and the implications of how this factors into his sporadic moral development. (Also worth noting are the complicated questions posed by his seeming memory loss that have suggestive parallels with elements of NBC's now-cancelled Emerald City, which aired this past winter.) And credit goes to Anders's personal charm and confident sense of character in making Blaine so compellingly naive in his moments of stumbling, unpracticed vulnerability.

Blaine's new, if still undeveloped, moral sense also adds fascinating layers to his later-season scenes with his estranged father, Angus (played with smiling, soulless malice by Prison Break's Robert Knepper). Those interactions are deliciously ugly, fun glimpses into the relationship of a tortured near-sociopath and an unapologetic one. (One highlight: after Angus protests his son ought to be grateful because that his ill-treatment has made him the man he is today, Blaine lets out a hearty laugh and replies "So you're going with the 'Boy Named Sue' defense, are you?")

The season's turning point is Vivian Stoll's midseason exit and replacement as head of Fillmore-Graves by her bred-in-the-bone military brother-in-law, Chase Graves (played by Veronica Mars's Jason Dohring, last seen on The CW's The Originals). Dohring plays Chase with his familiar wryness and poisonous charm, but isn't until the last two episodes that the character is given enough screen time to soften and move beyond a bellowing drill-sergeant persona. Having Dohring return to a Rob Thomas-helmed series is a special delight, but it looks like we'll have to wait until next season to fully see that potential. (Fortunately, The CW green-lit a fourth season several weeks ago. This is not an insignificant milestone: Rob Thomas, with now three impressive shows to his credit – in addition to Veronica Mars, add the pitch-perfect comedy Party Down to the list – has never before been gifted with a fourth season.)

The season finale, which also brings together and ties up a number of the season's open but until now seemingly unrelated plotlines, ends with the series entering an entirely different phase of its existence. After the very public events that closed iZombie's second season 2, it was inevitable that the public revelation of Seattle's zombie problem would the big theme this year, but the ambitious velocity of the season has frankly still left me reeling. Few if any clear villains remain standing – unless you count human nature itself – and everything has changed. The episode's final scene, however, takes us off the volatile streets of Seattle and brings us back to the familiar space of the morgue, with a powerful small moment of intimacy between Ravi and Liv – calling us back to the show's very first episode, simultaneously reminding us how far we've come and how faithful the series has been along the way to its characters.

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. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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