I’ve been reading a lot of ’50s and ’60s Superman comics to my son lately, which means I’ve been reading a lot of stories where Superman does inadvertently cruel things to Lois Lane and his other “friends” under the guise of maintaining his secret identity. Again and again, he thinks to himself something like, “I can never tell Lois that I’m really Clark Kent, or else she’d be in danger from all my enemies,” then uses a robot, or Batman in disguise, or some kind of memory-altering device to convince her that he’s not who she thinks he is.
These are old stories from an era when the intended audience was around my son’s age, and when many of the people writing them didn’t put much thought into the meaning and value of a narrative staple like the secret identity. But it’s hard to read any of those stories from a contemporary, adult perspective without A) thinking that Superman comes across as a big jerk, and B) realizing that Superman, and all the people who wrote these kinds of stories, were missing a key piece of logic. Yes, it makes some sense for Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, et al to hide their identities from the world at large so the Lois Lanes and Aunt Mays won’t be constantly threatened by supervillains. But if the heroes actually trust the people in their inner circle, then there’s not only no harm in sharing the secret with them, but arguably less harm than constantly finding ways to keep them out of the loop, which can result in them getting hurt because of how much they don’t know.
It’s a trope that hasn’t aged well, particularly with the proliferation of superhero and superhero-adjacent TV shows where it’s hard to tell who comes off worse: the main characters who aren’t in on the secret identity, and thus frequently endanger themselves and/or the heroes, or the heroes who keep them dangling in that position out of some misguided, easily-disproved belief that it’s keeping them safer. (Think of Iris for most of the first season of The Flash, for instance.) The smartest shows let all the main characters in on the secret quickly (Buffy outed herself as a vampire slayer to Willow and Xander before her first episode was done), and the ones that don’t almost always improve significantly when the secret goes away and everyone gets to be on the same page.
The CW’s iZombie isn’t technically a superhero show, even though it’s (very) loosely based on a DC/Vertigo comic, and even though its heroine Liv Moore (Rose McIver) has superpowers that she uses to fight crime. But it’s upheld plenty of traditions of the genre, including that pesky secret identity, which was arguably the show’s biggest flaw in its mostly very entertaining first two seasons.
When the show began, the only other regular character who knew Liv was a zombie was her boss at the Seattle morgue, Ravi (Rahul Kohli). No one else understood why she looked so different after the incident that transformed her, nor why her personality kept changing so much as she temporarily took on aspects of each new brain she consumed. The show had a bit of fun with her cop partner Clive (Malcolm Goodwin), who thought she was a psychic, being puzzled by her behavior, but for the most part, the secret proved to be a big drag on the show, generating phony conflict and angst each time someone Liv cared about got too close to learning the secret. Scenes with Liv and Ravi, or with Liv and Blaine (David Anders) — the zombie drug dealer who built a business empire on infecting people and supplying them brains at huge expense — had a liveliness to them that her interactions with Clive, ex-fiance Major (Robert Buckley), and best friend Peyton (Aly Michalka) sorely lacked, because they allowed everyone involved to be aware of the show’s wild premise and its many possibilities.
Over time, Major and Peyton learned the truth — Major even got infected, cured, then infected again when the cure threatened to kill him — which left the Liv and Clive murder mysteries as the one significant part of the show where the secret still existed. The Brain of the Week plots are arguably the most important part of the show — they’re the most prominent plot most weeks, they provide a consistent bit of structure to a series with a lot of complicated moving parts (more on that in a bit), and they provide the excuse for Rose McIver to transform Liv into a different kind of character every time out — but the secret identity silliness was turning it into an impediment to everything that was entertaining.
Fortunately, season two climaxed with a zombie outbreak where Liv had no choice but to download Clive on everything about her new life and Seattle’s growing zombie subculture, and as season three begins (tonight at 9; I’ve seen the first three episodes), the whole gang(*) finally knows everything about Liv, brains, and the undead as a whole, and man oh man is iZombie soooo much better as a result.
(*) The gang now includes Peyton full-time, since Michalka was a guest star in the first few seasons, appearing only when her schedule and the show’s budget allowed for it, and is now a regular castmember. (Her new status results in a slight tweak to the show’s terrific opening credits sequence, drawn by iZombie comics artist Mike Allred.)
There’s even a scene early in tonight’s premiere where Liv gathers all her friends in the morgue and says, “I propose that from this day forward, no big secrets between us.” To which a giddy Ravi replies (evoking both Scooby-Doo and Buffy), “Look at us, all working together to solve mysteries. We should get a van and a dog.”
There are just so many more possibilities to the show now than there were before, particularly with Clive. Goodwin had a few chances in previous seasons to be funny (most famously Clive’s frustration with the pace of George R.R. Martin’s writing), but they stuck out because they were so rare. Now, he’s still straight man to whatever persona Liv has assumed — ruthless soldier, gregarious middle-aged dad, blissful yoga instructor — but because he knows what’s really happening, the opportunities for humor are everywhere, even as he still gets to be serious when the occasion needs it. Where iZombie once felt like three or four shows awkwardly co-existing under the same title, now everything is more integrated by the characters’ shared knowledge, so that the Brain of the Week stories can tie into a larger arc about a local private military contractor where all the employees have been zombified, or so Peyton can get caught up in a love triangle with Ravi and Blaine, who has been cured by Ravi but lost his memory of all his evil deeds as a result(*). One week, Major can get overly emotional while hopped up on teenage girl brain (a great comic showcase for Buckley, who’s much funnier than the role often lets him be), and the next he can explore what the mercenaries are up to, and it doesn’t feel at all dissonant like the show did in the past.
(*) For the first couple of seasons, iZombie had the same conundrum with Blaine that Buffy once did with Spike: a charismatic villain so beloved by fans (and the show’s writers) that they wanted to reform him to keep him around, but whose deeds were so heinous, no one would justifiably want anything to do with him. Buffy tried working around the problem a few ways, but mostly hoped its fans would forget Spike’s past sins, where the amnesia bit with Blaine is a clever way to let Anders essentially play a new character who’s acutely aware of why everybody hates him, even if he’s literally forgotten the things he did.
There’s still arguably too much going on, though, even if the pieces are more unified. iZombie creators Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright first worked together on Veronica Mars, and there’s a similar back-and-forth between the weekly mysteries and the seasonal ones, but either they’re spinning more plates here, or the sheer amount of scripted TV now versus when Veronica ended a decade ago has made it harder to keep up with this kind of thing, because my brain adamantly refuses to learn certain aspects of the show’s mythology no matter how often they’re explained. There was an arc last year about a feud between Blaine and a veteran Seattle gangster, and literally the only thing I could tell you about it now is that the other guy was named Mr. Boss. This year, there’s a running thread about Major looking for a missing zombie, and even though it’s explained periodically, I almost immediately forget who she is and why Major needs to find her.
But it’s a measure of how well the creative team and actors have crafted these characters, how much fun the individual stories are, and how frequently the show is able to reach for a “Did they really just do that?” moment, that allows iZombie to get away with being as complicated as it can get. Frankly, if that stuff wasn’t as good as it’s been, the secret identity silliness probably would have chased me away a long time ago.
Fortunately, iZombie seems done with the secrets. With any luck, the next wave of comic book adaptations won’t even bother with them in the first place.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org