When seeking out zombie entertainment these days it’s easy to get overwhelmed by choices. Often they’re horrible, ill-informed, low-budget choices that attempt to give viewers the Romero experience on the cheap. The top of the heap is The Walking Dead, clearly, which continues to roar through the competition with monster ratings and a prequel spinoff that may prove to be just as popular (or at least more successful than your typical spinoff). It even has its own kind of copycat on SyFy in the form of ZNation, a show that seems to aim to be The Walking Dead with a comedic element.
The point: Most zombie shows are boring and derivative. Imagine vampire films following the same path as Dracula after all these years? It’d be miserable. That’s where projects like Buffy the Vampire Slayer come into play, by keeping many of the conventions that we see time and time again while adding comic realism and likable characters. Loosely adapted from a comic of the same name, iZombie is cut from that same cloth. Movies like Warm Bodies and Life After Beth have attempted — with mixed results — to extend the range of the zombie genre, letting zombies do more than just shuffle aimlessly and allowing them to serve as allegorical stand-ins. Zombie TV has worked in a much more limited range to this point, but iZombie could help push it away from that.
The series, whose second season premiered Tuesday, began by tossing Olivia “Liv” Moore (Rose McIver) into the zombie fray during a boat party overrun by users of a zombie drug called Utopium. This effectively ends Liv’s life as medical resident, leaving her with a hunger for brains and the need for a job compatible with her new undead status. Ignoring the hunger turns her into classic zombie, while ignoring the job is detrimental to her bank account. (Zombies still gotta buy stuff, ya know.) Luckily she falls into a job at the King County morgue, getting in close with the corpses and opening a pipeline to a non-stop supply of brains. The only side-effect: She takes on some of the effects of the brains that she eats, usually with humorous results. From there she assists the police with their criminal investigations, using the brains of the victims to traverse their memories and discover the truth behind their deaths. This is all while juggling her existence as a zombie, her family life, and all of the other zombies running around.
There’s a lot to love in iZombie and season two looks like it will keep that streak going, oiling up all of its moving parts and mythology while keeping the charm alive. It also has plenty of nods to classic television and pop culture. Think the punk episode of Quincy, but with zombies as opposed to punks. Produced by the folks behind Veronica Mars, there’s plenty of Kristen Bell in iZombie‘s Oivia Moore, allowing Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero to keep the DNA of their beloved teen detective series intact while applying elements from zombie mythos to their investigative storylines, with an injection of comedy that borders on macabre at times. The procedural approach makes iZombie an easy series to pick up and enjoy as a one-off experience, but there’s a longer game involved within the story to draw viewers into the characters’ lives and find out what makes them tick within each individual case that pops up.
Here, Liv is still reeling from the events of last season’s finale (which don’t have a direct bearing on this episode itself, but moved some chess pieces in place that have made Liv an enemy to her family). Meanwhile, her ex-fiancé Major Lilywhite (Robert Buckley) is dealing with being infected and cured with the same drug that turned Liv at the start of the series, and series bad guy Blaine DeBeers (David Anders) — the drug dealer who spread Utopium mixed with energy drink Max Rager and created the zombie outbreak — is also living with a cure while ramping up his drug production. Vaughn Du Clark (played by Wings‘ Steve Weber) also returns as the CEO of energy drink company, and someone who seeks to kill the zombies he helped create (he’s evil if you can’t tell by his actions and self-closing office doors).
The real meat of this episode comes from a crime involving a grumpy bastard, his equally grumpy neighbors, and the dog that he tries to murder, leading to his own demise while lying under a car. Liv ends up chewing on his brains a bit and acquiring that trademark grumpiness herself, turning her into a zombified female Archie Bunker. This causes some unintentional trouble with her coworker pals, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli) and Det. Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin), leading to several comical exchanges throughout the episode. If you need a crash course into Liv’s powers and how it makes the show different from any other procedural on television, this episode is perfect.
Even not knowing the full backstory, it didn’t take much to get caught up with iZombie. It’s a breezy show that handles death in a way at once gruesome and fun. I often find myself comparing it to Orphan Black, but iZombie lacks the dire drama and conspiracy. It also lacks Tatiana Maslany, but McIver does a good job standing in for all those clones with her changing personalities, keeping the surprises intact while not creating an entirely different character to showcase them.
The premiere ends with a slight cliffhanger, revealing the identity of Liv’s new roommate as Vaughn’s red-headed assistant Gilda. She appears throughout the episode, assisting Vaughn with his scheming and — unbeknownst to the viewer — spying on Liv and hacking into her phone. It’s a neat mystery that isn’t telegraphed until the end of the episode, rewarding viewers for paying attention to the smaller details. And the small details matter here: iZombie allows viewers to feel comfortable mostly through getting the little things right and stuffing each episode with enough wit that they demand a second viewing. It proves that zombie shows can be about more than survival without skimping on the brain-eating.