[Contains unnecessary sunglasses and SPOILERS!!!]
I’m no expert, of course, but I’d venture that if someone wanted to make a successful “rival” to The Walking Dead, the best way to go about it would be to show the lighter side of an undead apocalypse, à la Zombieland (the movie, I mean… not that god-awful TV pilot that Amazon put out last year). There’s no point trying to compete with TWD on a dramatic or traumatic level, because the show has that shit down… what it doesn’t have (or didn’t have the last time I checked, circa season three) is fun stories, good jokes, and likeable characters. So no matter how saturated the zombie market seems, I still say there’s a sizeable gap there for a savvy programme-maker to fill… but Syfy’s new series, Z Nation, ain’t gonna do it.
The set-up: Three years after a zombie virus devastated the world, a generic group of survivors must protect a dodgy convict whose blood contains the only known anti-virus, and transport him over three thousand miles from New York to California, where the last functioning viral lab is (probably) waiting to take a sample… though there’s really no guarantee that the lab will still be “functioning” when they get there!
So far, the only character who’s really piqued my interest is ‘Cassandra’ (Pisay Pao), an enigmatic hottie they found “sleeping” in a crouching position inside a heavy barred cage, surrounded by zombies. Clearly, there’s a lot more to learn about her… though the bio they’ve posted on the official website is extremely vague and slightly nonsensical: “Cassandra’s past is shrouded in mystery. There’s trauma there, but the nature of it is unknown. Still, she’s managed to survive the end of the world. Whether her quiet strength comes from a time before the zombie apocalypse is still unknown.” Say what? Personally, I’m hoping she’ll turn out to a bad-ass super-soldier… though I’m not sure how “super” she’d actually be on this show’s budget. Other female cast members include Kellita Smith as ‘Roberta Warren’ and Anastasia Baranova as ‘Addy Carver’… but so far they’re just boring non-super-powered people who are quite good at killing zombies.
There was some potential in DJ Qualls’s character, ‘Citizen Z’, an NSA switchboard-operator marooned in an Artic base, who goes a little stir-crazy and starts talking like a cheesy DJ from a lame 90s teen-comedy… but the shift from “sane” to “crazy” seemed to come out of the blue, between scenes set a few hours apart, when it would have made far more sense during the three year time-jump near the middle of the episode. It would also help if his dialogue were snappier, but you could probably say that for all the characters really… except ‘10K’ (Nat Zang), the seemingly-mute sharpshooter, who could become the most likable character of them all, just by keeping his mouth shut!
At first I was put off by the fact the zombies were running… though there was some reference to their speed and aggression being related to how recently they’d “turned”, which could be an interesting idea if they explored it a little more. While getting worked up about how heretical “fast zombies” are, I chanced upon a couple blog posts arguing the opposite and positing examples from a wide variety of zombie flicks, to show that George Romero’s standard isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all of the genre. I’ve now come to accept that there are many different colours in the zombie rainbow… though I still believe that the shuffling, moaning zombies are uniquely sinister and scary, in a way that no other horror monster is, while the running, rabid kind could just as easily be cranked-up cannibals or frenzied vampires!