Within its too-short, 13-episode season, iZombie has breezily shown how to create, develop, and sustain a sharply fun first season of TV. In the same breath, it’s also continued the trend of building on a comic book’s narrative to provide a skewed take without totally distancing itself from the source material (switching the lead’s profession from gravedigger to morgue assistant results in a more palatable and addictive procedural), has introduced a brilliant and smart heroine protagonist who balances ass-kicking skills with dry humor and intelligence, and managed to make the zombie genre — which has been spinning its wheels for a while now — feel new and exciting again.
In iZombie, the undead easily assimilate into the world of the living. There is no easy way to tell if someone — your coworker, your ex-fiancé, your best friend and roommate — is a zombie, short of catching them casually eating brains with lunch, seeing them go “full zombie” (their eyes turn red, they pounce on enemies), or having them confide in you. All of this happens within the first season, as various people find out about protagonist Liv’s (Rose McIver) secret. And though I was initially concerned about how long the series could go on without everyone knowing about Liv’s secret, the last two episodes brought more people into her world, notably Peyton (Aly Michalka) and Major (Robert Buckley), who each have different — but intense — reactions to the news.
One of the most unique, and low-key brilliant, things about iZombie is that it isn’t a show about the zombie apocalypse. It doesn’t concern itself with hoards of zombies in torn-up clothing chasing poor victims down the street and grossly chomping down on limbs. These are more refined and adaptable zombies — there is a heavy dose of murder, of course, but the show is less gruesome than you’d think. Instead, there’s an underground world in which our love-to-hate villain Blaine (David Anders) traffics in illegal brain/food service, providing high-end and brain-heavy delicacies to zombies around Seattle. (Liv, meanwhile, satisfies her zombie cravings by eating the brains of already-dead people who show up in the morgue.)
At the same time, however, iZombie does tell a story of survival. It’s not about surviving in the way The Walking Dead is about surviving (i.e., a group’s surely futile attempt to outlive the zombie apocalypse), but instead focus specifically on Liv. She has to learn how to survive in this new zombie body and brain, how to live without harming others even though her cravings can be powerful and worrisome, and how to remain close to the people she loves without revealing her secret.
Liv Moore is one of the best new characters on television, equally strong and confused, running the gamut of emotions in a single episode — partly due to the brains she consumes — and pulling a balancing act between work drama and personal conflicts (especially when her work seeps into her personal life, as it does in every single episode). It portrays this balance in a way that feels wholly natural (despite being a supernatural show!), unlike most other woman-centric workplace dramas, which harp on the superhero abilities a woman needs to do two things to the extent that they lose any and all focus on an actual, interesting narrative. (This is particularly true on shows about women doctors, which Liv was originally studying to become, or women police officers; she also ends up assisting the police because of her abilities.)
On top of all that, iZombie also continues to succeed as a police procedural. Whenever Liv eats brains, she temporarily absorbs memories and abilities that help her determine their cause of death. This wreaks havoc on her life and relationships, in both serious and humorous ways: the brain of a psychiatric patient causes devastating visions; a cheerleader turns Liv into an upbeat stoner who bonds with her roommate after being distant for too long; a pregnant woman causes Liv to have overwhelming maternal urges that result in her doting on her friend/boss Ravi (who might be my second-favorite new character on TV this season, played by Rahul Kohli; he’s the one to ship, considering he has chemistry with just about everyone).
Liv’s abilities are reminiscent of two other, similar stories I’ve been consuming recently: Chew, a comic book series about a detective and “cibopath” who can take a bite of anything or anyone and immediately learn their history; and Stitchers, a new ABC Family series about a woman who gets “stitched” into dead people (by wearing a skintight suit and sitting in a bathtub of water) in order to learn their memories. All three have some basics in common — procedural elements, a hero or heroine who can sort-of “communicate” with the dead in supernatural ways — but vary in execution. While iZombie and Chew have both proved themselves quickly (it’s just about impossible to read Chew‘s first volume without racing to get the rest; waiting for new iZombie episodes to appear every week has been excruciating), two episodes in, Stitchers’ only redeeming quality is that it’s absolutely hilarious to watch — even though it doesn’t want to be.
Stitchers takes itself entirely too seriously and never quite explains why Kristen’s (Emma Ishta) temporal dysplasia (a fictional disorder in which she can’t perceive time) makes her a good candidate for stitching. The secret government agency she works for is presented without a hint of humor — and humor is necessary in a premise as ridiculous as this — and Kirsten’s affectless and emotionless persona comes off less as a result of her illness and more as the character being a simplistically sour and unlikable person. Which is to say, she’s not exactly the kind of protagonist you root for. Stitchers also can’t quite build a mystery; in the first episode, it seems the season- or series-long arc will be about the death of the man who raised Kristen and whether it was by suicide or murder. But when that’s the question, it’s pretty clear the answer will be “murder,” in order to feed into the already-boring mythology behind the series’ stitchers program.
In contrast, both Chew and iZombie are adept at building up mysteries: In Chew, there is a series-long mystery about bird flu (which may or may not have been a government conspiracy) as well as smaller arcs (various police/FDA investigations, murder cases, etc.), while iZombie has Major on a mission to figure out the truth about Blaine’s deli and the existence of zombies and the recurring plot involving Max Rager drinks. Between those elements and the effortless way that iZombie incorporates various characters — Major and Ravi moving in, Ravi dating Peyton, Liv working with Clive (and Clive presumably building a case against Major next season), and so on — there’s a hell of a lot Stitchers can learn about basic plot and character development from just one episode of iZombie.
Last night’s finale, “Blaine’s World,” brought so much to the surface and provided a handful of twisty, zig-zaggy developments without ever feeling too crowded or rushed. There was a large-scale display of violence from Major, filmed magnificently — it never got too bloody, with most actions occurring off-screen as the camera just captured the splattering of blood. Liv believably went from selfish (turning a dying Major into a zombie in order to “save” him) to selfless (using the last cure that Ravi created to then return Major to the living), and was then devastatingly punished for those actions (her brother may die without a blood transfusion that she can’t give because she no longer has the means to cure herself). This all provided a clever, engaging setup for Season 2: Liv forced to deal with the consequences of her actions, while Blaine still on the loose, and everything up in the air with Major and her brother.
Not only is iZombie beating similar television narratives (though I do endorse Stitchers for hate-watch of the summer), but it’s also managed to breathe new (undead) life into both the zombie and procedural genres, easily becoming one of the best new shows of the season.