Airdate: September 12, 2014
Directed by: John Hyams
Showrunner: Karl Schaefer
Written by: Jennifer Derwingson (executive story editor), Karl Schaefer
Last night marked the debut of Syfy’s attempt to horn in on AMC’s solid choke-hold on the television zombie oeuvre. Airing the show a month to the day before the Season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead is obviously a strategic move by Syfy’s program schedulers: take advantage of the anticipation felt by fans of TWD, and hopefully hook them on a second zombie themed show before the AMC series begins. The thing is, in order to get people interested, Syfy needs to do more than show the program earlier on the calendar; they also need to put together a quality production with at least decent writing and serviceable acting. Unfortunately, Z Nation receives poor grades in all three areas. Click through after the break to read my full review.
<<Spoiler Alert: This review will discuss S01E01 of Z Nation, “Puppies and Kittens,” including direct references to events in the episode.>>
In a nutshell: AMC has nothing to worry about. There is no way that Z Nation will make any kind of inroads – in fact, the only effect I can see this possibly having on TWD is that it may take some viewers away – after they cancel their cable subscriptions to avoid being exposed to any more Z Nation.
The script was full of cliches, and the dialogue was rarely delivered well. The worst offender was Kellita Smith [Warren], but it’s not entirely her fault, being saddled with such lines as, “Well, I guess I won’t shoot him…yet” (said about a man she’s just met who is unarmed and is not an apparent threat). In her defense, she also gets one of the best lines of the show: “A month ago? That’s like two years apocalypse time.” Some of the writing was just downright unbelievable, such as the group we meet at Camp Blue Sky, who are euthanizing an “old” woman – who happens to be sixty-four years old. I’m sorry, but three years after the zombie apocalypse begins, and people are going to calmly and with knowing smiles talk about how old sixty-four is? Their memories have apparently been entirely erased – it falls flat and feels patently false.
This goes too for the show’s primary “see how much edgier we are than The Walking Dead” device: the undead baby featured in both of their promotional trailers. We get a baby who cannot walk yet who, without being bitten, turns into a zombie (and no, we haven’t been told that everyone is infected and will turn upon death like in TWD, although this is implied several times), and then can suddenly run faster than is humanly possible, gaining innate intelligence and the ability to coordinate an ambush. Seriously. Oh, and it goes from being a cute little blonde boy to a grey-pallored Chuckie lookalike clone, complete with evil gurgles and laughs, whereas it has already been established earlier in the show that zombies’ previous human identities are clearly recognizable – I guess babies are special cases. The effects for the baby actually speak to a larger issue, one the show is unlikely to be able to avoid: they’re obviously working with a budget magnitudes smaller than AMC commits to TWD. This means that not only are the effects often poor, but the director chooses to try to hide this at times by speeding up certain aspects of the zombies’ movements, which just looks terrible. To see speed effects done well, check out True Blood‘s vampires; to see it done poorly, watch Z Nation; or rather, don’t.
The cast is full of B and C list television actors, with the exceptions of Harold Perrineau and DJ Qualls, but considering how this episode closes out, that doesn’t suggest much room for improvement in the acting in future episodes, as only one of the two will be with the show going forward. Smith’s Warren is barely serviceable, but Keith Allen [Murphy] and Russell Hodgkinson [Doc] are particularly egregious, both appearing to actively portray stereotypes of who they think they’re supposed to be, all the while screaming “I’m acting here!” On the other extreme of bad is Pisay Pao [Cassandra], who tries to pull of mysterious and angry, but just comes across as mildly pouty. The only exception to this barely serviceable acting troupe (moving forward, at least) is DJ Qualls [Citizen Z], who plays an NSA operative who appears to have let the stress of the zombie apocalypse get to him a little – but it makes him that much more interesting than any of the other characters.
Again, I can’t blame the actors for everything here. They’re working with poor writing, cheap special effects, and directing that fails to give them the basic, well, direction, that they need. Perhaps the funniest moment (inadvertently so), takes place near the end of the episode, when Sergeant Garnett [Tom Everett Scott] uses a military issue handheld field radio to speak with Citizen Z – by speaking into the earpiece. Seriously, every time he speaks, he pulls the earpiece away from his head, and screams into it, ignoring the quite obvious and distinct mouthpiece at the bottom of the radio. Apparently, Garnett (and perhaps Scott?) has never used a handheld phone before, as this is basically what the device is. Blame Bluetooth. This is clearly a case of an actor who has seen people using old walkie talkies on TV or in the movies, has thought to himself, “that’s how it’s done in the movies!”, and has a director that is similarly confused and who is unable or unwilling to direct him to use the device properly.
None of this would be a problem if it were being played for laughs, hamming things up a la The Asylum’s Sharknado. But no, it is clear that the show is trying to take itself seriously, and is positioned as competition for The Walking Dead. The comparisons are inevitable, and none of them will come down in Z Nation‘s favor. Avoid this show; your time would be better spent watching old episodes of TWD on Netflix.
Steve’s Grade: D
A show that needs improvement on every level, I see little chance of Z Nation redeeming itself over it’s projected thirteen episode run. I will take another look next week, but if the show doesn’t improve, I won’t be reviewing it beyond that.