Airdate: October 10, 2014
Directed by: Luis Prieto
Showrunner: Karl Schaefer
Written by: Dan Merchant
What do you do when you’re a production company with a relatively small budget in the zombie wars, and you’re known better for shows specializing in cheese, sharks, and tornadoes? You add cheese and tornadoes, of course. Sharks might help this show as well, but for now, we’ll take two out of three – but unlike what Meatloaf told us years ago, sometimes two out of three is still kind of bad. Click through for my full review.
<<Spoiler Alert: This review will discuss S01E05 of Z Nation, “Home Sweet Zombie,” including direct references to plot points and events in the episode.>>
The real problem here, is that The Asylum and showrunner Karl Schaefer can’t seem to decide if they want us to take Z Nation seriously, or enjoy it as a cheesy alternative to the more serious fare available. The last couple of episodes have shown a distinct move into the self-conscious B movie territory The Asylum knows best, especially regarding how they’ve been using Doc as full-time comic relief (with serious moments); but if this was the direction they intended to take the show from the beginning, then it’s really something they should have been doing – you guessed it – from the beginning.
Last week’s episode confirmed for me that this is the direction they intend to take; hopefully they haven’t accidentally alienated the target audience by showing some inconsistencies in their creative choices over the first five weeks. As a critic, I try to measure a program based on it’s chosen genre and dramatic paradigm. I’m not going to review Big Bang Theory on its merits as a drama, nor am I going to review Game of Thrones as a sitcom – but when a show doesn’t quite know what it is, it makes the job not only of critiquing, but of viewing, that much harder. And with all the excellent choices vying for our viewing hours, confusion is a good way for a show to lose viewership.
On to the episode. The MacGuffin in this week’s episode is Warren’s husband. They’re passing through southern Illinois, and happen to be within a few miles of her hometown, where her husband, a fireman, was left when she was called up in the early days of the zombie apocalypse. This does beg the question: what was an Illinois National Guard unit doing on the east coast? I imagine this is possible in the case of a national emergency, but wasn’t Illinois in need of its own NG at the time? And if Warren and Garnett know each other as well as is presented to us, why isn’t he also from Illinois? Maybe he is – but there’s no mention of his hometown or of people left behind, which is a bit odd given the circumstances and conversational topics.
Citizen Z who, along with Doc, has been upping the cheese factor lately, reports over the radio that the forecast is “Cloudy with a chance of zombie.” Har har. I’m sure the team stuck trying to make their way across America appreciates his glib wit. In his defense, we do see him drinking a little later, and doing stereotypical southern accents as part of his routine. About the most interesting part of his continuous forecasts is that we get little vignettes of other survivor groups – he actually has a wide and disparate audeince.
Garnett and the team has set up in a house, which is a bit odd, considering they’re trying to get to California. If they did this because of the incoming storm, it would be understandable; but they are there and ensconced before the storm is ever mentioned. On top of that, we’ve got Garnett saying to Warren that “It’s not a bad set-up,” to which she replies, “You know, I’m really beginning to feel at home here.” How long have they been at this house? Has the mission been forgotten? This kind of confusion is completely unnecessary, and smacks of bad script-writing. If Garnett followed up with a quick, “Yeah, but we have a mission to complete” or something, then it could be written off as Warren’s longing for normalcy, and that would become a character-building opportunity – but as so often has happened, in so many little ways, an opportunity is missed.
Addy and Mack finally get down to business – guess they’re comfortable in the house as well. Now that their couplehood is confirmed, I’m tempted to come up with a couple name for them – but Mackdaddy is already taken.
Meanwhile, the storm is brewing, and a bolt of lightning takes out the power. The only thing protecting the house is an electrified fence, so there goes the security – the group decides it’s time to move on. This does, however, beg the question: where the heck is the power coming from? Power grids don’t operate for years without constant monitoring and repair, yet here they are, with power, with no explanation. Again.
As happenstance would have it, the group is near Warren’s hometown, as I mentioned earlier. She hasn’t seen her husband since the crap hit the fan three years ago, and you’d think she’d be all about trying to find out if he’s okay, maybe get him to join the group; but no, she gets the truck to a T-junction, and instead of turning right to Castle Point and a possible reunion, she heads left. Why? She basically says she’d rather not know – but this simply doesn’t wash. Fortunately for the narrative, there’s a convenient funnel cloud forming in front of them, forcing her to turn around.
So naturally, forced against her will to go to her hometown, she goes straight to her house. Why the sudden change of heart? No idea – it’s never explained. As they arrive at Warren’s home, Mack makes his attempt at cheesiest line of the night (for which he only wins runner-up status) – he says, “Home sweet zombie.” There are people in the house, one of them telling the group that, “The fireman said we’d be safe here.” Hearing this, Warren decides she needs to head to the firehall – her husband might be alive after all.
We do get an interesting development at the house. Murphy has been looking rougher each week, and here we see some very sinister complications. He runs his fingers through his hair, and clumps are falling out; not only that, but his teeth are turning gray. In a lot of ways, he’s beginning to look just as sickly as the zombies themselves. He decides to shave off his hair, doing a fair Heisenberg impression, albeit a bit more beat up. Murphy also has a strange moment with a zombie – they’re starting to react differently to him, and this will be something to keep an eye on.
Doc also gets to practice his own special brand of medicine, using a drill to relieve cranial pressure on a man who is in the house but who has suffered a head injury. He points out that he knows to do this, because he’s seen it on TV. Guess the producers of all those medical dramas were doing more good than they thought! In Doc’s defense, the procedure does seem to work, which is of course horribly unrealistic, but is in keeping with the move toward cheese and over-the-top choices.
At the fire department, Warren and Garnett run into some firemen who have turned. They all decided to put on their uniforms and helmets before doing so, making it more difficult to kill them (none of them turn out to be her husband). This is a stylistic choice by the director, but really doesn’t make any sense – why would they all have happened to be wearing full firefighting gear in the fire hall? And if they were, how come they’ve all managed to turn without having any obvious bite marks, while still wearing the gear intact? Why do I keep asking these questions of a show that doesn’t really care to justify its choices? It’s a lot like the clown zombies in the theme park level of Left for Dead 2 – it can be read as a little fun, as a different type of enemy/zombie to deal with, so long as you don’t scrutinize the logic behind them all that hard. Too bad their noses don’t squeak when they’re hit.
The storm finally arrives, a full-on tornado bearing down right on Warren’s house. She and Garnett arrive in time to take some shelter, and Warren delivers the cheesiest line of the night, an homage to The Asylum’s more famous Sharknado productions. As she and Garnett are watching the approaching twister, they note several zombies caught up in its winds. One is thrown toward them, striking the car beside where they stand, and she says that at least “they ain’t sharks.” Okay, that got a smile out of me, but it was at the same time a pretty obvious set-up.
The storm is vicious, and while everyone does their best to survive, including 10K and Cassandra who are caught outside and shelter in a car, Warren decides that now is a good time to get maudlin and suicidal. After showing no initial interest in looking for her husband, she now decides to weather out the approaching storm upstairs ensconced in an armchair, where she has a hallucination of her husband showing up to see her, as she looks at very badly photo-shopped “family pictures” of the two of them in happier times. The twister is a direct hit, but at the end, she’s just a little shaken up.
Doc shows his human side, giving up the last of his morphine to the woman they found in Warren’s house, so that she can give it to her companion with the new extra hole in his head. 10K and Cassandra show up just fine, and Warren decides it’s time to move on – although this is redundant, as she’d already clearly moved on at the beginning of the episode. We end with a shot of a zombie fireman walking toward the camera, after the group has already left. It’s Warren’s husband – at least we know what happened to him, even if she doesn’t.
It’s hard to overlook the negative aspects of this show. I’m trying to adjust the manner in which I’m viewing it, in light of the apparent attempt to move it more firmly into the cheese camp, but there are still too many “take me seriously” notes being played to allow me to fully do so. Doc and Citizen Z are clearly the comic relief, and that’s fine; tonight’s cheesiest lines were actually saved for Mack – who is, to be fair, a real non-entity on the show – and Warren, who is almost always played straight.
The special effects were pretty bad, but again, that’s a budgetary restraint. To be fair, I know a bunch of people personally who could do better photo-shopping than was shown in Warren’s family photos, but none of them were hired by The Asylum. And the weather effects – for a production company that has recently been making its name based on weather-related schlock, you’d think they’d have better stock storm effects – but none of them looked realistic. Even the satellite shots were pretty egregious – when Citizen Z is looking at the storm on his monitors, they clearly show an enormous hurricane, a type of storm system that simply does not form over land, nor last long enough once it has left water to maintain its shape and clearly defined eye. Anyone with even a modicum of meteorological knowledge knows this – try selling that picture to any of the viewers along the Eastern and Southern seaboards.
The show is clearly lacking at least two key elements: advisers that would help them avoid simple mistakes, and a unified sense of itself and the direction it is heading in. Advisers would make a difference in things like the hurricane satellite shots tonight, or in Garnett’s strange use of a two-way radio in the first episode; having a clear sense of direction would allow script writers, actors, and viewers to all settle into a set of comfortable genre expectations, rather than trying to figure out if this show is trying to be Night of the Living Dead or The Evil Dead. The zombie genre is inherently cheesy, but there has always been a subset of films and productions that do take themselves seriously. It appeared at first that Z Nation was positioning itself as the latter, but now seems as though they may be shifting toward the former – but a decision needs to be made one way or the other, or the show will never have focus nor a steady enough audience to merit an ongoing series, even on SyFy, which tends to be able to support shows with smaller audiences than the networks are willing to accept.
This episode was an improvement over “Full Metal Zombie,” but it did have its fair share of stupid.
- The aforementioned satellite pictures
- Ditto with Warren’s poorly photo-shopped family pics – they looked like the sort of thing a stalker might do with pictures of the object of their obsession
- Several times there were clearly heavy wind effects whirling around the actors, with debris and such, but their hair did not move at all – this happened throughout the episode. They’re called fans, Mr. Prieto (the episode’s director)
- The first shot of a zombie being thrown out of the tornado toward the group was okay; recycling the exact same shot two more times was bad
- I’ve noticed something in this episode that I suspect has been done since the first episode, but has been slowly annoying me – the camera is constantly jogging up and down, to give an impression of a handy-cam being used; instead, it’s beginning to make me feel nauseous
- Mack and Addy got to explore their romance – they seem to be pretty much superfluous most of the time, so maybe they’re finally going to get utilized
- Doc continued to be mildly amusing, as did Citizen Z
- Murphy’s changes are actually the most interesting part of the show right now
I enjoyed this episode a bit more than the last, but the show has a long way to go before I’d be willing to call myself a fan. I will, however, continue to watch.
Steve’s Grade: C-
Slightly better than the atrocious fare we were subjected to in the last episode, Z Nation still hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to be when – or if – it grows up.