A Review of Z Nation, Syfy’s New Zombie Show
A Bunch of Idiots Follow an Idiot to do Stupid Stuff: A Fair Review of Z Nation
Episode: “Puppies and Kittens”
Starring: Harold Perrineau, Mark Carr, Tom Everett Scott, Kellita Smith
Synopsis: Hammond must transport ex-prisoner Murphy across the country to California, where scientists will (hopefully) be able to use his blood to create a zombie vaccine. Along the way, they enlist the help of several other survivors to get there.
General Opinion: Among the worst non-reality shows on TV. Low budget, poorly written, and hoping to succeed on the strength of its de facto number two spot in the zombie TV genre.
The Walking Dead enjoys a fairly unprecedented kind of success. Not only is it the sole zombie themed show on TV, but as it completed its fourth season earlier this year, it was still the only show of its kind. Generally all it takes is one successful season with ratings like TWD has seen for other studios to spring to action working on competing programs.
Well, it’s finally happened in Syfy’s brand new Z Nation. Although to call it “competition” would be to give it way too much credit.
The first thing anyone notices about a Syfy TV show is that it’s on Syfy. Strike one. This isn’t to say the channel has never had a hit. Just that the biggest hit in recent memory was Sharknado, a TV movie that was known for anything but quality.
True to form, Z Nation is bad. But it’s not only bad; it’s exceptionally bad. And not like fun bad, either. Just plain, straight up bad. Stinky bad. It stinks. It stinks like poo. I hate to resort to childish language, but I fear it’s the only thing this show would understand. So, Z Nation…you are a smelly doodyhead.
The show begins with a couple of soldiers – including Michael from Lost (the character’s name is Hammond, played by Harold Perrineau, but I kept calling him “Michael from Lost” while I watched it). They are running away from zombies inside a Naval prison. These appear to be the fast kind. They close a barred door for safety, and squeeze off a few rounds into the zombies on the other side. They score a few headshots, but the zombies don’t appear to have died. So it looks like we’ve got some Return of the Living Dead style zombies, totally unkillable without complete destruction of their bodies. Cool!
Michael-from-Lost hurries off to a small room where some scientists are doing science stuff to some prisoners who are strapped down on tables. MFL defends the room when a few zombies run in, using quick shots to the head to take them down. Then…hey wait, now that works? I didn’t work like a minute ago. I’d say maybe he just missed before, but the awful mix of squid and CGI for the gunfire hits definitely draws the eye, and those hits were dead on. Well, okay, whatever..anyway the scientists explain that they’re testing a zombie vaccine on these prisoners, who are unwilling subjects, but no matter. They try it on the first two prisoners and both die. They try the last, but are overrun, and MFL has to escort the scientist out of the room to an awaiting transport. The third prisoner gets eaten up by zombies. MFL tells the scientist if he is not back in 2 minutes, leave without him.
We cut then to a group of survivors in the woods, apparently a small settlement called Camp Blue Sky. The show is 3 years after the start of the zom-pocalypse (a term they actually use in the show), and these people appear to have set up a safe place. There’s a very strange, ritualistic shooting of an old woman, rather unsettling, particularlyconsidering she didn’t appear infected; but if all the dead rise, perhaps euthanasia has become part of life, rather than tying down all the sick and dying and shooting them once they turn. The two most capable folk in the settlement (Garnett and Warren) are seen on the shore of a lake, or perhaps river (it’s hard to tell), where they encounter two men in a small boat. When the men row up to shore, we see that it is MFL and the prisoner who got eaten up by zombies, apparently still alive.
MFL says he has to get this guy to California because he’s a valuable asset that could solve the zombie problem once and for all. He asks the two capable settlement folk for help, and they reluctantly agree, though MFL still does not tell them why. They pick up 3 more members of the settlement, on the run from some zombies, and head off to help MFL get to the first leg of his journey knocked out so he can get to Cali. On the road, they insist to know what makes the prisoner guy so important, so MFL tells them. Prisoner guy shows his bitemarks, and MFL explains that the vaccine worked, and so this guy has something in his blood that can help some science people figure out the vaccine.
They all go to this place, a former safe zone that is clearly not any more. They go inside to look around, and to be honest, this is where it starts to get really, intensely stupid.
First of all, the dialogue is very, very bad. There is a lot of expository dialogue, as well as a lot of nonsense. Some examples:
Garnett and Warren hear the sound of a baby crying somewhere in the rubble they’re all about to checkout.
Warren: “Do you hear that?”
Garnett: “Sounds like a…baby!”
(Because when one hears an unmistakable sound, some discussion is necessary to agree on what it is.)
Then, explaining she is not good with children, Warren says “me and babies, not so much.” It’s one of those lines that sounds kinda snappy when you write it, but when you hear someone say it, you realize no one talks that way.
Warren: “What the hell we gonna do with a baby?”
Garnett: “Beats me, I stopped planning 2 minutes ahead years ago.”
Yea? How many years? I guess not more than 3, since that’s how long this has been going on. I guess you abandoned planning pretty early into this thing. And yet you seem to have been instrumental in establishing a defended outpost in the woods. Cool you can do so much building and supply gathering on the fly like that.
The group then encounters a woman in a cage on the roof of the building, surrounded by zombies. She’s asleep in a crouching position (Cassandra, played by Pisay Pao), so the group clears the zombies and gets her out of the cage. This is a ridiculous situation. Why is she in this cage? She explains later that she locked herself in to escape from the zombies. She also explains that she lost the key. So…okay, she must have been carrying around a padlock with her then, and was carrying the key at some point, but misplaced it. She has no pack on her, so it’s not like she is just always super prepared for anything, so much so that she has a lock in case she needs to lock herself in a small cage to get away from zombies. The implication is that she was carrying this lock in her hand everywhere she went, and then used it, somehow not even realizing that she didn’t have a key. Of course, she could be lying…maybe she was locked in the cage by someone else. But that doesn’t make sense, as she is armed, and one generally disarms prisoners prior to lock-up. And in either case, why the hell is there a cage that is essentially a jail cell on top of this roof? Who put this here, and why?
Like most of this show, don’t expect to get an answer to that question. The show just asks you to let it slide because they felt it was a cool way to introduce Michonne – er, sorry, Cassandra – to the program.
Warren refers to the zombies, when they are approaching, as “puppies and kittens” (the title of the episode). I understand why they would come up with a polite codeword for monsters, but at the same time, it just sounds soooo stupid.
Garnett and prisoner guy are watching the baby while the others go out and start dealing with some zombies. Garnett uses a hammer as his weapon (which is stupid, sorry, it just is). And he decides to open the unlocked door in the place they are defending to peek outside, because he’s the kind of smart soldier who fights zombies with a hammer while his comrades have machetes and guns. He takes out several zombies, painting the walls with the ridiculous amount of blood that bursts from their heads when they are smacked with a hammer, and then Warren comes in to hang out with him.
And now comes the stupidest part of the show, and possibly of any TV show or film I have ever witnessed. The baby starts making scary noises, and they look down at it to see that it has become a zombie now. It makes a zombie scream- growl noise at them, then jumps out of its car seat and runs away.
Okay, where to begin with this?
First, let’s go with…while we haven’t yet learned all the ways one can become a zombie (we know bites do it, because it’s a big deal that prisoner guy has been bitten but did not turn, but we don’t know if ingesting blood accidentally, being scratched, or just dying is enough to transform), none of the typical methods have happened to this baby. It wasn’t bitten or scratched. While Garnett was decorating the room earlier with zombie blood, we did not see the baby get any on him, nor are we later told that this is what happened. The baby is just sitting there being normal one second, and the next he’s a zombie. Is it airborne now? How the hell did this random transformation happen? While the show is content to leave this question unanswered, as a viewer one cannot let this go. The implications are huge for this world. If the virus went airborne there, even only in one case, it is evolving and that is a major concern. Maybe it’s already airborne, and like the Walking Dead, everyone is already infected – it just doesn’t affect the living – and maybe babies are too weak to keep it at bay like adults do. This would mean that people can no longer reproduce, which creates a certain apocalyptic scenario – people will be extinct in, at best, another 40 years or so. That might make a good story, but if that’s what the story is, please let us know! But there is no answer, and probably never will be. Because “scary zombie baby” is as far as the writers got with the idea.
Second, why can this baby – who was kicking about in its onesie moments ago – suddenly jump, run, scream, and even hunt? There is some debate in the zombie film world regarding fast vs. slow zombies. The debate is, to an extent, about which is better…but go deeper, and you’ll find the fast zombie crowd always on the defensive, having to defend the very idea. I’m on the slow zombie side, like a lot of folks. Simon Pegg explains it well, as he did in an article for the Guardian, when he said “death is a disability, not a super power.” When zombies are just people who are sick, why can they run faster, jump higher, run up walls and stuff? Maybe the zombie condition is caused by
some sort of parasite, who has the symbiotic effect of enhancing the muscles just slightly. Or perhaps it’s a virus like any other, and at the least, it doesn’t make the host any slower, still able to run and jump as they could before. But a newly zombified baby suddenly gaining the capability to not only walk, but to run and jump, makes no sense at all. And so it was that this Z Nation, at the 33:37 mark in episode one, jumped the shark. This might just be a record.
As if anything else needs to be stated after this completely ridiculous scene, the show has another 10 minutes to keep being stupid. So there is more.
Warren and Garnett debate which of them should do it, because neither of them wants to kill a baby. Even if it’s a damn monster. The baby attacks, and they run outside and shut the door.
And then…they decide they need to go back in and kill it. What the hell? We just established neither of them wants to do it, and now they they’re safe, they decide they should do it? I don’t understand what is wrong with how these people think!
When prisoner guy responds with some sarcasm about the baby turning, Garnett grabs his collar and slams him against the wall. MFL pulls a gun on him and says “let him go, or I will send you to walk among the dead.” Who talks like that?!
It’s decided that the most capable, best equipped soldier should go into this unexplored building to fight the zombie baby by himself, because logic was one of the first casualties of the zombie outbreak. Predictably, he gets overwhelmed by the baby and another zombie, gets bitten all to hell, and the group comes in to find him being eaten up. Based on the apparent age of the baby – maybe 8-9 months – I had to question then how this thing was even able to bite when it would have had, at most, a couple of recently sprouted teeth. But whatever. We’ve abandoned reason at this point in the episode anyhow.
Next stop on the stupid tour is the entire group entering the building to find MFL being eaten, and all drawing their guns. They let loose a hail of bullets on MFL, the baby, and the the other random zombie that showed up to help the baby in its raptor-like hunting strategy. This bothered me, but it also serves as a great example of what exactly is wrong with this show. See, earlier in the episode we saw some people haggling, and it appeared that bullets are even more valuable than medicine (a character tries to trade bullets for aspirin on a 1-to-1 basis, but the trade is rejected because “you can’t kill a zombie with aspirin”). And yet, faced with 3 easy targets, a group fires off roughly 7 or 8 dozen bullets. It’s hard to say exactly how many – I did try to roll it back and count – because there are automatics in there, so a couple of the rifles get out a dozen or so rounds for every 5-6 that the pistols fire. The point is, 3 bullets would have gotten the job done, and they all knew it; so they all decided instead to empty their clips.
So how is this an example of what’s wrong with the show? It’s clear that the writers/director thought this scene was necessary because a bunch of people firing a billion rounds of ammo looks cool. “They’ll look super bad ass guys, standing there just firing a hundred bullets each!” And that would work for an action movie in about 1991. But I think audiences are over that kind of thing. It’s possible to do a major action scene like that and still look respectable; think the Walking Dead gang opening up Hershel Greene’s barn. But when the show has already set up a bunch of super badass characters, showing something like this is just another reason to roll your eyes.
And so, like the Resident Evil movies that they, for some reason, insist on continuing to make, this particular zombie property is all style and no substance. Something audiences are becoming immune to, as style without substance really isn’t very stylish.
Why does the baby become a zombie and get up to attack everyone? Because “zombie baby is scary.” Why is Cassandra in a cage? Because that looks kinda cool, and it’s a good way to introduce us to this character (who, might I add, looks like she’s meant to become the bad ass Michonne character, but in a group full of bad asses, that’s not going to go over well). Why does the group waste several billion bullets to kill two zombies? Because it looks cool when a group of people fires off a bunch of ammo at an enemy. Why anything? Because it looks cool.
Except, this show is so poorly directed, that even the bits that are meant to look cool don’t.
The creators of Z Nation figured they wouldn’t have to try to hard. There’s only one other zombie show on TV – AMC’s The Walking Dead. Syfy assumed that it’s a success because people love zombies. But that’s not why both my parents, and all my aunts and uncles watch TWD. Zombie films are usually B-movies because, despite their current popularity, it’s actually really hard to make people like a zombie movie. They’re usually really bad, and audiences don’t ignore that simply because there are zombies. TWD is actually more the exception than the rule. If we didn’t care about the story, and about the characters involves, the zombies wouldn’t make us watch it anyhow. TWD ropes us in early. We like Rick and we want him to find his family. The zombies impede his progress. They are his obstacle. They aren’t cool in and of themselves; what we care about his how the survivors do what they do despite the zombie menace. TWD knows this, and so it succeeds.
To make us care, as an audience, about your story, you first have to make us care about the people involved in it. If you can’t do that, you fail before you begin. Z Nation has a decent enough plot – a group of people must take the only living link to the only successful zombie vaccine ever developed to the scientists who can use him to figure it out. But I don’t care if these people succeed, because from what I can see, everyone in their world is a contrived, unbelievable character, and I don’t care if their world ends right now. Why should I care about any of these people? MFL, Warren, Garnett, Cassandra, these people are all Batman-level super bad asses. They don’t need my empathy, they’ll be fine on their own. Mack, Addy, and Doc, the other three characters following them around, are mostly just there to make the group a bit bigger, and give the writers some “main characters” to kill off in coming episodes. I don’t know who these people are, where they came from, if they have families, goals, hopes…I have no reason to root for them, because they are 2-dimensional, cookie cutter characters. The show wants me to like them because I see them doing a few cool things. But that’s not enough.
Think of Daryl Dixon. I’m sorry to keep comparing this show to the Walking Dead, but given that it’s one of two zombie shows on TV, there’s not a lot else to compare with. We don’t meet Daryl at first – we meet his brother Merle, who is left handcuffed to a roof when Rick and several others escape from Atlanta. Daryl’s very first story is going back into Atlanta with Rick to try to save Merle. It’s a good storyline, very typical of that show; we can sympathize with his desire to save his brother, his only living family member, but at the same time we recognize the complication of risking ones life to save a worthless human being. Daryl seems a bit smarter than Merle, and even recognizes that Merle sucks. So we’re drawn into this character. We care about his story. It’s intriguing. We care when he is surrounded by zombies, we cheer when he uses that trademark crossbow to kill them, and we really love how cool he looks shooting one, then snatching the bolt out of its head to shoot another.
Conversely, Z Nation gives us Garnett. All we know about him is that his name is Garnett, he’s apparently in the National Guard (which isn’t so much a thing anymore). And that’s all. If he’d been killed in this episode, I would not have been bothered by it. I don’t know anything about him other than that he was in the National Guard, and I assume his goals extend as far as “don’t die.” Okay, sure. I’m the same way, personally. But don’t tell me a character likes food, water, and oxygen and expect me to therefore immediately identify with him.
This is especially necessary if you’re going to trick me by killing the obvious main character in the first episode. Remember Scream, which was initially billed as starring Drew Barrymore? And how surprising it was to have her killed in scene one? Dropping the story then into Neve Campbell’s lap, poor Neve had to face the difficult task of then becoming a likeable, sympathetic character almost immediately, or we wouldn’t care about the story for long. She did a decent job for her first time out, so happily, we were able to feel engaged. But think if, instead, Neve had been given cheesy, stupid dialogue, delivered a very flat performance, gave us little in the way of background or personality to care about – generally, just sucked. Would we have sat there for another 70-80 minutes to see how her story turned out? Probably not.
So why should we tune into Z Nation for episode 2?
Well, the answer is probably “to see if it still sucks.” But, spoiler alert – it will. The show is just trying to look cool, and doesn’t care about anything else. Unfortunately, it didn’t even look that cool, so it failed on all levels.
There are about another 5 minutes of show to discuss, but it’s not worth going into. I will say my partner and I kept laughing while first Addy, and then Garnett talked to DJ Qualls on the radio, only to have the rest of the group ask what was said, as though it was a phone and not a walky-talky loud enough for everyone within 10 yards to hear it. And get ready for the end, because DJ Qualls – who throughout the episode has been some kind of military radio operator – puts on sunglasses, turns on a record, and suddenly becomes freaking 3-Dog from Fallout 3. Yea boy, turns out he’s also a part-time pirate radio DJ or something stupid like that. Isn’t it cool? See his sunglasses? Sunglasses are cool!
Sunglasses are cool. But put them in Z Nation, and somehow they suck.