Early on in the first season of iZombie, The CW’s supernatural procedural show created by Veronica Mars’ Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, a zombie acknowledges that his kind are a little played out – in fact, they’re everywhere in TV and movies. “I think we might surprise a few people,” he immediately follows up. On the strength of these 13 episodes, he’s not wrong.
Although we never thought that the current cycle of monster-mashed teen series would bring us around to a sexy zombie show, this one turns out to have more than its fair share of brains. It’s very loosely based on the DC/Vertigo comic of the same name, which follows a revenant gravedigger, who passes for human, as long as she keeps eating the grey matter of the living on a regular basis.
In the TV incarnation, Olivia “Liv” Moore (Rose McIver) is a promising resident doctor who makes the fateful decision to go to a boat party on Lake Washington with her colleague. There’s an unexplained zombie outbreak when the boat gets out to sea and a scratched Liv wakes up on the shore, in a body bag, with white hair, pale flesh and a fierce hunger for brains.
Five months later, she’s changed career tracks by becoming a medical examiner for the Seattle police department. She’s dumped her nice but implausibly named fiancée, Major (Robert Buckley), and the only person who knows her secret is her boss in the morgue, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli). However, when Liv and Ravi discover that she can access the memories and personalities of the brains she eats, they’re able to help Detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) to investigate their murders and try to get to the bottom of what connection the mysterious Blaine (David Anders) has with her undead status.
On paper, this is a tricky proposition. If you know the comic, you might be after a slightly more faithful adaptation of the source material, which throws ghosts and were-terriers into the mix. If you don’t know the comic, then the title alone evokes cringier US network genre shows that tried to be down with the kids. Happily, iZombie is better for being its own thing, wrangling the tropes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the Rosetta stone of supernatural teen shows, into the kind of savvy procedural that Thomas did so well in Veronica Mars.
It takes a very casual approach to zombie lore, offering McIver an opportunity to do her Orphan Black thing and play a number of different characters, as Liv takes on some of the personality traits of her dinners in each episode. These sometimes wind up skewing a little broad (an obligatory internet troll episode sets up all of the most clichéd beats of the first season in the space of just one episode), but there are plenty of witty uses of victims’ personalities rubbing off on Liv from beyond the grave as the season goes on – a highlight is the mental indigestion that comes with a delusional mental patient.
True to the comic book roots, each episode features comic-style artworks (all drawn by iZombie artist Michael Allred) in the opening credits and in between act breaks, but its origins are also reflected in the stories. Liv indulges in a fair amount of Spider-Man’s brand of self-sabotage, putting responsibility ahead of her personal life and repeatedly causing inter-personal melodrama with her family and friends, as a result of her unique condition, which makes for plenty of great moments when coupled with the showrunners’ impeccable sense of irony and gallows humour.
For instance, when undead Liv wants to profess her undead/undying love for Major, only to see him with a new girl, she catches them playing a zombie shooter game and really enjoying it far too much. It’s unmistakably a network show, and thus bound by standards and practices, but it’s touches like this that keep it from being as soapy or mopey as previous shows of this kind (looking at you, Smallville).
iZombie is billed as a horror comedy and the comedy is suitably dark. The funniest part is the unspoken irony of Detective Babineaux believing that Liv’s paranormal insight comes from psychic ability, which is just as outlandish as zombieism. It’s almost like he’s aware that he’s in a show on The CW, but he’s still clueless enough to think it’s a completely different show. The programme barely gets that meta, but its extended references to contemporary zombie fare, such as Warm Bodies and Zombieland, and a frankly disproportionate amount of 30 Rock references, are of-the-moment enough that they may feel dated within a few years.
Throughout the first season, McIver’s versatile performance is backed by strong supporting players – Goodwin makes an ideally clueless foil, Kohli plays the quipping British doctor of Indian descent better than that casting call would probably have suggested, and semi-regular guest star Aly Michalka is charming as always as Liv’s loyal roommate Peyton.
Plus, even though we’ve yet to be convinced that any parent would call their child Major Lilywhite, unless they wanted them to be a secondary character in a US teen show, Buckley makes for a four-square love interest who becomes embroiled in the main subplot of the season, repeatedly running afoul of Anders’ Blaine, a drug dealer who has moved onto bigger game. There’s a little of that Marvel Netflix thing of waiting for the heroes to catch up with what the villains are doing over a number of episodes, but the implausibly-named Major keeps plates spinning.
iZombie picks the brains of its source material, retaining the style but taking enjoyable liberties with the mythos. We see that zombies can eat, drink and go to the gym over the course of 13 episodes, but anxieties about love and sex are writ large in a way that the likes of Twilight and its televisual successors have never managed. It’s also refreshingly free of the usual teething troubles that a series such as this could have in its first season. On the evidence of these 13 episodes, iZombie appears to have arrived fully formed, coolly and confidently pitching its wholesale reinvention of “played out” tropes to genre fans who are hardly starved of a fix, all the while building up to an almighty cliffhanger in the finale. It’s the most singular and stylish treatment of the supernatural on TV since Being Human – the UK version – and one of the very best comic book shows going.
Season 1 and 2 of iZombie are available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.