We thought for sure the zombie television market had been so thoroughly cornered by The Walking Dead that no other network would dare tread upon ground AMC had claimed as its own. Apparently, The CW didn’t get that memo, and actually, that turned out to be a great thing (not that it seemed so at first). Full disclosure: when the first ads for iZombie started dropping like undead paratroopers on TV and Youtube, we rolled our eyes so hard they almost fell out. Dubious name: check. Based on a comic book: check. Quirky premise without any signs of an apocalypse, a horde, or a single chainsaw shotgun? Okay, fine; we’re listening.
The thing about iZombie is that it’s willing to redefine the current structure of the zombie genre. In this world, zombies are not only fully functional beings, they hold high-level jobs and have to keep their hunger for brains a secret. Our protagonist is Liv, a medical resident who is turned by a pack of druggies while attending a boat party in Seattle. She takes a job at the King County Morgue, whereupon she informs her boss of her inconvenient condition; and instead of shrieking and hitting her with a chair, he actively encourages her to eat the brains of murder victims. Why? Because whenever Liv ingests a brain, she gains some of that person’s memories, as well as bits of their personality for a short period of time. This ability becomes a crime-solving tool, and if anyone asks, she’s “psychic-ish.” At its core, iZombie is typical CW fare with one significant zombie twist, but that twist adds a really important dash of variety to an otherwise badly-stagnated area of storytelling.
Look, we’re not saying that you have to take the life-size cutout of Daryl Dixon out of your bathroom. The zombie idea has persisted for so long because it is compelling on a basic level; something about a loveless, forsaken world just flips a switch in the human brain that’s impossible to ignore. And yes, Michonne’s katanas are cool. Yes, Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams in Army of Darkness is essentially the ultimate being of total badassery, but these days the face of zombie media is full of gore, and it’s always missing its lower jaw. iZombie is here to give us a new perspective on a tired concept, one that might appeal to the sort of person who doesn’t think replacing one’s arm with a chainsaw is a particularly good idea.
Still not convinced? We’ll admit that the title is at least overly simplistic (perhaps a millennial-oriented play on Asimov’s I, Robot), but the show itself contains a surprising amount of depth. It does have its low-hanging tropes: Liv starts losing her intelligence if she goes too long without a brain, but then again, she is a zombie. The quirks she develops from eating brains allow the show to explore different aspects of character without glutting the cast, and it manages to integrate its zombie-centered nature fairly seamlessly into an increasingly-complex plot, without the use of heavy weapons or a slavering horde. What we’re saying is that the show can stand on its own two feet while still defying the undead norm, and that’s nice to see.
It’s certainly true that this interpretation is missing a lot of the things most would consider key features of the overall zombie theme: modern day Seattle is far from a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape and the roving bands of survivors are nowhere to be seen, perhaps lost in a concrete forest of Starbucks. The setting change sacrifices some of the alluring “desperate struggle” vibe of a plague-infested landscape, but the trade-off is that we get to see something entirely different. In the context of an unravaged world, Liv’s condition isn’t devoid of purpose. She still prompts discussion of important themes, including morality and mental illness. We begin to see that zombies don’t have to be one-trick, one-environment ponies; that they can be utilized beyond the role of “witless plot device and/or dedicated heartstring puller.” Naysayers would point out that it is very easy to boil iZombie down to “zombie CSI,” or something similar, but hey: if it works, where’s the problem? At least the limits are being tested.
None of this means that zombies as we know them are over. The Walking Dead just started its sixth season, and Ash vs. Evil Dead is slated to begin its run on Halloween this year; however, iZombie and its continually-high ratings are proving right this moment that there’s more to the genre than meets the eye. Will it break any records or change the very fabric of entertainment? Probably not, but it might just open some new and interesting doors.