SyFy's "Z Nation" Takes a Bite out of "The Walking Dead"
"Z Nation" airs on SyFy on Friday nights at 10 PM
WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the premiere episode of "Z Nation." If you have not seen the episode, reader beware.
Since it premiered in late 2010, AMC's gripping horror/drama series "The Walking Dead" has become a bona fide phenomenon, reigniting interest in the stagnating zombie genre, garnering massive critical praise, and most importantly, pulling in huge ratings. Therefore, you didn't need a crystal ball to predict that someone would eventually put together a competing zombie show and attempt to take a bite (D'oh! Sorry, I couldn't resist) out of "TWD's" audience share. Enter: "Z Nation," which premiered on SyFy on Friday, September 12, 2014 and reportedly attracted 1.6 million viewers - the best showing for an original program debut on the network since 2006. The question, of course, is how many of those 1.6 million viewers will return for the second episode. Based on the premiere, I'd say that the makers of "TWD" won't need to watch out for "Z Nation" in their rear view mirror anytime soon.
"Z Nation" Trailer:
It must be noted that "Z Nation" is the first attempt at episodic TV production by The Asylum, the B-Movie studio who have been responsible for the lion's share of SyFy's ultra-schlocky "original movie" output over the past several years. (See: the "Sharknado" flicks, "Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus," "2 Headed Shark Attack," and dozens more.) Since the Asylum initially made a name for themselves by producing low budget knock-offs of numerous high profile films like "Transmorphers," "Snakes on a Train," "The Day the Earth Stopped," etc., it makes sense that SyFy would hire them to produce what is essentially a "mockbuster" of "The Walking Dead."
A Familiar Set Up....
The first episode of "Z Nation" wastes no time dropping viewers into the middle of familiar zombie-genre territory. A montage of flames, explosions, ruined cities and growling, snarling undead faces flash by as a narrator informs us that it's been three years since a mysterious virus decimated the world's population, turning them into ravenous zombies. The President is dead, the United States Government has falllen apart, and the American people have been reduced to wandering pockets of rag-tag survivors.
We soon meet military tough guy Lt. Hammond (Harold Perrineau, last seen as "Michael" on LOST), who arrives at a top secret laboratory just as it comes under siege by zombies. The scientists are in the midst of testing possible antibodies to the virus on several seemingly-unwilling subjects when the lab is swarmed by the Undead. In the ensuing mayhem, one of the guinea pigs - Murphy (Keith Allan) - is bitten by several zombies, but when the smoke clears he shows none of the usual flesh-munching after effects. This makes him, in Hammond's words, "the last best hope for humanity." Hammond quickly makes radio contact with "Citizen Z," (D.J. Qualls of "Supernatural") a lone military communications officer who's watching the events unfold from a giant bank of computer screens at an undisclosed location. He tells Hammond that it is imperative that he escort Murphy from New York to California, where more scientists are waiting to synthesize a Zombie virus vaccine from Murphy's blood. In other words...it's time for a road trip!
Season 1 "Super Teaser"
Bang! Pow! Splat! Ewwwww!
Hammond and Murphy soon meet up with a small encampment of survivors led by Garnett (Tom Everett Scott of "That Thing You Do!"). After some ego clashes between the two men, Garnett agrees to escort the pair to a supposed "safe location" near the Tappan Zee Bridge, where Hammond hopes to be picked up by authorities that will take them to California. Naturally, the you-know-what hits the fan shortly thereafter. While out on the road, the gang learns that Garnett's encampment has been overrun by Zombies (I hate when that happens) and when they arrive at their destination, it too has been decimated by a recent Undead attack. While Hammond and the team scrounge through the building looking for supplies they find a baby in a crashed automobile, whose crying, naturally, attracts even MORE zombies. Much shooting, head cracking, and blood splattering occurs, and the poor baby inexplicably becomes Zombie-fied, which leads to several unintentionally hilarious scenes of the good guys battling the suddenly demonic child. Hammond is killed while trying to put the Z-Baby out of its misery and thus, Garnett and his team realize that since they have no home to return to, it has now become their responsibility to get Murphy to California. They pile into a truck and race off into an uncertain future, and only SyFy knows where the denizens of "Z Nation" will go from here.
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Good News and Bad News...
The Good News is that "Z Nation" was entertaining enough in a typically schlocky SyFy manner. Unlike "The Walking Dead," which often gets bogged down in its own self importance, "Z Nation" is all about balls-out action and gore. Zombie fanatics who find "TWD" too "cerebral" will probably have a ball with "Z Nation's" action-packed shenanigans. The series maintains the grubby low-budget look of The Asylum's feature films, but in this instance that vibe works in its favor. After all, it's a zombie apocalypse, things are supposed to be washed out and grungy. The gore effects are suitably gooey and gross, though they probably should've 86'd the entire "Zombie Baby" sequence; not only because of the laughably cheap CGI effects but also because a zombie kid is a tired, silly cheap-scare that's been done better in several other zombie flicks (see: the 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead," or the Asylum's own "Rise of the Zombies").
The Bad News is that other than Qualls' "Citizen Z," who's only glimpsed for a few moments, and Perrineau's Lt. Hammond, who was killed off by the end of the show, none of the other characters in "Z Nation" were given much to do in this episode except kick zombie butt, so we don't know who any of them are yet. Tom Everett Scott's Garnett seems to be shaping up to become this series' analogue to Rick on "The Walking Dead," i.e. the group leader with a soft and caring side. If we're going to be following these people for the rest of the season, the writers need to flesh (sorry) the rest of them out and give each of them some personality.
The Final Word: "Z Nation" certainly isn't must-see TV by any means but its goofy B-Movie charm (and my own personal weakness for SyFy/Asylum productions in general) will keep me tuned in for at least one or two more episodes. If nothing else, "Z Nation" will provide a diversion that'll keep zombie fans occupied until the far superior "Walking Dead" begins its new season in October.
Update - They'll be Baaaaaaack
In spite of what Entertainment Weekly magazine described as "consistent but middling" ratings numbers, SyFy is obviously pleased with the performance of Z Nation thus far, because halfway through its initial run of 13 episodes they announced that it was being renewed for a second season. Z Nation returned in 2015 for more zombie blasting mayhem, and a third season is already on the drawing board. It looks like Z Nation is here to stay!
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