Television has become an auteur’s format, it’s more artistic than it has ever been, and there are plenty of prestige TV series changing the way that we perceive the medium.
But in among all of the seriousness and the weightiness of shows like Mad Men, The Wire, and The Sopranos, the television canon is in need of something a little less heavy. Z Nation (SyFy) is that show.
Zombies are Inescapable (at least on TV)
We love zombie narratives, and we love making tongue in cheek plans in case an outbreak happens. Contemporary TV screens have been tuned into The Walking Dead for years now, and AMC recently released sister show Fear the Walking Dead.
But both of those shows take their subject matter seriously, albeit with a nod to their graphic novel origins. Their heroes deal with drama, family troubles, and the problems of surviving in an inhospitable post apocalyptic landscape. There’s no hope in their stories, and there’s certainly no levity.
Rick Grimes, the protagonist on the veteran zombie show The Walking Dead, is a man on the brink of psychosis and his story is one of loss, anger, and violence. He leads his small tribe of survivors through seriously depressing (and often boring) events. Although The Walking Dead can be fun TV, it never has fun with its subject matter.
The Walking Dead is event TV, something that we can tune into and watch as competent folk attempt to survive in an alien world. And there are plenty of shows like it, but Z Nation does something different, it approaches its story with glee, and barely restrained pop culture tropes.
For me, the problem with The Walking Dead is the fact that its exposition works best through action, and the talking scenes are slow, stilted, and often useless in terms of character development. Z Nation barely lets its characters converse; instead it uses overt and stylised events to direct its story.
The most immediate effect that Z Nation has is through its characters. They’re tropes, archetypes, and they work because we already know who they are. Initially the characters act according to type, but as the show enters into its second season the writers have let the story morph and influence the characters with more originality. In my mind at least the second season pushes Z Nation forwards with creativity and tension, and it stands as the best show currently on TV.
The Zombie Cure
Z Nation follows the story of Murphy (Keith Allan), a convict who underwent an experimental procedure that rendered him immune to zombie bites. It’s likely that his blood harbours the cure for the virus, and a team of Special Forces soldiers are dispatched to escort him across the zombie-infested United States to a research lab in California.
Of course nothing goes to plan, and Murphy finds himself handed off to a group of ill trained National Guard troops. He’s accompanied by an old hippie, a young sniper, and a strong independent woman, the characters effectively slot into specific stereotypes, archetypes, tropes, and expectations – and it works remarkably well. There’s no hiding what the writers are up to with Z Nation.
Z Nation starts off as a spoof of sorts, but as it progresses it develops into a narrative with more nuance and depth thanks to the skillful character writing, and the excellent pacing. It subverts traditional storytelling conventions too with its heroic female lead, and its more hopeful than nihilistic story arc.
King Among Zombies
But for me the best part about the show is Murphy, the erstwhile convict, now a king among zombies. Rather than simply reiterating tired arcs and conventions from pop culture stories, Z Nation tells its own tale through Murphy’s narrative arc. He’s not a hero, and for the most part he acts in his own interests, but his potential is unique, and he stands as perhaps the most interesting and innovative character currently on TV.
Without going into too much detail, or giving away key plot points, Murphy is a figure that transforms throughout the show. He becomes fundamentally different, his perspective and his interactions in the zombie infested world aren’t easily predictable. Instead he’s an enigma, and we’re left to figure him out through his actions.
The second season is only three episodes in but it’s already surpassing the scope of the first season. There are bounty hunters, Mad Max references, and an odd ball addition in the form of Z Weed, cannabis grown in a special lab with decomposing zombies used as fertiliser.
It’s this kind of writing that makes Z Nation sparkle, and for all of its deliberately trite and constructed narrative cues, an interesting character piece emerges. It’s not The Walking Dead, and it doesn’t try to be, but in the process it subverts our expectations, and it adds something new to a narrative type that we’ve become immune to.
In an era dominated by remakes, reboots, and spin offs Z Nation provides some respite, and most importantly a great deal of creativity. Is it the best show on TV? I think so, and Murphy is certainly the hippest character since Seinfeld’s Kramer to grace our screens.
Z Nation is an excellent TV show, and one that should be celebrated. It has a B movie sensibility, it’s self aware, and it challenges the reign of the white male anti hero in the golden age of TV.