Celebrating iZombie – a scatterbrained zombie procedural


This feature contains spoilers for all five seasons of iZombie, up to and including the series finale.

With Game Of Thrones ending its White Walker plotline a little too early for some viewers and The Walking Dead apparently set to trudge on indefinitely, leave it to iZombie to bring its zombie serial to a timely end. Created by Veronica Mars‘ Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, the CW show started in 2015 and recently wrapped up its fifth and final season.

Starring Rose McIver in the lead role, iZombie is a very loose adaptation of the comic series of the same name. Published by DC’s recently shuttered Vertigo imprint, the comics have Liv Moore as a gravedigger who takes on the memories and personality traits of the recently deceased by eating their brains. In the TV series, McIver’s character is a medical examiner’s assistant who uses those powers to solve unusual murders.

Emerging as one of the most creative and entertaining US TV shows of the season when it first premiered, it stands apart from both the Arrowverse on The CW and the glut of comic-inspired shows elsewhere. Later on in its run, it gets a bit more uneven in its use of comic book elements, largely involving antagonists who put the “arch” in “archvillain”.

But despite a notable wobble in quality for the last two seasons, the story of iZombie is never about a decline. While it starts as a darkly comic but ultimately fluffy show and shambles into being a daft, sprawling, genre-heavy civil rights allegory, its unique selling points are more than enjoyable enough to keep it going.

Among those points is the enviable ensemble of regulars. Alongside McIver, regulars Malcolm Goodwin, Robert Buckley, Rahul Kohli, Aly Michalka, and David Anders give cracking performances. All of their characters find themselves at odds at different points in the series, as they cope with an outbreak of zombie-ism caused by a tainted mix of designer drugs and energy drinks.

Offering its funny and fresh take on multiple genres at once, it’s neither as soapy or as mopey as you might expect from a CW series about gorgeous zombies. From the very beginning, its killer premise is coupled with a thoughtful exploration of all the associated tropes, including its comic book origins.

The Beginning

“I’m already dead.”

The most obvious sign of iZombie’s comic book origins is the series of comic-style panels, created by the series’ original artist Robert Allred, which appear in the opening titles (with a banger of a theme song by Deadboy And The Elephantmen) and after every act break. But with so many comic-book-inspired shows on the air, what sets this apart?

For starters, as mentioned, it’s not an especially reverent adaptation. Even the letters of the title are in a different case. In the comics, Liv knocks about with ghosts and were-terriers as she battles soulless and supernatural locals in Eugene, Oregon. The TV series relocates the action to Seattle and surrounds her with people who are, at the outset of the show at least, oblivious to her undead condition.

In the pilot episode, Liv is a promising resident doctor who gives up everything – her job, her relationships, and her engagement to childhood sweetheart Major Lilywhite (yes, really) – to take a job in the police department morgue as an assistant to chief medical Ravi Chakrabarti after being exposed to the zombie virus at a boat party.

Her first thought is that she’ll get an easy supply of post-mortem brains to chew on (cooked in infinitely delicious-looking combos, in one of the show’s best running jokes), but in another aspect taken from the comic, she discovers the ability to absorb the memories of her lunch, which manifest as visions that gradually point towards the murderer.

Liv also takes on personality traits and skills of the deceased’s brain, giving McIver the chance to play wildly different spins on Liv in different episodes. She may have been more widely seen in A Christmas Prince movies, but throughout all five seasons, her tremendous comic timing and versatility are the show’s greatest assets.

The mind-hopping gives her a showcase that’s closer to Quantum Leap than Orphan Black, and definitely leans more into caricature as the show goes on (compare the trippiness of a mental patient’s brain in season 1, to the more enjoyable, less nuanced portrayals of professional dancers and a drag queen in season 5), but this superpower, combined with the change of situation, brings iZombie the series closer to certain superhero conventions than iZOMBIE the comic.

In the early episodes of the show, the existence of zombies is still very much on the downlow, meaning that Liv has to avoid outing herself and her kind while also being morally compelled to do the right thing and help grumpy homicide detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) bring killers to justice. That gives her a secret identity to conceal.

On top of all of that, her drive to do the right thing almost always ends up putting a crimp on her personal life, whether it’s keeping her fiancée at arm’s length in the beginning or being unable to explain why she can’t donate blood to her sick, non-zombie brother in the first season cliffhanger. The way in which this is handled casts this in a Spider-Man light, and we come to love Liv Moore for much the same reasons as we love Peter Parker.

Creative differences

“I think we’re gonna surprise some people.”

Beyond its comic book influences, iZombie might outwardly look like the illogical extreme of the “sexy supernatural” trend that primarily concerned sexy vampires. Although Twilight was waning in popularity at the time that the series premiered in 2015, the trend for zombie comedies like Shaun Of The Dead, Zombieland, and Warm Bodies hasn’t gone away.

Not only is iZombie more in line with all these various additions to the monster genre but it’s also got more creative to avoid copying them. The entire first season arrives fully formed, precisely because it’s a show that acknowledges how we’re not hard-up for zombie movies and TV shows and pitches itself as something different. The sum of its efforts is significantly greater than either “sexy zombies” or “funny zombies”.

Just the fact that the genre elements are just gravy on top of the cast-iron police procedural format gives the show a huge head-start on the usual tropes that clog up the less-creative shows on the air. For instance, look at how the show handles Liv keeping her secret from Clive early on, despite sharing her visions with him.

He’s not an idiot; he knows normal people don’t have these superpowers, but ingeniously, the show has him convinced that Liv is a medium. The fact that Clive seems to accept that he’s in a show on The CW, but it would be somehow worse if he found out it was a zombie show rather than a psychic show, generates a bunch of big laughs throughout the first two seasons, is funny in itself while also feeding the secret identity narrative. Until the season 2 finale, he’s this show’s Lois Lane, or at the very least, its Jimmy Olsen.

But as a zombie show, it cherry-picks a unique array of conventions on which to build its world. As in 28 Days Later, it’s not your standard case of the dead returning to prey on the living, but a viral condition whose symptoms include pale skin, white hair, and a need to eat human brains. The ravening, insensible side seen in Night Of The Living Dead (and nicknamed “Romeros” for that exact reason) only comes when a zombie doesn’t eat brains.

Although iZombie‘s undeadness is largely transferred through scratching rather than biting (ahoy, network standards and practices), there’s an extra twist in making it sexually transmittable too. Where something like Twilight would use this kind of angst as part of an abstinence parable, there’s an underlying tension about love and sex that’s played up more interestingly than in any of the show’s genre fellows.

Most immediately, it comes down to Major flipping Lilywhite, the love of Liv’s life (and afterlife). Major Lilywhite is a name so absurd that you can only imagine his parents knew he was going to grow up to be a nice-but-dim hunky love interest in some sort of teen show. But this being iZombie, Major’s story arc lives up to his utterly preposterous name while also makes him one of the show’s most interesting and likeable characters.

When we meet him, he’s popular and almost comically uncomplicated and cast in the mould of a Steve Rogers, which is exactly why Liv lets him go. Doing whatever a Spider-Man can, she knows something else, aside from the sex thing, that he discovers across the following seasons – he has even more to lose than she did by becoming embroiled in her zombie nonsense.

Although he soon finds out the truth, Major’s development from social worker to soldier (via a brief stretch where most of the people who know him think he’s a serial killer) proves to be one of the show’s most surprisingly rewarding storylines. With all due credit to Robert Buckley’s performance, the character is so well written that he grows on you right up to the very last moments of the show. Plus, there’s a whole arc where he rescues a dog and calls it Minor, which most fans will agree was a highlight of the entire series.

Across the various genres that the show straddles, it’s so good in the early seasons because every aspect feels fresh. From the love interest to the zombie economy that springs up in town as the virus spreads, it’s a show that coalesces umpteen genre influences into something that always feels original.

The plot thickens

“We have a ridiculous murder to solve.”

The first three seasons of the show represent a continuous ramping-up of the stakes, combining enjoyable case-of-the-week antics with efforts to contain and even cure the virus, with new enemies and antagonists emerging along the way. The show is primarily billed as a horror-comedy, but the writers delight in silliness and punning rather than pitch-black comedy.

While it’s not above some more gruesome giggles, iZombie has an incorrigible taste for puns, ranging from a district attorney whose surname is Baracus (one for the ’80s TV fans there) to a paramilitary organisation set up to deal with the zombie problem called Filmore Graves. It might not be your cup of tea, but the show starts by balancing silliness with seriousness to great effect. What other show could pull off the triumphant, utterly incongruous One Day More musical ending in the middle of its very first season?

That’s a big part of the series’ personality, which never seems equipped to handle the scale of the outbreak and the ensuing crisis throughout the fourth and fifth seasons. There is a perceptible compression of the planned storyline of the series into two more seasons – the series is well-liked among its fans, but never drew huge ratings, so, understandably, the writers wanted to make sure they got to finish the story.

But the show is never knowingly unambitious, and after season 3 (arguably iZombie‘s peak season) cliffhangers with the government quarantining Seattle until a long-term solution to the zombie virus can be devised, the show’s reach starts to exceed its grasp. Where Major proves to be an example of the series’ continuing creativity, the character Blaine DeBeers becomes the banner of its inconsistency.

Introduced as the zombie who scratched Liv, he’s an on-off Big Bad who continues to create and profit from more zombies throughout the first season. And yet, his role in the gradual apocalypse feels like the most uncertain aspect of the latter seasons.

With numerous criminal connections and no moral scruples, he’s the character who’s best placed to, first, cater to zombie tastes with several creatively macabre establishments (bars and restaurants, but also brothels) and then, enter uneasy arrangements with the authorities and the good guys.

Mostly, he’s a pain in the arse throughout, but he’s one of several characters who is buffered by a wildly changeable tone that puts him wherever the plot needs to be. Fatally, another one of those characters winds up being Liv.

In the post-season four status quo, she winds up taking over from a zombie smuggler named Renegade, who has been getting terminally ill youngsters into Seattle to scratch them, with the idea being that the zombie virus overcomes the illness and also grants people eternal life. On paper, it sounds compassionate, but in a walled city with dwindling brain supplies and broiling racial tensions, it always comes across as downright irresponsible.

The “ridiculous” murder cases continue, but it feels as if the show is just giving Liv something to do. Once everyone knows about zombies, you no longer have the element of her doing whatever a Spider-Man can. The terrible side-effect of that is that the more the show finds for her to do in this brave new world, the less the show is actually about her.

Likewise, the show keeps giving Liv and Major other love interests, first to create tension, but later to keep them from having any interesting scenes together. The nadir of this comes in the penultimate episode of season 4, which starts out looking like a two-hander but misses a golden opportunity for the former couple to take stock of the mad stuff that’s been happening all season. Besides, she’s dallying with that boring zom-doc filmmaker whose name was… um… let’s say it was Scribbles.

To an extent, it’s understandable how Major and other regulars wind up having bigger roles as the show goes on because the regulars are all superb, but with whole episodes sidelining our protagonist, it’s a real problem. It would be different if the show’s continuing humans vs zombies allegory was a logical development of the show’s perspective, but by the time you have an African-American zombie saying “White lives matter”, referring to his pale-skinned undead kin, you know the writing has become irretrievably confused.

The cracks start to show in the season 4 finale, with the underpowered spectacle of a zombie civil war and the hilarious non-event of Scribbles being executed. But in the last season especially, the diminished focus on Liv is unforgivable because the show starts loading up countless new antagonists on top of that.

The first season ends with Liv alienating her mother and brother because she can’t give her infected blood and she can’t tell them that she’s a zombie either. Bizarrely, her family, who are key supporting characters throughout that season, never show up again until the fifth season, when Liv’s estranged father Martin emerges.

In an example of how harried and backwards the show has got by this point, we know that Martin is a chemist whose tainted designer drug caused the zombie outbreak before we know he’s Liv’s dad, leaving our heroes to play catch up over several episodes. We also know he’s working on a plot for zombies to take over the world, involving various agents beyond the walls of Seattle, that never comes to much by the end.

Not only is Martin introduced about two seasons too late for this to have much impact, he’s pretty much over and done within in a five-episode arc, at the end of which the show’s most shark-jumping character, military gendarme Enzo Lambert (think Euron Greyjoy but as an abysmal, sub-SNL French caricature) kills him off and becomes the de facto Big Bad in the finale.

But right up to the finale, there’s an irritating tendency to have Liv find out what’s happening from other characters, making her increasingly passive. After season 3, each episode covers a progressively bigger, less interesting picture, almost losing touch with why we liked the show as a result. The jokes never dry up, as the diverting case-of-the-week plots continue alongside the contrived misery of the main plotline, but it’s often a far cry from the show it started as.

The bright side of death

“You’re just lucky I have a taste for dark, repetitive humour.”

Looking at it all together, iZombie does undergo something of a zombie-style transformation over its five seasons. By the last 13 episodes, there’s significantly less light behind the eyes when it started and there’s a significant yearning for some brains, in both the story and in the pit of faithful viewers’ stomachs.

But unlike The Walking Dead and its spin-offs, which will keep shambling on until they have ratings like this show and maybe even beyond that, the show is animated by optimism. Even at its darkest, it’s quite funny and light-footed. It may be a bit scatterbrained, but we like all of the characters we’re meant to like because they’re all good characters doing their best to do the right thing.

Whether it’s Liv solving murders and saving kids, or Major trying to keep a human-zombie war from kicking off, or Ravi tangling with big pharmaceutical companies as he works on a potential cure, it’s easy to like them. Backed by terrific performances from the cast, the essential optimism of the show’s characters is what keeps it going through various dips in quality.

In reconnecting with those characters, last week’s series finale comes across as a better finale for the show than it does for the muddled season that preceded it. It’s inevitably rushed and less complicated than the previous episodes demand, but viewers have earned the happy ending that comes with Ravi discovering a cure and Liv and Major remaining as zombies together.

Every show has its peaks and troughs, but here, the heights are high enough to carry it through most of the lows. Where the network budget starts to show in the more grandiose exploits of later seasons, the show’s creativity never feels confined by its network status, its comic book source material, or by any of the various genres in which it dabbles.

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