Ever since The CW’s launch in 2006, the network has been searching for a well-defined identity to wrap its brand around. It has generally stuck with programming marketed toward teens, especially teen girls, (Gossip Girl, 90210), though it has also experimented with comedy (Seed, Backpackers — both swiftly canned) and a string of forgettable one-season dramas (Emily Owens, M.D.; Ringer). And during the current 2014-15 season, The CW may have found its niche: comic-book adaptations. Arrow remains a hit, The Flash emerged as one of the best new shows this season — the two will have a combined spinoff — and now there is iZombie, based on the comic series of the same name, and adapted by Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas. Like Veronica Mars, iZombie arrives fully formed, with an extremely likable and spunky protagonist at the center. Even better, the series provides clever spins on both the zombie and the police-procedural genres.
iZombie thrusts us into the action quickly with protagonist Liv (a very game Rose McIver) attending a boat-party-turned-zombie-attack, resulting in the once-promising medical resident becoming a zombie and getting a job at the morgue where she has easy access to brains to eat. The zombie premise works well here, something I didn’t think I’d ever say again, thanks to the surplus of zombie-related narratives that currently populate media (at one point, a fellow zombie asks “Are zombies over? Has over-saturation buried us?”). iZombie is able to avoid cliché because Liv isn’t exactly your typical zombie.
Liv can easily assimilate into the world of the living — she’s just very pale — and only needs to eat brains once in a while (often mixed in with noodles, it seems) to keep herself from becoming dumber and meaner (this show’s version of the usual growling, vicious zombies). The show also skips any zombie-ish exposition; we see Liv wake up in a body bag and then we skip ahead to her new life in the morgue, casually eating brains covered in hot sauce (zombies, it turn out, can only taste really spicy food). There have been some major changes in her life: she had to break up with her ex-fiancé Major out of fear that she’d turn him, her lawyer roommate Peyton (Aly Michalka) is wary and suspicious of her new PTSD behavior, and Liv occasionally worries that she’ll “go all Romero” and attack someone.
iZombie changed quite a bit from the page to the screen, and Rob Thomas has made it his own. Thomas’ handiwork abounds in iZombie, from the young and brassy protagonist with a penchant for sarcasm and kicking ass to the frequent voice-overs to his love for puns (a butcher called “Meat Cute” for one). Liv even has a great, complementary sidekick in her morgue boss, Ravi (Rahul Kohli), who is the only other living person who knows her secret; their banter is among the show’s most fun moments, tied only with Liv’s interactions with another zombie, the equally pale but more sinister Blaine (David Anders). Oh, and Liv solves murders. It’s not fair to describe Thomas’ new series as Veronica Mars With Zombies, but it’s still very tempting.
Surprisingly, some of the most impressive parts of iZombie are the police-procedural aspects. The show has an inherently interesting hook: When Liv eats someone’s brains, she inherits their memories and parts of their personalities. These memories show up in flashes, often triggered by a noise or sight that’s familiar to the deceased. Zombie Liv wants to help people just as much as pre-zombie Liv did, so she uses her “powers” to aid homicide detective Clive (Malcolm Goodwin) in solving the murders of people who end up in the morgue where she works. She explains this through psychic powers, and iZombie cleverly employs Clive as someone who is basically willing to believe this nonsense (then again, I suppose it is more believable than zombies) and doesn’t ask too many questions. He’s surprisingly light for Liv’s “partner,” with iZombie quickly pushing away the notion of this becoming a “surly veteran and optimistic rookie” buddy-cop comedy — though Clive does joke that the two could be Cagney & Pasty. This characterization is important in that it keeps the show from falling into too many procedural cliché (they are there, though; at one point, Liv actually says, “We need to find who did this and nail his ass to the wall).
It also helps that Liv temporarily inherits skills (painting and kung-fu) and personalities (kleptomania), instead of just memories, making her essentially a different person after every brain-filled meal — sometimes a sensual painter, sometimes a sociopath. But these personalities work more as an addition to her real, strong personality, rather than completely overtaking it. There are times when she succumbs, but this internal struggle just adds to what is already fun about the series. In fact, Liv’s struggles are all wonderfully deep for what is, on the surface, a silly zombie show: her interpersonal relationships, her attempts to reconcile with her ex, her pangs of yearning for her old life, and her glimpses of what her new zombie life could be like if she lost control.
iZombie still has a few kinks to work out, such as how long Liv can keep her secret from her family and from Clive, who certainly won’t buy the psychic story forever. It is occasionally a bit too cloying, with voice-overs like, “There were parts of me that were dead before I was even zombie,” though that’s to be expected, considering the main character’s name is Liv Moore — the writers are practically nudging you in the ribs. But the strength of the series and talent of the actors are already firmly on display throughout the first four episodes. Despite all the similarities, it’s clear that iZombie has what it takes to crawl out of Veronica Mars‘ shadow and grow into its own.