Here’s a disclaimer: Even if Zoo were the worst television series of the year, I would still watch every single episode. It’s an entrant in the ever-growing apocalyptic genre, a dramatic series that hinges on conniving lions and murderous kittens. Its hero is a zoologist, it proposes “controversial” theories about animals, and a woman gets fired for having a blog. It is ridiculous, and it is ridiculously fun.
In Zoo, based on the James Patterson novel of the same name, the always welcome (and always attractive) James Wolk plays our rogue hero zoologist Jackson Oz (what a name!), an expat working in Africa as a safari guide alongside his best friend Abraham (Nonso Anozie). Jackson is also trying to outrun his late father’s encroaching shadow — his father often spouted theories about the relationship between humans and animals that were quickly dismissed but (surprise!) might turn out to be true! For now, though, Jackson is more interested in helping the animals: an early scene finds him stopping a hunter by blasting a James Brown song on a boombox, Lloyd Dobler style. The series has its fun until it doesn’t.
To be fair, Zoo remains enjoyable fun even when it gets a bit too serious. In fact, it’s almost better at those moments, because of Zoo‘s straight-faced approach and its commitment to making viewers believe — and fear — that a group of cute kittens meowing in a tree might have sinister plans for a summer day camp. But that’s what we’ve signed up for here. Zoo‘s boiled-down premise has animals banding together and rising up to war against the humans who have domesticated and hunted them for years. It’s about the threat of mass human extinction, the hyper-intelligence of animals (as seen through a “defiant pupil”), and the possibility of animals exhibiting decidedly “human” qualities like insecurity and ego. (It should be said that this is all handled slowly and delicately; this isn’t raptors opening up kitchen doors but lions subtly changing their normal behavior both in the wild and in the zoo.)
ZOO. Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/CBS
While Jackson finds himself outrunning angry lions in Botswana (and meeting up with a beautiful French woman, naturally, because what would an apocalyptic, animals-running-the-Earth series be without some boring romance?), there are problems in the United States as well. There are the aforementioned kittens, which pop up toward the end of the pilot, but most of the action here revolves around a young and plucky reporter, Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly), investigating a deadly lion attack. She comes to the conclusion that it has to do with the awful, low-grade food the lions ate, starting a David-and-Goliath fight against an evil corporation. Her sort-of-boyfriend/sort-of-boss (Reid Scott) chides her for chasing unicorns, so Jamie links up with zoo pathologist Mitch Morgan (Billie Burke), who is just as invested in the case as she is. He’s also a surly dude who likes animals better than people (but is quick to clarify that he likes just about everything more than people), although I’m sure that by mid-season Jamie will help sway his opinion the other way.
Zoo‘s opening voiceover asks, “What if all across the globe, the animals decided ‘no more’? What if they finally decided to bite back?” This manages to work on multiple levels: If you’re seriously invested in that question, you’ll seriously enjoy the series. If you burst out laughing at the idea, you’ll probably burst out laughing throughout much of the series. It’s not great, but it’s a CBS summer series, so expecting greatness was pretty much always out of the question. While Wolk certainly makes the show enjoyable, it ultimately amounts to little more than an easy and laughable offering. You won’t miss much if you skip it, but you might get a few unintentional laughs if you stick around.