'Zoo' Creator on the Mysterious Animal Attacks and Expecting the Unexpected

THR caught up with showrunner Jeff Pinkner to preview what’s to come in the remainder of season one.
Courtesy of CBS

[Warning: Spoilers ahead from Tuesday's premiere episode of Zoo.]

The animals have finally reached their breaking point.

CBS’ summer drama Zoo — an adaptation of the novel of the same name from James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge — launched Tuesday with a premiere that questioned if humans really are at the top of the evolutionary food chain.

The pilot was split between two stories. The first begins in Botswana and follows American zoologist Jackson Oz (James Wolk) as he and his best friend Abraham (Nonso Anozie) investigate a vicious lion attack at a campsite. Seeking to rescue the lone survivor of the attack, Chloe (Nora Arnezeder), the three are ambushed by the pride, and only Chloe and Jackson are able to make it away safely.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly) is investigating another animal attack and, enlisting the help of UCLA scientist Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke), discovers some strange behavior among some local cats.

As the mystery begins to unfold, the final shot of the pilot reveals that Abraham is actually alive and held captive by the lions.

So what’s to blame for the animals’ sudden change? Is there a greater puppeteer behind it all or have the animals finally just had enough? “It’s God,” showrunner Jeff Pinkner jokes, before clarifying, “Yes, there is a cause and it’s sort of multivalent. The animals’ behavior is changing for a scientific reason, and then the cause of those scientific reasons is what the show will provide and answer.

He continues, noting the many possibilities: “Among the options that are explored: Is it a mutation that is somehow happening concurrently? Is it just adaptive behavior that is happening in response to a changing world? Is it viral? Is it bacterial? Is it purposeful? Is it accidental?”

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Pinkner to get to the bottom of these animal attacks and preview what’s to come on CBS’ newest summer show.

Jackson gets thrown into the investigation of these mysterious animal attacks. Going forward, is he a reluctant hero or is he more gung-ho because of his experience with his father?

He’s actually the former. His dad, years ago, started to identify something that he felt was happening in the animal kingdom and he was so far out ahead of it that he was treated like he was Chicken Little, "The sky is falling"; no one believed him. The more he became convinced that he was right and the more no one believed him, the more disturbing behavior he started to display like drinking and starting to lose a tether to reality. So [Jackson and his mom] moved [away] to Africa. [But Jackson] loves animals. He had always gone on his dad’s weekend adventures to study animals and, in some ways feels more comfortable around animals than he does humans. As he says in the pilot, “Animals are predictable, humans are not.” And their needs are simpler. Their desires are much more predictable. And when he starts to see evidence of animal behavior in Africa that is so acute and specific to things that his dad had predicated, he feels he has no choice but to pursue it.

We’re told that Jackson’s father went crazy and ultimately ended up committing suicide, but is there more to the story? Will we learn more about that family’s past at that time?

Jackson was [a teenager] at the time, and his dad was a professor at Harvard who was not literally losing his mind, but was becoming obsessed with this idea in ways that were damaging to himself and his family. Jackson’s mom was offered a Doctors Without Borders-type opportunity in Africa, and Jackson said, "Mom, this our only opportunity to get away from dad." It was a very hard decision for Jackson to make, leaving his father behind, but he thought by doing it, he was protecting his mom — he’s a protector at heart. [But] the answer is yes. We will peel back that story throughout the series.

In the pilot, the characters are spread out across the globe. How much will we see those characters and those worlds begin to overlap?

By the third episode, all of our characters have come together and formed a team. They have been brought together, actually by an agency, and formed a team. [The group’s] the tip of this spear to try to figure out what’s happening with the animals and if there’s some specific cause, [whether] can it be reversed.

The two types of animal perpetrators in the pilot are lions and cats, which are both felines. Will the affliction affect all animals equally or does it affect each animal differently?

That changes as the show goes on. It starts out with felines, or at least, the felines are the ones that our characters notice at first, but then they start to realize, fairly quickly, that it’s by no means limited to felines. [Also,] it’s by no means limited to Africa and L.A., and trying to figure out how it is that different species in different places have become similarly afflicted — though presenting differently in each creature based on their own native biology — becomes one of the avenues of investigation for our characters.

Do the humans have any animal allies? Are there any that will not be affected?

Meaning are there any animals that are resistant or don’t change? Not as a MacGuffin. Not as a clue, like, "Oh look, the dogs didn’t change, there must be something special about dogs." You’re thinking along the right lines, though.

Speaking of dogs, the most important question: Do any dogs die in the show?

No dogs ever die [onscreen anytime]. I love dogs. I wish no dogs would ever die. … We all love dogs. I think probably more humans die in our show than animals. I haven’t taken an inventory but I would guess.

How many answers can viewers expect by the end of the season?

Twelve! When we started, we weren’t interested in doing a show that would wrap up at the end of a season, so before we even started we figured out generally what the headlines are for the first five seasons of the show. Not unlike Fringe [which Pinkner co-created], we’re treating each season as a chapter in a larger story, with its own beginning, middle and end. Most if not all of the central mysteries this season will be answered, but they will lead to larger questions or different questions for season two.

What’s your biggest tease for the rest of the season?

This show will always upset your expectations. It will always defy expectations in a good way and whenever you think you know the answer, you will find that you don’t.

What did you think of the Zoo premiere? Sound off in the comments section below. Zoo airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBS.

[Editor's note: This interview was conducted before PETA's complaints.]

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