'Zoo' Boss Compares CBS' New Summer Thriller to "a Really Good Beach Read"

The network's newest summer series is "Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds' across the entire animal kingdom," showrunner and EP Jeff Pinkner tells THR.
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/CBS

Welcome to the (TV) jungle.

The animal thriller Zoo is making the leap to primetime Tuesday as CBS' latest summer offering.

Based on the novel of the same name by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, the series follows rogue American zoologist Jackson Oz (James Wolk) as he and his four consorts (Nora ArnezederNonso AnozieKristen Connolly, and Billy Burke) launch an investigation into the mysterious and violent animal attacks happening across the globe.

However, don’t expect it to be over-the-top camp. “James Patterson and I joked that we’re taking a situation, which potentially, if not careful, could be viewed kind of pulpy. There is a very marked difference, and really just one of taste, between Snakes on a Plane and Jaws," showrunner and executive producer Jeff Pinkner (Fringe) tells The Hollywood Reporter.

“The thing that draws me and my partners to TV is telling stories about characters over time,” he continues. “Every living creature is affected by two things, nature and nurture, genes and environment, and as much as [our show is] about the thriller of what’s happening with the animals—how do we figure out what it is, how do we stop it—it’s equally about how going on this journey affects our characters and either changes them or doesn’t.”

He adds, mischievously: “Human beings are animals as well.”

With that tease in mind, THR caught up with Pinkner to discuss the show's “beach read” suspense, how the series will be different from the book and what else viewers can expect.

How did you first get involved with the project? What about the novel drew you to the material?

I have three partners, [executive producers] Josh AppelbaumAndre Nemec, and Scott Rosenberg, and CBS, along with [JamesMangold and Cathy Conrad, had purchased the rights to make this a TV show and asked the four of us if we would be interested and sent us the book. We were all in different places and started to read and, in one of those synchronicity moments, all stopped at page 35 and started calling each other like, "Oh my god, this is a great idea." The premise, in the book, what we’ve been saying is [it’s] Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds across the entire animal kingdom. It is such a great leaping-off point, and without even getting halfway through the book we all said we were in.

Using the book as a jumping-off point, how much does it draw and stick closely to the plot and characters? Will book fans still be surprised?

It absolutely draws from the book, but at the same time, if you read the book, do not expect to see all those same beats. Do not expect to see the same narrative in the television show. I’m not being literal at all when I’m saying this, but imagine the same story in an alternate universe. It takes a different path, but it’s made from the same DNA. That’s our show.

How closely are you working with James Patterson on the TV show since it is a separate entity?

He has been very much the perfect partner. He has become a very benevolent godfather to the project. He reads every word — I don’t know where he finds the time, given his creative output of his own — [but] he reads every word we write, from story area to outline to script. He watches every cut of the show, every bit of promo material, he gives his two cents and thoughts, but always in a very benevolent, ‘Here’s my thoughts, take ‘em or leave ‘em’ kind of way. Many of them are brilliant, and some of the ones that are brilliant we just can’t incorporate because it’s a TV show on a TV budget. [But] many of them we do incorporate and they make the show better, [but] there’s times when we [disagree], and he’s been super respectful about that.

So you mentioned the show being like an alternate universe…

That was totally metaphorical. Having done a show that literally took place – half of it – in an alternative universe [Fringe], that was not meant literally.

Well, speaking of that alternate universe show, how does Zoo compare to a show like Fringe or other shows you’ve worked on, such as Lost and Alias?

It is entirely different, yet there are many similarities. Over the course of those shows, it became very clear that a healthy balance of mystery and answers seems to be a satisfying way to keep an audience engaged. Our characters ask the smart questions that the audience is asking, and those questions get answered, and those answers lead to bigger questions and deeper mysteries. We’re not always chasing one answer; rather, a series. There’s some series satisfaction in being able to play along with the show.

Similar to Alias, it is a show that travels around the globe. You can do things in TV now that you just couldn’t do years ago, [so] it [can be] a condition that’s happening around the world. If Lost taught us anything, it’s that Korean characters speaking Korean is tolerated on a network television show, so we’re not afraid to treat our audience as the smart viewers that they are. We’re treating the situation as entirely grounded, not unlike Fringe. A lot of silly things happened on Fringe, but it was treated with such respect and the characters were so grounded that the fantasy becomes believable. Lessons were learned from all of those shows that have gone into this one, yet it’s entirely different. It’s much more a summer thriller, a beach read.

Zoo joins Under the Dome and Extant as the newest cornerstone to CBS’ summer slate. How do you feel your show fits in with the sci-fi nature of these sister shows?

All these shows are all on some version of a sci-fi continuum. Of them, Extant is probably the hardest sci-fi, and both our show and Under the Dome fit in some version of speculative science fiction. All the science in our show is absolutely authentic and 100 percent — though, in some cases pushed, though not as pushed as Fringe was — but all of it is real and possible and authentic. Yet is it really happening out in the world? To that extent, [it] is science fiction.

The show moves around the globe from Los Angeles to Tokyo to Botswana. How much of that was shot on location?

In fact, we did not [shoot on location]. We showed the show to the African buyers and they thought we did, which was incredibly gratifying for our crew. The entirety of the show has been shot in New Orleans, but believably we are in Rio, we are in Tokyo, we are in Africa, we are in Paris. Through the magic of special effects and CGI, the show travels around the world.

How many of the animals on set are real? How much is CGI?

We haven’t really done an analysis, but [the balance] is probably 70/30 real [animals] to CGI. As we’ve learned, dealing with real animals is amazing in that there’s nothing like the authenticity of performance in an actor’s eyes when there’s an 800-pound bear standing 50 feet away. At the same time, animals are animals, and we’ve had a few instances where the director will call action and turn around the bear has fallen asleep in between takes. (Laughs)

What’s your best pitch for why people should watch this show?

Everybody has a feeling about animals. Either people are animal lovers and have pets or they don’t. I don’t think anybody is indifferent. But watching this show will be fun, entertaining, and thought provoking, in various measures. Once you watch this show, you will inevitably think about our relation to animals, and to what extent we are all just animals, slightly differently. It’s like a really good beach read. Hopefully, it’s very entertaining, very digestible, and, at the end of every episode, you’ll be desperate to see the next one.

Zoo premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

Excited for Zoo? Thoughts on the book? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @NotPhelan

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