Rob Thomas: CW's 'iZombie' More 'Warm Bodies' Than 'Walking Dead'

iZombie (The CW)

Stars: Rose McIver, Robert Buckley, Malcolm Goodwin, Alex Krosney, David Anders, Nora Dunn, Rahul Kohli
Team: Rob Thomas, Diane Ruggiero, Danielle Stokdyk, Dan Etheridge

The supernatural crime procedural, based on the DC Comics title, centers on a medical student-turned-zombie who takes a job in the coroner's office in order to gain access to the brains she must reluctantly eat so she can maintain her humanity. However, with every brain she eats, she inherits the corpse's memories. With the help of her medical examiner boss and a police detective, she solves homicide cases in order to quiet the disturbing voices in her head.

Life bites for Rose McIver's Olivia Moore, heroine of The CW's latest DC Comic take, iZombie, from the creative team behind Veronica Mars. On track to become a heart surgeon, engaged to the man of her dreams, and with a bright future ahead of her, Liv finds her life transformed after zombies crash a boat party and she wakes up in a body bag the next morning.

Now a zombie, Liv is a shell of her former self, working in a morgue and eating the brains of the dead to survive. With the help of her morgue colleague Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli), Liv soon learns that with each brain she eats, she inherits the memories of the deceased. Saddled with this newfound ability, Liv teams with homicide detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) to help solve his cases as a "psychic" who receives visions.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Rob Thomas to discuss Walking Dead comparisons, notes from DC Comics and Veronica Mars comparisons.

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In a year where comic book series are everywhere, what sets iZombie apart from the rest?

Veronica Mars and iZombie are very similar in tone. [Executive producer] Diane Ruggeiro and I are constantly searching for this blend of comedy and drama — one where the drama still feels like it has stakes. It sounds weird to say that the zombie show needs to stay grounded, but every show creates a universe. What is out of bounds? We're always trying to find the delicate balance of how funny we can be and still have the audience care about the emotional fallout of our characters. When Warner Bros. came to me with this comic, they wanted to find the next Buffy, the next Veronica Mars. They wanted a great female lead on the network. That was the mandate.

What's the secret to writing strong female characters like Veronica and, here, Liv?

It's odd for me. I like all dude things — except for when it comes to television I have very female-centric tastes. I like character shows. I originally sold Veronica Mars as a young adult novel to Simon and Schuster. When I sold that pitch it was going to be a teen boy detective, Keith Mars. Between the years of selling it as a novel idea and getting to make it a television show, it occurred to me that it would be a better series if the person who had all this awful stuff happen to them and had been stripped of their innocence [was] a female character. Veronica Mars taught me not to think about the sex of the lead character. It comes into play sometimes, certainly, but I think the same things that make a male hero badass also make a female hero badass. In some ways it can make it cooler. When I wrote Veronica, one of the things that was interesting to me was if Veronica has no superpowers, then the one superpower she does have is that she no longer is afraid of what people think of her.

How much of iZombie was inspired by the success of The Walking Dead?

I don't think Warner Bros. or The CW were driven that hard by the idea of needing to get a zombie show on the air. That was less than the mandate they gave me. I did two months of planning a pitch for a big zombie apocalypse show seven years ago. I'm a huge fan of 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later and developed this pitch about the zombie apocalypse called Death Valley. A week before I was going to take it out, Frank Darabont sold The Walking Dead to AMC. It killed my pitch. No one wanted to be the second zombie show. Everyone wanted to see how zombies were going to do. I don't think you can out-Walking Dead the Walking Dead on a broadcast channel. They simply won't allow the amount of blood and violence to do a great, quintessential zombie genre show with all the violence inherent to that. Our approach was much more like Warm Bodies. It was going to have some zombie action in it, but at the core of our show there will be a zombie that you will like and connect with … we hope.

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How do you juggle making the lead likable when she's eating brains on a regular basis? How graphic will this show get? 

We are making this huge bet that people will fall in love with our zombie. If Warm Bodies hadn't been done, if people didn't realize that it was possible for people to like a zombie, then we would be much more nervous about it. You see her eating brains in just about every episode, and if that turns people off we're in deep trouble. She's pretty adorable. It's not like she's ripping skulls apart and mashing her face down into fresh brains. Usually she'll toss a salad or roll it up in a taco. It'll be sad if America watches her eat her first brain and goes, "That's it. We're checking out."

Will we be seeing other monsters?

There are no other supernatural creatures. I'm not a big fan of the supernatural part of it. I know we're doing zombies, but we are doing the virus version of zombies — the "science" version of zombies. The 28 Days Later, the World War Z version of zombies. I prefer my zombies caused by a virus than coming from a mummy's curse. True Blood had the multi-monster thing covered really well. Syfy also had Being Human about a vampire, werewolf and ghost living together, and I didn't want to be the next multi-monster show. Jimmy Fallon made a joke about how many premises are in our pilot: med student who turns into a zombie, inherits memories and solves cases, and there are werewolves and mummies and ghosts. That was a bridge too far for me. We had to stop somewhere, and keeping it strictly zombie was where we drew the line.

What can viewers expect from the structure of the first season. Will it be case-of-the-week or will it be serialized?

There was an evolution in season one. We started taking focus off the case-of-the-week and started spending a few more screen minutes on the zombie mythology. It's learning and doing. This is the first time I've done a midseason show where there is no audience feedback. On Veronica Mars, we were doing a big mystery and I knew what fans were thinking, where they thought the mystery was going and what they liked and didn't like. This time we're flying blind. By the end of the season, [we] shaved 20 percent off the murder of the week and devoted those extra minutes to zombie stuff.

Liv was a smart girl with her life ahead of her. What was it about being bitten that made her give up on everything she had worked so hard for?

There were certain things she couldn't do anymore. She was going to be a heart surgeon. She had a mission in life. Once she became a zombie, the only way she could see herself existing was by working in the morgue. She had to give [heart surgery] up, and suddenly it was like losing her purpose in life. She thought she met the guy she was going to marry, and then that is stripped from her. It's taken from her because she can't marry a guy that she can't have sex with. Every day she can be afraid that she is going to trip, grab him and scratch him, turning him into a zombie. The best things in her life were taken away from her. As we meet her in the pilot, we wanted it to feel like she barely knows why she gets out of bed in the morning. As we begin the episode her attitude is very much, "What's the point of going on? I'm not saving lives. I'm working with dead people and eating their brains." And so by figuring out a way to use the zombie ability of hers to experience the memories of the dead, it gave her a reason to go on.

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Normal people would kill a zombie upon discovering their existence. Instead, Ravi turns into an unexpected ally for Liv as he aims to help find a cure. What is it that drives him to want to help her?

Ravi has the Loch Ness monster drop into his lap. For a guy who worked at the CDC and thought he was going to work there forever — it was his career goal — he just had a medical miracle drop into his lap. It was also a necessary writing point that we had a character that would be jazzed by that idea. We wanted the energy of Scotty from the new Star Trek movies: He should always feel like he had three Red Bulls.

As minor of an outbreak as it was, how important to the series is discovering what caused the outbreak in the first place?

It's definitely going to play as a big plot machination in season one and into season two at the very least. Part of what Ravi and Liv will be chasing in season two will be the Holy Grail of finding the concoction to turn people into zombies. That's going to be part of the mythology that we'll keep diving back into. At some point we have to solve it, but I don't think we can play that as a 100-episode mystery, but it will at least go into season two.

Did DC have any notes for you on the adaptation?

We had a Hulk joke in the pilot script that they asked us to take out (laughs). Injecting Marvel comics into the universe was a no-go. I think the joke simply was Liv at the end of the pilot saying something like, "Zombie smash!" We varied a good distance away from the comic book and they have been cool about that. They want us to be very consistent with the rules.

Will there be any Veronica Mars actors dropping by?

In season one, we have three Veronica Mars people: Percy Daggs (Wallace), Ryan Hansen (Dick) and Daran Norris (Cliff). Hopefully we'll see more of them.

Is iZombie connected to the DC TV universe with Arrow, Flash and potentially Supergirl?

Not as far as I know. We have no plans on crossing over. I would really need to think about it if anyone ever decided that needed to happen for some sort of synergy reason. But no, there haven't been any talks of iZombie existing in the same universe as The Flash or Arrow.

iZombie premieres Tuesday, March 17, at 9 p.m. on The CW. Will you watch?