The best thing that could have ever happen to The Walking Dead is the arrival of Z Nation on Syfy. The super-popular but critically underappreciated Walking Dead may be seen more favorably for its writing, acting, visual acumen and storytelling capabilities now that Z Nation has proven you can’t just put hungry zombies on the screen and have something worth writing home about.
On the other hand, if all you want to see are zombies, zombies, zombies — meaning it’s all about the gory and not about the story — then Z Nation may be your thing. In fact, as a B-level entry it’s at least entertaining, and if some of the sillier aspects of the pilot can be improved on it could be one of those mindless entertainment options we all need now and again.
But as a top-notch drama — nope.
Z Nation has the normal zombie premise: There was a viral outbreak and the world as we know it was overrun by crazed flesh-eating dead people. (At least in Z Nation, like the film 28 Days Later, the zombies can run instead of stumble along, which heightens the action quite a bit — some of The Running Dead are pretty damned fast.)
The series picks up three years after the virus has undermined communication networks, destabilized the government and any working order, and left every man and woman to fend for themselves. Except that Lt. Mark Hammond (Harrold Perrineau Jr.), a surviving Delta Force member, is still trying to carry out his orders, which are to take Murphy (Keith Allan), the only known human to survive a vicious zombie attack, from the East Coast to California and the last functioning viral lab where they will try to fashion a cure from his antibodies.
Simple enough — as most zombie stories are. Getting from one coast to the next is also a nice bit, since it will take forever and mean lots and lots of action.
Along the way, Hammond meets up with a ragtag group that assembles almost against their will to see the mission through. They are Charles Garnett (Tom Everett Scott), an active member in the National Guard; Roberta Warren (Kellita Smith), another National Guard member; Pvt. First Class Simon Cruller/Citizen Z (DJ Qualls), who is stationed/abandoned in the arctic as part of an NSA listening base; Mack and Addy (Michael Welch and Anastasia Baranova), two college kids learning how to fight for themselves; Doc (Russell Hodgkinson), who’s not a real doctor but does sell illegal meds; Cassandra (Pisay Pao) a quiet but strong survivor the group comes across who also happens to look fantastic in limited clothing; and 10K (Nat Zang), a military sniper who doesn’t talk much but also doesn’t miss much – his goal is 10,000 zombie kills.
The trouble with Z Nation is in the writing, which in turn makes some of the acting seem off. But once you establish — pretty early — that this is no Walking Dead, the actual fun of the story is still undermined by a few creative embellishments that don’t work (at least not yet), namely Qualls’ character, a remote DJ wearing Ray-Bans who — thanks to his base’s still-functioning satellites — becomes the team’s eyes in the sky. It’s over the top and we’ll have to see where that goes. Also, there’s a scene with a baby where the writers apparently couldn’t help themselves, but it defies all logic.
Look, Syfy should have had a zombie story up and running sooner than this, as imitation fuels the industry. But this effort isn’t quite there — like a lot of pilots, it’s still trying to figure itself out. It’s a very weak competitor to The Walking Dead — and the final scene of Friday’s pilot is such a rip-off of a scene in The Walking Dead they’d better plaster “homage” over it to keep the lawyers at bay.
All of that said, cheap thrills and guilty pleasures are a necessary addition to any viewing list, so take a look and see what you think.