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When I was little, I hated the petting zoos where you could touch and feed the animals. What assurances did I have that the animals wouldn’t bite or kick me? No, thank you. I was perfectly content to stay on the other side of the fence.
So the new CBS drama Zoo, which features possessed lions escaping from captivity and killing people before the opening credits even roll, is tailor-made to freak me out. The entire series is built on the premise that animals are fed up with being locked up and domesticated and finally have decided to fight back. Aaaacck!
Based on the novel of the same name by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, Zoo is fun, escapist fare. The kind of show that will make you want to pop some popcorn and plop down on the couch. Jackson Oz (James Wolk) is a zoologist living in Africa and running a successful safari business. He’s there because he loves and respects wildlife, but he’s also trying to escape the memory of his late father, Professor Robert Oz (Ken Olin), who was driven mad by his controversial theories about animals.
Things are going great for Jackson until lions attack his best friend Abraham (Nonso Anozie). Then, Jackson rescues Chloe (Nora Arnezeder), the sole survivor of a vicious lion attack on a tour group. “How does that even happen? At what point do you die? How does one get eaten to death?” Chloe wonders.
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Back in LA, news reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly) is investigating lions who escaped from the City of Angels Zoo and killed three people. Jamie thinks the lions’ current state of viciousness has something to do with their food, which is made of low-grade beef and pesticides and is supplied by a mega corporation more interested in profits than safety. And just in case possessed zoo animals aren’t enough for you, there is also a bevy of missing cats Jamie is looking into. Indeed, there’s a shot in the pilot of cats lurking in a tree that will turn even the most devoted cat person into a dog lover.
Jamie’s a spunky reporter with a renegade blog and attitude to spare. Her boyfriend Ethan (Reid Scott) thinks she’s chasing “the unicorn that killed Kennedy” with her out-there theories. Jamie’s investigation leads her to veterinary pathologist Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke), who is trying to figure out what made the lions go wild. But he doesn’t subscribe to Jamie’s theory. Food may make the lions sick, but it wouldn’t change their behavior.
Jackson has always dismissed his father’s theories as a “brilliant man coming unhinged.” But now he’s realizing maybe his father wasn’t crazy after all. Wolk, who has used his good looks and innate charisma to great effect on shows including Mad Men and Political Animals, is a perfect fit for the role. He’s the kind of laid-back hero who is easy to root for. He is also stuck with the bulk of exposition in the pilot, which he manages to make interesting. “Something clearly is not right here,” he says before launching into a long explanation about how lions travel.
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Burke, an actor who has appeared in dozens of TV show, brings an irascible charm to his role of an animal doctor who prefers furry creatures over people. He’s got some of the show’s most funny lines. “Usually, when a girl gives me her phone number, it doesn’t have anything to do with rampaging lions,” he quips when Jamie gives him her card.
The show does require some leaps in logic. For instance, would the zoo be open and full of people the day after lions had escaped? At another point, two characters fall down a cliff but are able to walk away with barely a limp.
Both Jamie and Mitch, and Jackson and Chloe seem destined for romance the same way the stars of summer blockbusters fall in love as the world is falling apart. But honestly, who has time for flirtatious banter when vicious animals are on the attack?
Zoo is scary but not as scary as it could be — the horror is mostly achieved by ominous music and what we don’t see. As the series progresses, one of the main characters probably will have to die to raise the stakes.
But the pilot lays the foundation for a potentially great series even if it makes you want to spend your summer far away from any zoo.
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