Monday, 31 October 2016

Z Nation - review

2014 (USA)


Contains mild spoilers.
  
Season 1 Season 2

It was a comment on reddit I think, that had me return to a Syfy original zombie series I'd already written off as tedious, derivative and totally unnecessary. 'The best series you're not watching' it read and then went into detail why. A cursory glance at social media and reviews seemed to back this up so maybe I had been all too quick to pass judgement? Well, I will maintain it really does struggle to get going; episode one especially has more to criticise than to praise, but as episode six came to its dramatic conclusion I realised not only was I seriously emotionally affected with what I'd watched, but I was genuinely invested in the characters, world and the story Karl Schaefer and Craig Engler had fashioned.

If you'd dismissed Z Nation as a poor man's The Walking Dead, as I had, then you couldn't be more wrong. Z Nation is very much its own thing; more self-aware, more frivolous and hyper-realised, and if we're honest all the more imaginative for it, invited to play with larger than life ideas and have more fun with the post-apocalyptic premise. Zombie Tornado? Why not. Zunami (Zombie Tsunami aka large TWD super-herd)? Let's not only dedicate a whole episode but have the idea an intrinsic and coherent part of the world. By not taking itself quite so seriously ideas that would not have made the more sombre and serious zombie cut are not only allowed to be played with but are allowed to integrate without ever feeling forced. It's the z-nation apocalypse and absurdity is very much a part.

Don't mistake this for a light flippant comedy though. Z Nation can still be dark and the post-apocalyptic world presented, is real and well-formed, and really not a nice place to be. Cannibals, mutated and nuclear zombie hybrids, zombie-bears, crazed resurrection cults and the aforementioned Zom-nado. Death is still the only true and singular fate all the survivors can expect and Schaefer and Engler aren't afraid to both wield the axe but to have the characters emotionally resonate to the carnage and misery. They're also happy to throw good bit of blood and gore into the mix, with some truly top-tier cringe inducing moments of excess. The zombies themselves are also excellently presented, as they probably should be by now, I mean it's an industry in itself, and it's refreshing, when compared to TWD as it heads into Season 7, to have the main guys and gals back as the primary post-apocalyptic danger.

As with the story The Asylum haven't been afraid to have some fun with our undead chums. Note, we're not talking full scale zom-com farce but increased license to bend the pre-existing post-Romero / TWD template. They're slow, dead and rotten gut-munchers, yet they're also fast when young and fresh, and there's even some behavioural play with narcotics. Then there's Murphy. Murphy is the corner-stone that keeps Z Nation moving and ensures it doesn't become the usual The Asylum derivative, confused and meandering zombie mess. Episode one sees this complicated anti-hero injected, against his will it should be added, with a highly experimental zombie vaccine moments before he's attacked and bitten. He survives, though in some zombie human hybrid condition that's not been kind to his looks, but has granted him immunity from attack and as the series progresses some kind of power to influence those who he himself infects either via blood or saliva.

In the final episode we learn the rather convoluted origin story with nefarious scientists and a viral cocktail including the flesh eating narcotic Krokodil, a pinch of Ebola, some bio-weapon tech from Kazakstan, and even a sample from some poor Haitian voodoo sufferer; and while the tick-list of all things particularly nasty makes little sense, it made for great television. It was also refreshing to hear the actual term 'zombie' in what I refer to as post-zombie storytelling; rather than presenting a world where the term and concept had never been conceived. 

As episode thirteen concluded and the season wrapped I realised not only was I extremely excited to get to see Season 2 and the outcome of the rather large and painful cliff-hanger, but I wanted to continue my journey with this odd rag-tag motley crew. You'd have been hard pressed, an episode or two in, to make the case that any of Murphy (Keith Allan), Roberta Warren (Kellita Smith), 10K (Nat Zang), Doc (Russell Hodgkinson), Citizen Z (DJ Qualls), Addy (Anastasia Baranova) or Mack (Michael Welch) particularly stood out as anything other than second tier actors struggling with a second tier-script. Yet by the end, each and every one stood tall, emboldened and clearly at ease with their roles; the actors clearly growing alongside their characters. Z Nation surpassed my expectations and I truly feel I need to apologise not just for passing judgement so quickly, biased by past The Asylum / Syfy, zombie, if we're honest, dross, but by my less than favourable throwaway remarks ever since. Z Nation isn't dross; isn't second rate or unnecessary. It's fun, engaging, lively and brilliantly written and constructed post-apocalyptic storytelling, and I'll honestly reiterate, it could well be the best horror TV you're not watching - 7/10.

Steven@WTD.

2015 (USA)

2016 Spirit Entertainment Limited Blu-Ray R(B/2)

Season 2

The first thing that strikes an episode or two into season 2 is that here is a team who truly know they're on to a winning thing. Gone are any doubts or hesitation; in is unbridled passion and enough reckless abandon to really push their zombie comedy / horror / action formula to an all-time high. At a time the genre, and especially The Walking Dead, could perhaps be accused of becoming a tad stale, it's refreshing that there's a zombie program that has but one goal, to entertain, and is happy to throw out all the stops to make this a reality. Perhaps Z Nation works precisely because it timed it's two finger salute to all that was dark, serious and emotionally draining at the right time, but whatever the reason, it feeds the frivolous and openly silly approach to the apocalypse hunger perfectly, and with season 2 happily turning the dial up to 11 I couldn't be more happy.

Zombie aliens, a hilarious nativity spoof, zombie-plant hybrids, radioactive zombies, anthrax-zombies and even an undead cameo from George R. R. Martin; Z Nation has never been scared to play with the let's say more out-there and generally goofy ideas other zombie shows wouldn't dare touch. With Season 1 setting its foundation, Season 2 is off the hook to genuinely do what-ever-the-hell it likes and totally get away with it too. With the again, now secure cast, totally in control of their now seasoned and serious apocalyptic bad-ass characters unfazed by anything new thrown at them, the juxtaposition of their prosaic, stoical reaction to the off the scale stupidity introduced by the writers is perfectly framed. Even when pushed to the absolute limits, as UFOs melt cows, aliens attack, wise zombie men appear complete with zombie camels, and astral bodies float around the room, it's hard not to side with the characters, sigh of course, and just go along with it; though with a huge grin.

It's not without its moments of sadness and poignancy however scattered; it is the apocalyptic wasteland after all. And though characters leave us; Cassandra (Pisay Pao), which I personally felt became an inevitability with what happened at the end of Season 1, and Mack Thompson (Michael Welch), which though sad opens Addy up for better development; new and recurring characters more than make up the slack. With the group and their dynamic established it's good to see there's no let up to their character development, with even the confidence to add some backstory though satisfying flash-backs. A series like this lives and dies with the detailing of its characters and their relationships and Z nation series 2 carries no dead weight. It also lives and dies with its action, gore and witty stories, and here again it never disappoints.

Bigger, louder, brasher, Z Nation Season 2 is triumphant beer induced slap in the face fun and a much needed post-apocalyptic no holds party. Zombie gun-toting silliness with a swagger it's easily worth - 8/10.

Steven@WTD.

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