First Watch: Z Nation: “Puppies and Kittens” (Season 1, Episode 1)

Zombies have been a definite craze for quite a while. We’ve seen comedies, tragedies, and even an occasional rom-com spin on the genre. With any idea that’s been pushed through every medium and done to (un)death (I promise to never make that joke again), we eventually hit a wall where the only original thing left to do is to deconstruct it; Cabin in the Woods did it for the horror genre and The Tick did it for superhero shows. America has not been able to successfully take apart the Zombie Genre, or at least not in a way comparable to how the British have done. Or have we?

For those of you who are sick to (un)death (I lied) of The Walking Dead, Syfy has tackled the Zombie genre in its newest show Z Nation.

How do you open up a zombie show? You start with news reports that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. We see reports of death by thousands, including the president. My initial hope is to see a zombie president, but it doesn’t seem likely for any series to pull something like that. But who are our heroes? A special ops soldier by the name of Hammond (Harold Perrineau) leads a doctor out of a lab being overrun by Zombies. Predictably, our doctor is minutes away from finding a cure to the virus, and needs Hammond to hold off the invasion for a little longer. There are a trio of death-row-inmates/test-subjects strapped to tables, awaiting a possibly deadly injection. Immediately, I could tell which one of them was going to survive—the good-looking one, Murphy (Keith Allan). Murphy, the third and final test subject, is nearly left behind as zombie food, but Hammond returns to save him. Unfortunately, everybody else dies, which makes Murphy the key to saving humanity. I guess the third time really is the charm. The last shot is a zombie looking down Hammond’s barrel, while Hammond says “I grant you mercy,” a recurring theme.

In case you were curious, the president was a woman. Killing the first female president is progressive, right?

I may have been too focused on the action on the ground. I can’t forget my favorite character, Citizen Z (DJ Qualls), a NSA hacker leading Hammond around via radio and satellite. Everybody else in that base dies, leaving him alone in the Arctic. We’ll come back to him.

Guess what happens next: we jump to one year later. Standard for any post apocalyptic show. Here we meet the other stars of our show: Mack (Michael Welch), Warren (Kellita Smith), Doc (Russell Hodgkinson), and Addy (Anastasia Baranova). To be honest, none of them were actually characters. They were cheap cutouts posing as characters. I couldn’t begin to try to describe one of these people to you. Even if I could, it wouldn’t sound too far from any character from The Walking Dead.

They built a team. One might even call them a team of misfits. A few women, a few men, even an old guy. Thanks to Citizen Z, they even have a mission: get Murphy to California where a lab can reverse engineer his blood to find a cure.

So let’s talk about what separates this show from every other zombie incarnation. First of all, they use the word “Zombie” or “Z”. Not “walker”, or “white walker”, or what have you. No pretense here. You know what else it has? A lack of rules for it’s zombies. Some zombies are shambling through the streets, some occasionally run, and some even play possum. That’s right: the undead played dead to make the living believe it was safe to cross a river. Once close enough, those zombies, in unison, sprung their trap. That is the reason I don’t play Left 4 Dead. Zombies who can think are the scariest zombies of all.

In between zombie attacks, our band of not-so-merry men (and women) stumble upon an orphaned infant. Some characters argue the child will slow the group down and it’s crying can bring zombies. The other side of the debate is, of course, “We can’t leave a baby to die.” The situation prompts Hammond to deliver my favorite line in this show, “God, I hate moral dilemmas.” So do I! These basic “Moral Dilemmas” are as common as romantic entanglements in the post-apocalyptic genre, and I’m sick of them. Good show, Z Nation. Anyway, they take the baby with them. Of course.

While I was trying to pinpoint exactly when they were going to insert the sexual tension between Hammond and Warren, another zombie attacks. At this point, I can only imagine any actual plot would only be less entertaining than the constant barrage of zombies. Only, this time, something wonderful happens. Er, something horrible happens. Something wonderfully horrible happens—the zombie bites the baby. That baby becomes the most interesting character for exactly two minutes before getting put down. Two minutes and it changes the whole series by killing Hammond. Hammond, whom I had been praising as being the head of the crew in a zombie show while being black, gets killed by a baby. Guess they couldn’t afford Harold Perrineau for more than one episode. Don’t worry, though, they have a powerful, capable black woman, Warren, who can take charge in this situation. Citizen Z radios in to check with his military asset, Hammond, and Warren informs him of Hammond’s death. When Citizen Z asks who is in charge, Warren stands tall, takes a breath—and passes the radio to Mack, her white second-in-command. She reminds him of his time in the national guard, making him the highest ranking soldier in the group. Imagine that: society as we know it has ended, and the white male character is still the leader. Oh well.

The group continues their trek west, while Citizen Z, who can hack any signal, plays some traveling music on the radio. And that’s Z Nation.

The dialog is bad. The acting is nigh-laughable. The sets look like the commercials for Knott’s Halloween Haunt. SyFy decided to ask for Walking Dead ratings with an Evil Dead budget; a ballsy move which I have to respect (or laugh at). I can’t decide whether or not this is meant to be a criticism on the Zombie Genre or not. The heavy-handed lines and demon-infants lead my to call this a deconstruction, but the evidence of genuine effort is too great to ignore. Ingest this show with several grains of salt—watch it in absolute irony—only then can you enjoy, and maybe even learn from, Z Nation.

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