‘iZombie’s First Season is a Midseason Triumph

izombieLet me say this: if iZombie wasn’t called iZombie, it would probably have twice as many viewers. Loosely based off of a comic book of the same name, it’s sort of saddled with that title, but if you only saw a spare promo before it premiered, you’d be forgiven in thinking it’s a parody of cynically marketed teen programming, combining Apple’s “i” prefix, because the kids go crazy for iPhones, and “zombies” because, well, The Walking Dead sure is popular!

Then there’s the fact that it airs on The CW, a network whose commitment to genre fiction (and Jane The Virgin) boosted its critical recognition over the past few years, yet still holds an outdated reputation with non-viewers as a channel of vapid, high school dramas. All of this taken together, there’s a good chance that a huge chunk of the audience that iZombie is made for hasn’t bothered to tune in. (Indeed, though it was picked up for a second season, it’s struggled in the ratings somewhat.)

But set aside those first impressions, because you should be watching iZombie — or rather, you should watch what’s available on Hulu or on demand, because the season just wrapped up this week. It started out as a pretty fun, lightweight comedy-drama, a case-of-the-week detective procedural that happened to have quippy, self-aware zombies at the center of it. But as the writers built up the world and the characters’ relationships, it got better and better as the season rolled along, pulling together story threads, trusting the chemistry and versatility of its cast and turning into one of the midseason’s best (and most overlooked) new shows.

None of this should come as much surprise if you know the pedigree behind the show. iZombie serves as co-creator Rob Thomas’ follow-up to his Starz cult classic Party Down, though it shares much more of its DNA with his other major show, Veronica Mars (including Mars writer Diane Ruggiero-Wright, who created the show with Thomas).

But let’s back up and go over the basics. iZombie centers on Olivia “Liv” Moore (Rose McIver), a doctor-turned-zombie, who gets a job in a Seattle morgue as an assistant medical examiner to have steady access to brains. And because, in this universe, zombies absorb some of the personalities, abilities and memories of the people they eat, sort of like undead Kirbys, Liv assists the Seattle Police Department in solving murders, both to find justice for the victims and to assuage her guilt over eating human brains in the first place.

Hilarious, right? iZombie isn’t anything like a straight comedy, but the reason I’m talking about it on Splitsider is its commitment to sharp, snarky dialogue and goofy, charming performances that fly in the face of the rigors of murder investigations and FCC-approved gore. See, like all of Thomas’ shows, it excels at the sort of conversational cleverness that plenty of comedies, even great ones, sometimes struggle with. The sarcastic quips and asides here sound like things people might actually say, rather than forced on them by a script. It makes the characters feel like real, lovable people you want to spend time with and goes a long way to making the series so watchable.

Also, if there’s something Thomas’ best series all boast — besides actors like Ryan Hansen, Steven Weber and Daran Norris making appearances — it’s a killer ensemble cast, and iZombie is no exception. Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright have a lot of fun writing for Liv, finding comically and dramatically interesting angles on the personalities she absorbs from murder victims each week. It gives Rose McIver fresh material to work with throughout the show, and considering she’s called on to play essentially a different version of her character each week — everything from a horny painter and an arrogant hacker to a brain-damaged stoner and a ditzy cheerleader — her terrific performance matches the writers’ every challenge, anchoring a series that would likely float away into silliness without her.

Elsewhere, Rahul Kohli nails Ravi, expanding what might be a normal straight-man/best friend role, with dorky charisma and quick wit, into one of the best characters on the series, and Malcolm Goodwin does subtly interesting things with Clive, the detective Liv partners with, given that he’s supplied less characterization than any other regular. The show was even able to turn one of its early weaknesses (Liv’s ex-fiancée, Major, who originally only stuck around to remind her of her bland, old life) and turned it into one of its greatest strengths, as Major (and Robert Buckley, who plays him) became a power player in the overarching plot, turning into something of an unhinged vigilante while investigating the disappearance of some local kids.

Then there’s Blaine, the de facto zombie kingpin who runs a brain harvesting racket, who’s played by David Anders with a sort of sneering, confident glee. To give you an idea of the strange specificity the characters have on this show, the show affords Blaine the time to go on weird diatribes about early Nirvana rarities collections, then, a couple episodes later, mention some research he was doing where “most of the pertinent data comes courtesy of the Nazis. Yeah, those Nazis,” and all feel completely consistent to who he is.

iZombie is still working a few things out, the sorts of things that many similar series grapple with in their first seasons. Finding the right ratio of case-of-the-week procedural stuff and zombies-n-brains plotlines, something it was still tinkering with as the season drew to a close, will be imperative to the momentum of the series going forward. Same goes for balancing the time devoted to plot versus character growth, which, to be fair, the show managed in the season’s back stretch as the plots themselves became more personal (though I’d still like to find out a little more about Clive and Ravi’s personal lives).

Plus, as with all shows featuring secret identities and characters deceiving their loved ones, there’s a certain amount of frustration and wheel-spinning as, even though her motivation makes sense on a character level, Liv refuses to tell Major about the existence of zombies, even after he’s put himself into danger trying to find that out for himself. (Oh yeah, and I also think the theme song is a little too on-the-nose — it’s basically just a guy yelling, “I’m already dead!” — but whatever.)

Overall though, most of these concerns feel more like growing pains than fatal flaws, especially since the first season finishes off so confidently that it suggests the second season will be even stronger. There may be hipper shows out there with cooler titles, but iZombie has that off-hand, pop-culturally literate, geeky charm that cults are made of. If you’re a Veronica Mars fan, iZombie’s a no-brainer (hah), and if you haven’t seen it yet, find some way to catch up now before the second season begins this fall. Light and funny enough to be easily digestible, yet emotionally and dramatically satisfying, it makes for perfect summer TV.

Chris Kopcow is a pop culture writer and comedy boy. He links to his Twitter because he craves validation from strangers.

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