The new CW network supernatural dramedy iZombie throws the past 25 years of pop culture into a blender and sees what comes out — and what comes out is a lot of fun. Though it's ostensibly based on a series of comics, it has much more in common with some well-loved TV shows and movies of the past — shows like Veronica Mars and Buffy and even Weeds.
Let's trace just a few items on iZombie's family tree.
The teen private-investigator series — which aired on UPN and the CW from 2004 to 2007 before being revived as a film sequel in 2014 — is a bit of an obvious comparison. After all, the creative forces behind iZombie (Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright) were also the creative forces behind Veronica Mars.
And both shows are about unconventional detectives — here, it's a recently turned zombie named Liv (Rose McIver), who discovers she can track down clues to solve murders by eating the brains of the recently deceased. Both shows also use a "case of the week" structure to slowly build out a more complicated story about overarching corruption.
But the similarities extend beyond story structure. For one thing, McIver's delivery and general vocal tones are hugely similar to those of Veronica Mars star Kristen Bell. (At one point, when I looked away from the screen for a little bit, I was pretty sure McIver was Bell.) Both shows use voiceover narration to snarkily fill in plot information and the protagonist's mental state. The characters on both series even hit similar marks. There's a mourned former lover, and a helpful, geeky assistant, and hints of a love triangle.
Of course, Veronica Mars didn't have zombies.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Veronica Mars was frequently held up as the heir apparent to the quippy, teenage antics of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the '90s WB series that's one of the best TV shows ever made. Thus, it makes sense to see iZombie as another of its spiritual descendants.
What iZombie takes from Buffy, however, goes beyond witty dialogue. The two shows also have similar approaches to the undead. Zombies in the iZombie universe behave like vampires. They can mostly pass as human until they've gone too long without eating brains, at which point they become the zombies we know so well from Night of the Living Dead and its ilk.
This is similar to how Buffy presented vampires — almost human, but not quite, and all the more interesting for it.
Liv needs to come up with a cover for the visions she has about the deceased — after all, the good people of her universe can't know that zombies walk amongst them — so she decides to pretend to be a psychic. As you do.
This brings her into contact with a helpful police detective with the glorious name of "Clive Babinoux" (Malcolm Goodwin), who has his suspicions about Liv but is willing to go along with it because she gets results, even if it seems to take her a few false starts every episode before she manages to find the right perpetrator. (In this way, the show is like every detective show ever made.)
Even though this is a show about gruesome murders and the human-ish beings that eat the corpses' brains, it requires a light tone. Thus, the show is very similar to the USA series Psych, which also mixed fake psychics and pop culture references with breezy crime solving.
Hear me out here. The Showtime series about a pot-dealing soccer mom who turns to a life of crime in the wake of her husband's death is mostly remembered now for how many times Showtime tried to clone it. But in the early days of its run, the show was surprisingly adept at dealing with the construction of a criminal empire, even as it remained largely a breezy, amusing show.
This is surprisingly similar to iZombie's main subplot, which involves zombie Blaine (David Anders, or as TV fans might know him, "Sark from Alias") setting up a business racket that involves turning people into zombies, then selling them the brains they need. And if those brains come with a huge markup, hey, business is business, right?
The stuff with Blaine is hugely entertaining, particularly in the series' fourth episode (the most recent I've seen), in which he deals with a couple of doltish bodybuilder zombies aiming to cut in on his game. The plot also involves the pun "Meat Cute," which is just fantastic. (For those who've never heard the term, a "meet cute" is the moment in a rom-com when the lovers first meet — ideally in a cute fashion.)
By far the most interesting thing about Liv's powers is that when she consumes someone's brain, she gains a little of that person's personality. Eating the brain of a sociopath helps her shut off the emotions she's having trouble dealing with, while eating the brain of a kung fu expert allows her to quote Neo in The Matrix and say, "I know kung fu."
The show has yet to do as much with this as it might, and it sometimes seems like it might be one thing too many in a series already crammed full of things. But there are moments when it all comes together, and McIver's sly performance allows for a seemingly endlessly malleable character who can be anything the plot requires. It's a potentially exciting setup for the series and one it will be fun to see Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright build up in weeks to come.
Through four episodes, iZombie doesn't have everything figured out. The crime solving sometimes seems perfunctory, and some of the characters feel purely functionary. But the series is still having a ton of fun throwing many ideas at the wall to see what sticks. That so much is sticking already is cause for anticipation of even better things to come.
iZombie airs Tuesdays on the CW at 9 pm Eastern. It will also be available on Hulu on Wednesdays.