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4 ways The CW’s iZombie channels the spirit of Veronica Mars

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Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

Veronica Mars fans are a spoiled bunch. First their collective Kickstarter donations gave the beloved series new life with 2014's movie seven years after the show went off the air; that year The CW also aired the meta web series Play It Again, Dick, starring Ryan Hansen trying to get a Mars spinoff made centered on his character Dick Casablancas as a private investigator, with the help of his former co-stars.

And since 2015, Mars creator Rob Thomas and producer Diane Ruggiero-Wright have been bringing a similar vibe to TV with Thomas's latest series, The CW's iZombie, now in its second season.

Like Veronica Mars, iZombie centers on a sharp blonde who solves murders — but unlike that earlier show, iZombie's leading lady happens to be dead (er, undead) herself. The show is loosely based on the comic book of the same name by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred; Rose McIver stars as Olivia Moore, a medical student who, after being scratched by a zombie at a party, becomes a coroner's assistant to gain access to the brains she now craves — without having to kill anyone to obtain them.

However, she soon discovers that each time she eats a brain, she can tap into the consciousness of its former owner. This makes her an especially valuable (albeit unorthodox) asset in the coroner's office, because she can use the info she gets from the brains of murder victims to help police figure out how they died.

Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright have incorporated Veronica Mars crossovers into iZombie before; Hansen, Percy Daggs III (Wallace Fennel), and Daran Norris (Cliff McCormack) appeared in different season one episodes. But Tuesday's episode tops them both: "Fifty Shades of Grey Matter" will feature Veronica Mars herself — Kristen Bell — albeit only in audible form. The voice behind Gossip Girl's mysterious title character and (disturbingly) Frozen's Anna lends her pipes to an E.L. James–style erotic fiction writer who's found murdered, and whose oversexed consciousness makes its way into Liv's brain.

And if that momentous premise hasn't already piqued your curiosity, here are four more reasons to watch (and love) iZombie.

The characters are uniformly delightful

Clive, Liv, and Ravi express varying levels of uncertainty.
The CW

Many dramas have at least one character who's saddled with the dull brunt of exposition. But over the course of its run thus far, iZombie has found ways to flesh out almost all of its characters in fun and surprising ways.

Early on, Liv discovers that one side effect of eating brains is that she temporarily takes on the personality traits of the people whose frontal lobes she's consumed. This means McIver has the difficult job of imbuing Liv with wildly different characteristics every week while still keeping the character recognizably herself. And she handles it impressively well, taking every quirk iZombie's writers throw at her and making her performance believable both for her short-term persona and her character's long-term development. Plus, McIver, a New Zealander, does it all with a perfect American accent.

Liv's boss, medical examiner Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli), is a great second banana, equal parts sharp scientist, gleeful dork, and loyal friend who's Liv's only hope of curing her zombie-ism. His unparalleled delight in teasing Liv as her new personality traits emerge give the show a much-needed sense of fun, and he provides an unfailing link between (and voice of reason for) Liv and her former fiancé Major Lilywhite (Robert Buckley; yes, that's really the character's name) throughout their tumultuous, on-again/off-again relationship.

Deadpan police detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) provides great comic beats as the straight man who's nevertheless willing to work with a "psychic" medical examiner (that's the explanation Liv gives him for the intel she gleans through her zombie-powered visions) — and take Liv's wild personality swings in stride.

Even the bad guys are a treat. David Anders' Blaine DeBeers, the enterprising brains behind a murderous zombie Meals-on-Wheels program, is a consistent highlight, smirking and snarking his way through scheme after self-interested scheme. And Steven Weber as evil energy drink CEO Vaughn Du Clark (there's a sentence you don't type everyday) calls to mind some of Buffy's better Big Bads: He's unhinged and unpredictable enough to be a truly scary foe, but has a blithe, goofy streak that makes you root for him to stick around.

iZombie nails Rob Thomas's signature blend of humor and darkness

Major's just been told he'll probably turn back into a zombie, can't catch a break.
The CW

Thomas loves to operate within the realm where comedy and tragedy intersect, crafting characters who joke to keep themselves from falling apart. Veronica Mars at times had a dark, jaded heart with a thin candy shell of brittle humor, and while iZombie isn't quite as savage it's still a show centered on death and isolation. The show doesn't shy away from the disturbing nature of Liv's condition; she may fold her brains into sandwiches and sushi, but she's still eating dead people — who then seep into her thoughts and personality in ways she has no control over. She's estranged from her family, unable to be with the man she loves, and can only be truly honest with a few people in her life. It's a tenuous and terrifying situation.

But despite all this, the real tragic figure of season two thus far is her former fiancé. Thomas somehow manages to take a character named Major Lilywhite, a supremely nice guy who looks like a walking Ken doll, and elevate him from mere jilted sad sack into a believable tragic figure who's on a downward spiral that's equal parts fascinating and horrifying.

Major's struggle to stay true to his nice-guy persona while being forced into becoming Du Clark's zombie assassin for hire to save Liv's life (again, yes, that's really what happens) is truly affecting, and calls back to one of Veronica Mars's main themes: Veronica's struggle to retain her heart even in the face of so much darkness, and to hold to her ethical line in the sand even as the world's evils kept redrawing it.

The show's structure lends itself to endless storytelling options

Liv takes on the persona of an aspiring country singer.
The CW

As I mentioned above, McIver's performance is a marvel — Liv is literally a (partially) new person in every episode, and whether she's absorbing the personality of a country singer, a racist old man, a goth magician, or an idealistic basketball coach, in McIver's hands she's funny, smart, and surprisingly likable. But the showrunners also find creative ways to use iZombie's cases of the week to move the long-term plot arcs forward.

In the season two episode "The Hurt Stalker," for example, Liv eats the brain of a love-obsessed stalker whose controlling, jealous tendencies take root in Liv and lead her to snoop in Major's closet. As a result, she almost — though not quite — stumbles on proof that Major is the zombie killer she and Ravi have been searching for.

While many "procedural" shows would have dropped everything there and written off Liv nearly making a big discovery as a close call, iZombie's next episode picks up with those same threads, ensuring that even when Liv eats a different brain and starts a new investigation, those preexisting problems and plot points don't just magically disappear until they're needed again. It grounds the show's anything-can-happen feeling in real character development, and ties the one-off cases to the larger storylines in smart ways.

It's not afraid to embrace the weirdness of its concept

Zombie Liv — kinda scary!
The CW

It's impossible to talk about iZombie without acknowledging that its premise, at heart, is pretty silly. But Thomas and co. never try to cover that up, instead putting the weirdness front and center and letting the characters comment on it. Scene transitions are marked by illustrated comic book panels with punny captions, and there's always a character with a dry remark at the ready to offset an onslaught of earnestness.

Liv and the people around her are all still figuring out how the whole zombie thing works, but the show thankfully sidesteps more run-of-the-mill "Oh, my God, zombies exist?!" conversations; once people know the truth, they generally accept it, allowing the action continue without too much repetitive exposition.

Plus, where a lot of supernatural shows tend to get bogged down by the mechanics of their premises (see: the now-long-in-the-tooth Vampire Diaries; any show that involves time travel), iZombie has so far remained refreshingly straightforward on that front while still managing to tell interesting stories week after week.

And that's where iZombie's (and Thomas's) strength lies: The show has created a world that, while fantastical, is always a hell of a lot of fun. Yes, I realize a show about an amateur zombie detective who solves murders by eating brains could be kind of a tough sell — but given how enjoyable it is, that makes iZombie's triumph all the sweeter.

New episodes of iZombie air Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern on The CW; previous episodes of both seasons are available to stream on the CW's website and Hulu; season one is available on Netflix.

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