If forced to pinpoint the moment I became an evangelist for Zoo — CBS’s animal uprising drama that refuses to quit or make a single lick of sense — it’d have to be when Renegade Zoologist Jackson Oz slapped a man across the face and hissed, “Where’s the sloth?” in the hopes of finding a creature whose yawns sparked devastating earthquakes.
I’ll admit that I was primed to love Zoo, which began its third season on June 29, from the moment it premiered in 2015 — even if that was mostly thanks to James Wolk’s crinkly grin. Wolk plays the aforementioned renegade zoologist, who in season one was determined to end a series of mysterious animal attacks that seemed to hint toward a coordinated worldwide mutiny against humankind.
But somehow, the show’s first season was surprisingly boring. For a story about animals coming for humans in a global revolt involving both telepathic lions and kamikaze bats, Zoo lumbered along at an agonizingly slow pace. The series spent a long time trying way too hard to be cutting edge, therefore failing to realize what it is at heart: a ridiculous summer distraction that by all rights could be the TV equivalent of Jumanji, plus or minus a corporate conspiracy or two. As the season ended, the humans’ efforts to quell the animal rebellion had failed, leaving our trusty heroes staring down several safaris’ worth of bloodthirsty creatures.
In season two, however, Zoo fully unshackled itself from the James Patterson novel that season one was loosely based on, leaving it free to unleash unholy animal hell. Jackson and his merry band of incompetents — including a reporter named Jamie (Kristen Connolly) and an alleged genius named Mitch (Billy Burke) — embarked on a quest in an airplane roughly the size of a Bel-Air mansion to round up a veritable Noah’s Ark of mythical animals they could use to create a cure for the virus they’d determined was causing worldwide animal rage. They chased down the earthquake-yawning sloth, an ice-breathing komodo dragon, an immortal jellyfish, and for the grand finale, a goddamn prehistoric saber-toothed tiger.
Also, at some point along the way, Jackson’s mother revealed that she’d been injected with a mutant “ghost gene” by his father that eventually turned her into a bloodthirsty zombie, for inscrutable science purposes.
In its second season, Zoo was beautiful.
The show became so pitch-perfectly ridiculous that I started to get nervous that it couldn’t possibly sustain its new brand of accidental brilliance. Maybe this one season of television that hinged on bad CGI, wooden acting, and the occasional homicidal gorilla would go down in history as a brief blaze of glory in a TV world that so often takes itself far too seriously.
But Zoo didn’t disappoint. Season two ended in spectacularly dumb fashion, with the animals being cured of their virus just a nefarious new group of corporate madmen, “the Shepherds,” revealed their lab-grown hybrid razorback wolves (hand to God). Then, the Shepherds released a gas that sterilized the entire human race.
Flash forward 10(!) years, and here we are at the start of Zoo season three.
Lest you suspect me of exaggerating Zoo’s main plot for comedic effect, here is the arc of season three as literally described by CBS:
Ten years after the animals were cured but at the cost of sterilizing the human population, a new threat rises in the form of "the hybrids," an army of unstoppable lab-made creatures focused on destroying mankind.
Have you ever heard of anything so beautiful, so bizarre, so completely and perfectly stupid?
Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking that surely a show this messy can’t pull off Children of Men meets The Birds divided by whatever B movie might have been smart enough to star razorback hybrid wolves. On this point, let’s be clear: You are correct.
But Zoo’s inattention to detail and devotion to just fuckin’ going for it — whether “it” means a global sterilization crisis or death by electric ant — is what makes the show one of the summer’s most purely entertaining distractions. And part of its appeal is that, if you want to dive in and see the madness for yourself, you frankly could do so at any point; even with all the context in the world, I promise you that Zoo is never going to make a whole lot of sense, anyway.
To give you a sense of what you’re missing, here are five new developments from Zoo’s season three premiere that really, truly happened, and will hopefully foreshadow a beautifully bonkers season to come. (You are welcome/I am truly sorry in advance.)
1) Renegade zoologist Jackson Oz is defending Portland from razorback hybrid wolves by controlling a pack of lions with ... his mind, maybe?
When the Zoo season three premiere (“No Place Like Home”) opens a full decade after we last saw everyone, Jackson and his latest blonde companion are trying to evade waves of hybrid wolves that have turned Portland, Oregon, into a ravaged wasteland. Thankfully, they have the help of several lions that Jackson has apparently tamed into doing his bidding.
When the scraggly pack — headed up by two males Jackson affectionately calls “Pedro” and “Samson” — lopes in, Jackson clicks a handheld device to keep them in line, and then orders them to attack the wolves so he can get some refugees to safety. After the threat has been neutralized and Jackson is fully available to flirt again, his new partner in crime purrs to him that she loves his “clickity click machine,” since she’s “lost track of how many times your lions have saved our heinies." Later, Jackson suggests to a curious child that the machine may, in fact, be connected to his mind — and he doesn’t appear to be kidding.
The whole scenario is ridiculous, she sure doesn’t sound like any human I’ve ever encountered, and that “clickity click machine” will almost definitely never be explained in a satisfactory way. The scene is Zoo to a tee, and as such, I will love it forever.
2) Presumed-dead genius Mitch has been floating in a stasis tank for 10 years, but NOT ANYMORE
As it turns out, Mitch — a petulant man-child scientist who closed out season two by sacrificing himself to save the others — has been kept alive in a stasis tank “in eastern Siberia” for reasons yet unknown. My leading theory is that such a plot contrivance was the most convenient way to free Zoo from having to age Billy Burke an additional 10 years, along with the rest of its cast. (Though it’s not like anyone else is believably aged up, outside of a conservative wig or two.)
In the season three premiere, Mitch gets broken out of his tank by people who want information, but even though I’ve watched every episode of this dumb show, I still couldn’t tell what they’re after. So for now, please enjoy this picture of a Billy Burke dummy, bobbing serenely in a Siberian lab:
3) Girl reporter Jamie is now a billionaire who moonlights as the world’s least-effective superspy
It says a lot that Zoo now boasts a pack of mind-controlled lions, and yet the thing I can’t stop thinking about is how Jamie — who in season one used to blog under the name “Girl with the Genie Tattoo” — has evolved beyond her scrappy independent journalist origin story to become a smirky billionaire with a penchant for sneaking out in the middle of the night to fight bad guys out of absolutely nowhere.
As my fellow Zoo enthusiast Brian Grubb of Uproxx has astutely observed, this basically makes her Batman, which is excellent news for those of us who like both superheroes and total nonsense. By day, Jamie is a corporate devil in a bobbed wig; by night, she’s an assassin in leather pants strangling patsy guards in pursuit of THE TRUTH. Countless superhero origin stories have started in similar fashion, so why not Zoo?
Maybe my favorite byproduct of Jamie’s transformation, however, is how it proves to be her downfall in the season three premiere, when she spends half the episode working to break into a secret science lab — only to immediately get caught because her phone’s ringer is on.
Herein lies one of the main tenets of Zoo: The show will tell us again and again and again how brilliant all of its characters are, but when push comes to shove, they are exactly as smart as the script requires them to be in a given moment, which is to say, not very.
4) But wait! A new hybrid appears to rear its majestic, prehistoric rhino head
At this point, Zoo’s season three premiere was perilously close to losing sight of the reason anyone watches this show, i.e., there are supernaturally furious animals on a rampage. So it wisely cut back to Jackson, who got one hell of a surprise when he discovered a brand-new hybrid so beautifully grotesque that I swear, it brought a grateful tear to my eye:
Just look at this majestic beast, in all its scaled, armored, tufted glory. It’s like something you’d encounter in a post-apocalyptic video game or an alternate-universe Game of Thrones fanfic — a combination that, come to think of it, is not actually a terrible way to describe Zoo.
I don’t even know what else to say about this stunning creature, some sort of prehistoric rhino hybrid that quite literally stunned me speechless when it appeared out of the blue to mow Jackson down. So I’ll simply sit back and let you treasure this moment in which Jackson almost gets trampled by it, narrowly escapes, and then grins at his lady love, “Spicy enough for ya?”
But as luck and Zoo would have it, there’s even more lunacy to this brand-new beast than meets the eye.
5) The prehistoric rhino’s blood is growing ... “but into what?!”
That utterance — delivered with grave horror by Jackson’s friend and sudden scientist Abraham once he receives the rhino’s blood by drone — is a direct quote, and I dare not try to improve upon it or speculate. In the world of Zoo, there’s just no way to know what’s coming next, which is exactly what’s made the series such an irresistible break from reality that (at least for now) is sorely lacking in magical sloths. May it reign o’er summer TV forever.