Her name is Olivia Moore, and she is a hero, in the way that the heroes used to be. Gung-ho. Fearless. Certain of their righteousness, virtue, and skill. Full of life and a want to bring life to others. We meet her all in a hurry, rushing at us, racing to save someone’s day. She’s an aspiring heart surgeon interning at a Seattle hospital and she’s got a patient on a gurney who’s coding. He’s cyanotic. Also known as “blue disease.” Blocked respiration. Can’t breathe. Blue Boy needs a real MD, stat, but Dr. Jeffries is MIA and time is running out. Should she wait? No! She will not wait! For she is a hero! She can do this!
Liv (Rose McIver) takes a syringe with a long needle and drives it into Blue Boy’s chest the way John Travolta impaled Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. If she misses, her patient dies. But her aim is true—she’s a hero after all—and pulls back on the sucky-plunger-thingie (like I know syringes!) and unblocks whatever was blocking Blue Boy’s breathing. Victory! Even Liv’s fellow intern—a rival of sorts—is all Damn, Girl! Check you out! impressed. “You have all the makings of a nemesis, but I actually kind of like you,” Marcie tells Liv. (Who knew the business of saving lives was dog-eat-dog competitive?) Marcia invites her to a rager on a boat. Liv balks, but Marcie pushes, and the button Marcie tries to hit to motivate Liv to party down is interesting given the themes of this episode: It will “show everyone that you’re not an overachieving pain in the ass.” Nobody likes a goodie-goodie. But why?
Liv still says no. She has a date with her fiancé, a major hunk named… Major (seriously)… who has a passing resemblance to Ben on Felicity. (The guy who wasn’t the guy who’s been on Scandal.) (So Scott Speedman, but actually played by Robert Buckley.) Marcia takes a gander and quips: “So basically every day of your life is like Sixteen Candles?” But Major thinks Liv should go to the party, because in addition to being majorly hunky, Major is also majorly supportive of his future’s wife current flourishing in all aspects of her personhood, including her social game. He tells her that they’ll have the rest of their long, shared lives to enjoy each other; tonight, she should seize the moment and invest in some other relationships. Besides: “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Oh, Major. Sweet, sweet naive Major. Don’t you know the title of your show?
Smash-cut to: Party yacht zom-pocalypse! It’s a rager, alright. Revelers turned into revenants are chasing revelers who have not, snapping and chomping at them with hungry-hungry-hippo jaws. Liv hides underneath a table, looking for an escape route. She makes a dash for it and bumps into a drug dealer who’s been slinging some new designer dope called Utopium. This low-life is played by David Anders, formerly of Alias and Heroes, and he’s actually worse than a low-life, because he has no life at all: He’s been transmogrified into a member of the walking dead. He wants to nosh on Liv. She squirts away, but not before Formerly Of Heroes and Alias Anders swipes at her, sending her overboard and leaving her with a Dark Mark that resembles the logo for Monster energy drink. This is probably no coincidence. Seriously, google it. I’ll wait.
Changed my mind while you were checking that out. Probably coincidence.
Next thing Liv knows, she’s bolting upright out of a yellow body bag and spitting up lake water. But she’s not alive. She’s been changed. Transformed into something monstrous, something darkly marked and death-eating. She has gone fish cold, her hair bleached shock white, her complexion the pallor of paste. She has become Death! She has become a Pale Rider! A White Walker, but a grungy-adorable one! She is—c’mon Major! You can get this! – I, ZOMBIE!
Suffering such a fate probably does qualify as “the worst that can happen” by bacchanal boating with work friends. But the pilot for The CW’s iZombie—adapted by Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas and longtime writing partner Diane Ruggiero from a comic book by Chris Robertson and Michael Allred—uses Liv’s tragic spiral from activist doc to life-sapped slacker to bite at some cultural conditions: Disillusionment, cynicism, and the rise of anti-hero cool that has rendered heroism uncool. Of course, it’s not like we don’t have good reason to question representations and meanings of “old-fashioned heroism” when we live in a culture where role models fail us by betraying their values, abusing their power, or simply by being hypocritical phonies. Not for nothing that the pilot gave us a fake-smiley weatherman whose shiny-happy visage masks some loathsome licentiousness, or made an adulterous psycho cop its villain. So the world kinda sucks, and our horror-pulp pop reflects that. Yet there’s pondering artfully made dark fantasy that expresses our dismay and despair with The Way Things Are, and there’s rabidly consuming it without much thought. What’s the cost of over-identifying with desperate men who break bad, with catastrophe-rocked souls who go batty-vigilante, with lifeless, soulless sleepwalkers who just eat eat eat to assuage their insatiable ache? Has our fascination with abomination become—to borrow one of the pilot’s pop references—a “Bad Romance”?
NEXT: Let’s meet Zombie Liv[pagebreak]
The anti-hero critique is embodied in Zombie Liv, whom we get to know in full five months after becoming Born Again Dead. She’s a fascinating abomination, for sure; she looks like the plain jane little sister to Daryl Hannah’s replicant in Blade Runner. But it’s inner beauty that counts (RIGHT, FELLAS?!), and here, death does not become Liv. She’s not just morbidity incarnate, she’s spiritually moribund. Her heroic agency is broken, like an Enterprise with a busted engine and drifting in dead space. She’s quit her job, she’s called off her engagement with Major, and—so sad!—she no longer has any appetite for Potluck Tuesday with those she loves the most, flaws and all: Her vain Mom; her nerdy little brother; her best friend and roommate. At every turn, Liv’s community is telling her that she isn’t the “overachieving pain in the ass” she used to be, she is “100 percent unlike” her former self. Once she was a plucky little Piglet, now she’s a mopey little Eeyore. Not that she needs their confrontation and intervention. The self-conscious voice in her head narrating her so-called life beats her up just fine. The consensus opinion of her peeps is that her social withdrawal and spiritual lethargy—as well as her new look, which they take to be a choice—are symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Liv’s internal monologue corrects them. “Stress” is the wrong word, as stress actually spurs people to action. No, she suffers from “post-traumatic ennui, post-traumatic defeatism, post-traumatic ‘what’s-the-point?’” Gone is the woman who was—her words “ambitious, passionate, inspired, alive.” Taking her place is this cuckoo Liv, full of stinkin’-thinkin’ like “seizing the day is for suckers.”
Put one more way, teased by the episode’s opening sequence: Liv has a different kind of Blue Disease. What psychologists call anhedonia. Without pleasure. For almost anything. Culture. Exercise. Sex. People. Even food… unless it comes freshly cracked from a skull. To paraphrase The Bard: Her-anhedonia-don’t-want-none-unless-you-not-brains-hon!
Later, other characters put other language to her that links her to cultural postures and gestures of anti-heroic character. “Goth.” “Emo.” “Whatever.” She’s gone from put-together to ragged slacker—Hoodies! Uncombed hair! She doesn’t clean her room!—and so maybe it’s not coincidental that the show is set in Seattle, home of Grunge. It’s like Liv regressed from optimistic, can-do millennial to sullen, prematurely world-weary Gen Xer. Today, of course, Seattle is better known for technology, and specifically, for the digitalization of everything, a theme the title iZombie also winks at. And so iZombie is about rehumanization in the time of dehumanization.
I see iZombie taking aim at another idea inherent to the zombie genre and prevalent throughout the culture in a variety of forms: the dreary dream of apocalyptic meltdown. In this world, utopia is for dopes. Oops. Sorry: I mean “Utopium.” The word/notion has been ironically appropriated—and why not? no one believes in it anymore, anyway—for a hip new designer drug consumed favored by decadent twentysomethings. It turns people into brain dead hedonists. (Zombies, too? TBD.) What does a culture hooked on doom and gloom do to those who consume it? Does it discourage us from serving the common good? From being a good neighborhood? From good “citizenship,” to use one of the episode’s many deliberately chosen words? The episode’s murder mystery nurtured these questions in sly, unspoken ways, most notably, the “U.S. Elects First Black President” newspaper headline conspicuously visible in one of the victim’s flashbacks. As it happens, the victory speech that Barack Obama gave on the day of his election in 2008 linked the renewal of America to a renewed commitment to love thy neighbor citizenship. His words:
“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. … So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.”
(Hey, don’t blame me for getting political! I don’t write these shows—I just recap and overthink them.)
iZombie wears all this stuff in subtext (if it wears them at all; I do have a tendency to project). What I enjoyed best about the pilot was how it worked hard to squeeze new ideas and milk new meanings out of the increasingly stale and dried-up zombie genre.
The pilot moves briskly, crackles with wit, and has great fun establishing the realm, rules, and denizens of its world. Where once Liv worked as an intern in a bright, shiny hospital, she now works as an assistant in a dim, subterranean morgue. The job doesn’t put food on her table; it is the food. When her boss isn’t looking, she’s chopping cerebellum into her brown bag lunch. Today’s dish: Chicken flavored instant noodles topped with diced lobe of Jane Doe, heavily spiced with hot sauce—food has no zest, no kick when you’re undead and suffering PTSWhat’sthepoint—and to be eaten with chopsticks while watching Night of the Living Dead during break time.
But Liv’s boss is no dummy. His name is Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli), Seattle’s chief medical examiner, and he’s a gleefully geeky egghead who’s been suspecting Liv of zombiedom since she started working for him and really couldn’t he happier about it: He once worked for the Center for Disease Control but got fired for his insistence that catastrophic man-made plague will eventually, inevitably occur make mincemeat out of mankind. Which is to say, Doc Ravi actually believes in zombies, and Liv is unliving proof of his rightness. Eat it, CDC! He’s quick to become Liv’s “eager ally.” He wants to protect her, help her, “cure” her. Cure? This makes Liv’s eyes pop. Ravi insists zombiedom isn’t a permanent condition, that it can be knocked out the way we knocked out polio. Ravi is one of two analogs the heroic personality Liv used to be. She likes him, and so do we. He’s all humorous twinkle and heart.
NEXT: Rounding out the character lineup…[pagebreak]
The arrival of Liv’s other The Way I Was mirror twin helps to introduce the show’s storytelling franchise. He’s Detective Babinaux (Malcolm Goodwin), a young and hungry detective, recently promoted from Vice to Homicide and still looking for his first collar after two months on the job. He’s an underachieving pain in the ass, determined to tie his hero on. He bounds into the morgue hoping that Ravi has some intel on that aforementioned Jane Doe, who had been found in a dumpster. Later, we’ll learn that our bad cop bad guy—a real pig—threw her out a window, tossed to the street like a sack of trash. (Another underlying theme of the pilot and iZombie in general: Our diminishing, degrading, death-deserving misogyny culture.)
While talking about the particulars of the case, Liv flashes on a memory belonging to the Jane Doe she munched. In this way, Liv is what she eats, for as long the gray matter of the deceased remains in her system. Sights, sounds, smells related to the person trigger these mnemonic belches. Moreover, she absorbs certain personality traits of the dead for a spell. This Jane Doe was a kleptomaniac, so Liv briefly becomes a red-handed rogue, compelled to steal… well, red stuff. A red snow globe, a red stapler, a red picture frame, a handful of red plastic eyeballs. That’s one way to get some color back into your life, Little Miss Anhedonia, but maybe not the best. Liv’s first flash gives Detective Babinaux a name, Stefani Germanotta, and while it’s a fake name (actually, it’s the real name of Lady Gaga; iZombie is quite clever when it comes to working irony and themes of identity), it puts the detective on the path to truth, a path that he makes Liv travel with him. Babs has no idea how Liv can do the voodoo that she can do—Ravi claims she’s psychic; Liv decides to play the part, as “psychic-ish” is just a little bit more credible than “zombie-ish”—and for now, he doesn’t really care, either. Whatever gets the job done. The hero that Liv used to be—the hard-charging intern with no times to wait on proper procedure—could appreciate that.
The story that unfolds sends Liv on a telescoped, generalized version of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” Many of the beats are followed. She’s called to adventure. Here, this adventure is getting justice for the Jane Doe, real name Tatiana, a kinky Romanian call girl. Liv tries to refuse the call, but boss-man Ravi tells her she must. She doesn’t embrace the mission—doesn’t truly answer the call—until she finds a personal connection, supplied via the dead woman working her way through her slow-moving blood stream: Flashing on the memory of Tatiana’s murder functions like shock paddles to Liv’s stalled activist’s heart, if not exactly the best possible purpose: The fire that fuels her isn’t justice, but her bleak brother, vengeance.
Assisted by her ally and guided by her mentor, Liv acquires invigorating energy and advances on the journey, encountering and overcoming minor obstacles and threshold guardians, like naughty weatherman Johnny Frost (played by Mars alum Daran Norris), who liked to play “The Trophy Wife and the Intruder” with Tatiana. (“Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!”—a nod to The Shining, a story of a weak, heroically deficient man who falls prey to the demon spirits that haunt his wintry, bloody-swamped snow globe world, which is to say, the zeitgeist of his culture.)
A setback briefly derails her: Realizing that she wants—needs—love in her life, she seeks out Major, hoping to rekindle their romance, only to discover he’s now with someone new. Major bummer! (She spies on them from outside Major’s home, watching them bond by playing the zombie videogame Dead Island. Now that’s cold.) But this defeat is good, because it corrects Liv in an important way: It reorients her quest away from the personal, or the purely selfish, and toward idealism, The Good, which gives her better cause and connection with humanity. In her words: “I can choose to be a decent person and get justice for a fellow dead girl.” She seals this transformation with atonement: She returns all the stuff she stole while under Klepto Tat’s influence. The red frame. The red stapler. The red snow globe. The red plastic eyeballs. Liv’s flawed, wonky perspective has been right-sized, her moral vision, restored.
Liv gets back on track after learning other lives hang in the balance and she puts herself in harm’s way to save them. She’s shot, and she’d probably die if she wasn’t already dead, and she rises again—resurrection!—to slay the shape-shifting adversary, “the bearded pig,” Bad Cop Cobb. The final battle culminates with Liv beating both nemesis and her darkest self: She dials down a surge of anger that makes her Bad Zombie, the red-eyed monster who’ll kill to eat anything. Succeeding at her mission mends the broken condition of the world (justice for Tatiana) and herself, for the ironic life-giving reward of Liv’s inaugural heroic quest is the healing of heroic agency. Gone is the woman adrift with no identity and purpose; regenerated is the woman who wanted “do something with her life,” the woman who “wanted to help people,” but in a bold new form. By the end of story, Liv’s anti-hero postures and gestures are reversed, but she’s also been changed, and she embraces her new identity. She commemorates and celebrates this metamorphosis with another sacrifice: She volunteers at her mother’s annual charity event, a haunted house fundraiser for King County Children’s Hospital, where she chooses to play, of course, a playful zombie.
There’s more change to be had of course. More rehumanization to be done. More dragons to slay, including her maker, the wretched Utopium clocker who scratched her and infected her. More life for Liv Moore to live. The road ahead will be long (hopefully! I like this show!) and the climb steep (hopefully! Conflict is good for drama!), but those are stories for another day. Behold the hero! Behold the hopeful good citizen! Behold—c’mon Major, you got this!—iZombie.