The entertainment-industrial complex is ingenious at imagining humanity’s extinction. Environmental apocalypse. Viral apocalypse. Zombie apocalypse. To the apoca-pile, CBS adds Zoo, a new series that gives us…the pet-pocalypse! Or something like that. Killer kitties raining from trees, diabolical dogs luring men to their doom, lions around the world acting in concert to attack human beings for sport. Now you know how it feels! You might expect this show to be as purrrrrrfectly silly as that pun. Nope: Zoo is gripping, unpretentious fun.
The 2012 James Patterson/Michael Ledwidge novel on which the show is based is a glibly written page-turner that mixes speculative science, current events, and environmental concern. The quartet of high-powered screenwriters responsible for the TV version—Scott Rosenberg (Con Air), Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), and Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol)—use the book as inspiration, eschewing a faithful translation. They’ve expanded the scope, multiplied the characters, curtailed some sexist characterizations, and nixed a nutty ape named Attila. (Trust me, this is for the best.) The globe-trotting serial follows Jackson Oz (James Wolk), an American expat living in Botswana, who runs safaris with his best bud, Abraham (Nonso Anozie). When a pride of male lions goes psycho, Jackson wonders if his dead dad’s crackpot theory that the planet’s wildlife was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore was on target. Meanwhile, in L.A., crusading reporter/blogger Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly) teams with vet pathologist Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke) to investigate a conspiracy linking lion attacks, missing cats, pesticides, and an evil conglomerate that owns, like, everything.
The writing is marked by sly political resonance and mordant wit. Lions, tigers, and maybe bears as activist/terrorist agents in a global counterculture uprising, fighting to make the world better by any means necessary? Provocative. Dark humor abounds. Note the victims in the premiere: piggish men. The second ep adds French spies and a subplot about a young family’s fateful trip to the circus. The pace is swift, the vibe is creepy. The book’s horror-movie animal attacks are too gruesome for network TV—most of the violence is off screen (I must admit, my inner gorehound was a bit disappointed)—so the series settles for well-staged suspense. There’s a chilling moment when Jackson is in a sea of tall grass, hunting a lion he can’t see; it’s like Jaws on the savanna. The human actors are more than game, but Burke is a true hoot. His brand of wiseass misanthrope helps the nonsense go down easy. Mutating Wild Kingdom into a subversive fun-time apoca-thriller, Zoo is a worthy small-screen complement to a Jurassic World summer. B