I’m guessing that among the post-apocalyptic zombies, and the ice zombies, and the other, more ambiguous kinds of zombies that have dominated television’s apocalyptic tales lately, you’ve all been waiting patiently for a series that would finally focus on the word you live in—a world where animals just waiting to turn on you. Well, here it is! To your rallying cry, CBS responds with Zoo, based on the novel by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, in an impressively dedicated effort to a show that reads as kind of a silly sell. But as our TV critic Jeff Jensen said in his review of the series, it’s not just silly fun—Zoo, with its thrills with a noticeable lack of gore turns out to be more “gripping, unpretentious fun.”
You’re likely not to care that the science basically boils down to what’s going on with an animal’s leaky pupil; and you might not be drawn in by the rogue Zoe-Barnes-style investigative blogging; all that’s going to matter to you while watching Zoo are those key moments that you think there’s just one lion stalking toward the unarmed humans, then suddenly, you see two more golden heads peek out of the grass… and then two more… and now they’re charging. Cue the guttural growl track, it’s on!
And, really—it’s summer TV—these craftily executed, gratuitously sound-tracked “oh shit” moments are all you need. Zoo is both silly and scary in that “Oh, come on, that would never happen… but it could” kind of way. How will the premise of animals mounting a revolt against the human race while the human race actively ignores it hold up for 13 episodes? Not sure. But for the premiere, give me as many close-ups of majestic, angry lion heads as you’ve got, because I’m ready to figure out the mystery of “the defiant pupil.”
It’s a smart choice to focus solely on the threat of felines running amok in Zoo’s premiere—a brief glimpse of a rather stoic-looking gorilla had me thinking the animal revolt might already be escalating to inter-species, but starting with just a few attacks on two different continents means only a select few know to look up in the trees for a cult of house cats before crossing the street. The unlucky arbiters of truth are located mostly in Botswana and L.A. In Botswana, unreasonably handsome every-man James Wolk plays Jackson Oz, a zoologist spending his time leading animal safaris alongside his local bestie, Abraham (Nonso Anosie, just as simultaneously warm and intimidating here as he is on Game of Thrones). While Jackson and Abe deal with cats in the wild, Jamie (Kristen Connolly), an intrepid junior reporter at an L.A. newspaper teams up with a laid back veterinary pathologist (Billy Burke) to investigate the city cats with newly murderous tendencies.
Zoo states its premise pretty readily in voice-over as we close in on Jackson and Abe’s safari camp headquarters in Botswana: “For centuries, mankind has been the dominant species. We’ve domesticated animals, locked them up, killed them for sport. But what if all across the globe, the animals decided no more? What if they finally decided to fight back?” Okay, first of all, speak for yourself—but, sure, sounds plausible. In the tents while Jackson nurses a hangover—I just knew he’d be rakish!—a young assistant is watching videos of a raving scientist. Turns out, that scientist is Jackson’s father, also a zoologist, one whose outlandish theories about animals and “the defiant pupil” Jackson doesn’t seem to give much credence to. And neither did the science community at large, from what we gather.
Jackson and Abe head out on their first tour of the day, but while they’re searching for rhinos, they come across another group (with much shinier safari vehicles) hunting them. But Jackson and Abe have a fool-proof plan for this type of situation: a boom box with James Brown’s “Sex Machine” queued up just loud enough to scare off rhinos. The hunters are furious and remind Jackson that hunting is legal, but their local guide advises them to leave it alone, as Abe seems to inspire that with all of the towering over people he does.
NEXT: What happens in Botswana stays in Botswana (and also L.A. if what happens is murderous lions)…
In L.A. two guys are headed home after a night out, walking through an alley where they both simultaneously and without vocal agreement decide to start urinating—as you do—only to discover that this particular alley is infested by lions. Whoops, should have gone at the bar, cue the opening credits.
As it turns out, those two lions killed their trainer, escaped the zoo, killed the two alley urinaters and injured five more. We find Jamie at the office of The L.A. Telegraph, busy tracking down a story about the lions’ food recently being switched to food produced by Reiden Global. She seems particularly worked up about that, but there’s no time for demanding lion food answers because her boss (Reid Scott, kind of wasted here, but you’ve got to do something with that Veep off-time, I guess) tells her she has to go see their big boss and it’s not looking good.
Apparently she’s discovered an anonymous blog called “Girl With the Genie Tattoo” that’s been whistle-blowing on GDJ International’s unethical practices, a company that owns both The L.A. Telegraph and Reiden Global, a company Jamie has been known to go after. This blog and Jamie have also both been known to use the very journalism-friendly word, “pettifoggery” (“I know because I had to look it up”). So, y’know, Jamie doesn’t have to strip down and show her boss her genie tattoo or anything, but she definitely gets fired.
They’re keeping the vocab to a 10-letter minimum over in Botswana, but Abe and Jackson have to pile back into the safari jeep to go check on Abe’s cousin Simon’s safari resort because he hasn’t been answering their radio calls. Abe assumes the radio is just broken, but we’ve all seen the trailer—we know that Abe and Jackson show to find the entire resort deserted, with dishes left out in the dining room and a camcorder that shows a man filming himself talking about his sunburn and then suddenly dropping the camera when everyone around him starts screaming and running. But there’s no blood, no mangled body parts… just a single set of lion tracks leading out of the camp.
The men set back out on the road to try and find Simon and Jackson recalls what Abe once told him about a rebel army that would enter single-file to raid a village so that no one could tell how many of them there were afterward. And what if the lions had done that? Gotten in alphabetical order and filed into Simon’s camp. Abe’s, “Sure, and then they all played musical chairs” implies that Jackson is starting to sound like his father, who we earlier learned killed himself when he became a laughing stock for his scientific views about animals and the somewhat manic video manifesto he left behind. So Simon has a slightly complicated relationship with animals.
And it’s about to get more complicated. Jackson and Abe spot Simon’s safari bus in the grass. It appears empty, but Abe goes to check it out because everything is seeming fine here, like a situation that two dudes could totally handle by themselves. Jackson hangs back to cover him but whips around expecting a predator when he hears growling and rustling behind him, only to find a frantic French woman instead. I have a feeling that if you played a drinking game for every time you heard a mysterious lion growl—well, just make sure you watch on a night where you don’t have to be up early the next morning. While Jackson tries to get the woman to speak to him in English—which she masters quickly—a lion makes his way into the bus with Abe. NOOOOOOOO!
The French woman, Chloe, and I are both screaming, but we’re in disagreement about how to proceed. I say Jackson better get his rakish ass in that bus and save his friend, but Chloe says, “We have to go! We have to go!” Okay, and I guess I see her point when five huge male lions come streaming through the grass toward them like grounded sunbeams in a lovely and terrifying overhead shot. Jackson and Chloe make their way back to the jeep with Jackson still trying to shoot at the lion in the bus, but once all of the lions are at the vehicle snapping at the steel and glass trying to get in on that sweet, sweet human dinner, it’s kind of a lost cause. Lions are literally all over the jeep as Jackson cranks it up and peels out. As they drive, Chloe tells him what happened: Fifteen people from her camp were out on safari with Simon; they all got out to get a closer look at some gazelles; they heard a noise and looked back to find a lion attacking their bus driver, then another lion fell out of the trees and attacked Simon, then another, then another; she tried to help the others but she had to get out of there or she was going to die.
Jackson gives her a flask of Kentucky bourbon to ease her murdering-lion nerves. It helps: “They do good work in Kentucky.” Oh, these two are going to get along just fine. You know… if they don’t get eaten first.
NEXT: Jamie Campbell: journalist, secret blogger, party crasher at large…
So, things have to be better back in L.A., right? Well—they’re smaller, at least. Still hunting her story, reputable publication to back her up or not, Jamie shows up at a little backyard barbeque the director of the L.A. zoo is having just days after three people died on his watch. When she demands answer about the recent switch in food suppliers to Reiden Global, he stands by his story that they changed because it was more environmentally friendly and that half the zoos in the country use Reiden (well, that sounds promising!). He tells Jamie she should really lay off all this killer lion yapping she’s doing though and focus on something worthwhile like how all the house cats in his neighborhood are disappearing. What’s that, now? We’ll get back to it.
Jamie heads over to the zoo, steps over the chain that’s 10 inches off the ground roping off the lion exhibit—this zoo raises some serious safety concerns—and goes to find Mitch Morgan, the veterinary pathologist investigating what made these lions want to kill a bunch of humans. I really like Mitch (I also really like Billy Burke). He puts up with Jamie’s questions but also makes her have a real conversation with him while in the presence of the two dead lions. They were siblings that had been captured when they were eight months old and living without incident in their enclosure for 14 years; there’s no reason they should have decided to start attacking humans. Jamie thinks there is…
Has your memory retained Reiden Global’s name yet? Because I think it’s going to be important. And Jamie thinks that their Grade D meat and use of pesticides is in some way to blame for the fact that there are only nine documented cases of unprovoked zoo lions attacking people in the last 140 years and now these lions decided to kill their trainer and two random ally pee-ers. But Mitch tells her if those statistics are right, they probably have 15 years of no lion attacks to look forward to (Oh, Mitch…). Jamie finally wears down a little and says, yeah, “sometimes a mystery is just a mystery… like the cats in Brentwood.” Mitch says maybe they just couldn’t get into a good private school (Oh, Mitch…), but Jamie leaves him with her contact information, just in case.
Back on their escape from the murderous lions, Chloe tells Jackson what her deal is: This safari was supposed to be her honeymoon until her fiancé cheated on her five weeks before the wedding and then her vacation turned into a horror show on CBS. So things are really going well for Chloe! And they’re about to get better…
Because when the lions were treating their jeep like an actual jungle gym, they busted the radiator and now the car is broken down. Jackson tells her that they’re going to have to walk the six miles back to Simon’s camp where they can radio for help, but Chloe isn’t having it: “Free will is what separates us from the animals. Free will and this truck,” which is an awesome comeback, but yeah, the handsome zoologist is right. They can’t be out there at nightfall. So they make their way to the edge of a ravine that they’re either using to follow back to camp, or the show is using as an action piece. Perhaps both. Because about the time that Jackson is telling her it was suuuuuper weird that those lions were traveling in a pack of five males, they hear the distinct sound of growling—drink!—ah, yes, and there’s the top of one lion’s mane… now two more… and yes, two more. Gang’s all here.
NEXT: When in doubt, fall down a ravine…
Jackson puts Chloe behind him as they start backing up to the edge of the ravine. I don’t know if his plan is to stare the head lion into submission, but stare he does, and as he looks deep into the lion’s eyes he whispers what sounds like, “the defiant.” The lion—quite defiantly—does not back down, and Jackson and Chloe topple down the ravine into the riverbed below before the lions can charge them. And apparently that is somewhere the lions don’t go because the next thing you know Chloe and Jackson are back at the resort while he’s radioing for help and telling her about his father.
Oz Sr. had all these theories about why animals “continued to live in fear of their predators when, in theory, they have the ability to coordinate and kill whichever species was a threat.” In theory, huh? He tells Chloe that his father recorded these thoughts in his video manifesto where he kept circling around the idea of “’a defiant pupil,’ the indisputable proof that his theory was correct.” Jackson had always thought he meant a defiant student, but when he was looking into that lion’s eyes at the ravine—the lion whose left pupil looked distinctly drippy, he thought, maybe his father wasn’t entirely crazy. And he seems a little happy about that… despite all the lion homicide.
So it really sucks that on the brink of this discover the police show up at the camp not to rescue Chloe and Jackson, but to arrest Jackson for “interference with lawful hunting.” Presumably, Chloe is left at the deserted resort to fend for herself because this was the worst week of Chloe’s hellish life.
Speaking of hell, Mitch found all the cats! He texts Jamie as much while she’s cleaning out her desk and she heads to Brentwood to see what he’s talking about. Apparently, as an animal pathologist, he thought a bunch of house cats collectively not returning home for dinner was off behavior, and boy was he right. As he leads Jamie over to a playground she tells him he better not be taking her to a dead cat, but he’s not—he swivels the flashlight up to a huge tree entirely full of cats where they’ve apparently been gathering for days. Jamie points out that they’re at an elementary school, but Mitch corrects her: In the summer it’s a day camp. “The camp starts tomorrow.”
I understand that everyone may not share my irrational fear of house cats, but surely the idea that all those cats might be gathering above the monkey bars to murder a bunch of little campers made your stomach drop, too. And hopefully you had just a little more room in your intestinal Tower of Terror for the premiere’s final shot: With the focus making its way from house cats in a tree in L.A. to a very different tree in Botswana (parallel plotlines, y’all), we see a familiar large, bloody body in safari guide clothes being hoisted up into the branches by a lion. As the lion settles in with his capture, right before the camera takes us to credit, Abe’s eye gives a distinct flutter. And I bet if we got one more closeup on that lion, we’d see something a little unsettling going on with his eye, too.
So, what gives?! Is Abe alive? Are 100 house cats as dangerous as five lions? Did you get as many silly thrills from the Zoo premiere as I did, or was it all too silly for you to take seriously? Or perhaps it was all too serious for you to find silly? Will you be sticking with James Wolk—come on, James Wolk deserves it—this summer, or keeping your relationship with your pet untarnished instead?