As The Walking Dead falters, iZombie, Santa Clarita Diet pick up the mantle of zombie TV

Sneha Khale

April 22, 2018 11:00:42 IST

I was a simple person then. I once saw a show about zombies, and decided I wanted to spend the next eight years watching it religiously, week after week. Even as the showrunners were out of interesting ideas and just kept pitting caricatures of “evil” against caricatures of “good”, and long after the zombies had stopped being a threat worthy of anything more than a dismissive glance or shrug by the humans on the show. Even when it became clear that there was absolutely no end in sight, no discernable interest on part of the protagonists to find out more about the reason why humanity had plunged into this post zombie-apocalyptic nightmare, and thus no urge to develop a cure. As a simple person deriving my simple pleasures from watching men and women in Georgia kill a few zombified humans and a whole lot of non-zombified ones, I was happily part of the worldwide fan base that stoked the cultural juggernaut that was The Walking Dead.

(Clockwise from top left) Stills from iZombie, Santa Clarita Diet, The Walking Dead

(Clockwise from top left) Stills from iZombie, Santa Clarita Diet, The Walking Dead

But earlier this week, after the end of The Walking Dead’s (TWD) eighth season, after another 16 episodes of watching Rick, Carol, and Morgan erratically seesaw between being vengeful bloodthirsty warriors and high-road-taking-Zen-purists, I’ve made the now-quite-easy decision to stop giving in to Robert Kirkman’s maniacal milking of this once-awesome story that used to be a great metaphor for modern life, but is now just a sad reminder, episode after episode, of just how fickle and stupid and horrible and short-sighted humans are. We already knew that, creators! And the real world provides more-than-necessary examples anyway. What we need from our storytellers and our television shows is something new, exciting, and cherishable. Sorry TWD, your “flawed humans just trying to survive” bullsh*t just doesn’t cut it anymore.

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On the other hand, in its kickass fourth season, iZombie is proving, once again, that a show about zombies needn’t be all heavy monologuing and soul-searching all the freaking time. And two riotously successful seasons of Santa Clarita Diet have upped the creative ante on zombie shows to a degree that (I feel bad saying this, but it’s true) TWD hasn’t quite reached since Carol’s season 4 badassery blowing up the Terminus. These newer, far more interesting, and better written shows slowly but surely made their way into my zombie-obsessed heart over the past few years to the point where I honestly don’t care about TWD anymore. So long, Rick Grimes and Co. You won’t be missed. And ICYMI, the zombies are the stars of their shows now!

In the past eight years since The Walking Dead first drawled onto our television screens, the rules of zombie TV have changed. Zombies needn’t necessarily be grotesque and horrible anymore. Zombies aren’t always the enemy, they can be brain-eating entities and still retain most of their human anatomy, intelligence, memories, characteristics, and traits. And a story told from their point of view is, when compared to the glacial pace at which TWD has moved the past couple of seasons, infinitely more fun!

Take Liv Moore, for example: iZombie’s chief zombie protagonist looks like a cute-as-a-button cheerleader, was studying to be a doctor when she was “scratched” and turned, now needs to eat human brains to survive, and so works at the local morgue in Seattle and helps solve crimes. How, you ask? Zombies in the iZombie universe inherit the characteristics and memories of the person whose brain they consume. The morgue is the perfect day job for Liv (notice how her name Liv Moore is a fun play on “Live More?”): she has the skills that it needs, it’s the perfect place to get her brain fix, and she’s contributing to society by actually helping nab criminals. Cha-ching!

Because the show is based on a comic book series of the same name that’s quirky and fun, and because iZombie’s creator is the genius Rob Thomas (not the Matchbox Twenty frontman, obviously!) who also created the brilliantly witty and sadly-too-shortlived teenage detective noir series Veronica Mars, iZombie has spunk and wit in abundance, with plenty to spare. Just watching Liv each week, selflessly prepare a disturbingly delicious-looking dish with the brains of the latest victim, in order to have a “vision” that might lead to the culprit, is so much fun I wouldn’t be averse to watching a spoof cooking show dedicated to just that! Are you hearing, TLC?

Watching Liv come to terms with her new life and making the most of it as people close to her (her best friend Peyton Charles who’s an assistant district attorney, her fiance Major Lilywhite, her colleague and friend at the morgue Ravi Chakrabarti, and her partner at the police station Clive Babineaux) slowly find out the truth about her and get personally affected by it, and watching the story unfold as we learn more about the virus, its backstory and its reach, has been thrilling, funny, and meaningful. Liv doesn’t launch into long, morose soliloquies to explain her thoughts and justify her actions. She doesn’t always do the right thing. In fact, many of the main characters often don’t do the right or just thing.

Like TWD, some of the most important characters on iZombie are antagonists. Unlike TWD though, not everyone on the show is burdened with a faux sense of moral superiority, so that when a character acts contrary to what the audience has grown accustomed to, all internet-hell doesn’t break loose. People are often morally ambiguous, everyone knows that. We know it, the creators of the show know it, the characters act like they know it too. iZombie doesn’t force-feed the audience this very obvious observation of human behaviour over and over, like TWD so often does. And, in the process, by being almost irreverent about this flaw in human nature, in continuing to appreciate the good in humans and trying to find the cure to save mankind, the show is actually much stronger than TWD will ever hope to be.

Also, the lead characters on iZombie eating the brains of people who have very peculiar traits, almost always leads to utter hilarity. So there’s that too. Like this one time, when Liv eats the brain of a murdered man and Major eats the brain of the dead man’s equally dead teenage daughter. Pure gold, this!

When the first season of Santa Clarita Diet (SCD) released on Netflix in February 2017, most of the talk surrounding it was about Drew Barrymore’s big foray into television (television, streaming service...potato, potato). And even post-release, comparisons to The Walking Dead were inevitable, because zombies. I’d reviewed the season back then, praising SCD as a Desperate Housewives-meets-Dexter-meets-TWD mix, and I’m so glad that the show’s second season (which released on Netflix last month) didn’t add any more elements of TWD to it, besides the zombie reference. Santa Clarita Diet couldn’t be any more different than TWD, and it’s so much better for it.

For those of you who haven’t watched it, Barrymore plays Sheila Hammond, a suburban housewife who, along with her husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) works as a real estate agent; they live comfortably with their teenager daughter Abby. Seemingly out of nowhere, Sheila becomes a zombie and starts craving human flesh (not just brains). Joel, Sheila, Abby, and Skylar (Abby’s friend and the Hammonds’ neighbour) have to deal with all of the crap that must transpire when you find out that you/your wife/your mom/your neighbour is a zombie, which leads to ridiculously funny and graphic confrontations with their neighbours, their colleagues and rivals at work, the law, and other sundry people.

Season two of SCD took a delightful and equally-as-graphic-as-season-one look into the origin of the zombie virus (is it even a virus?), trying to find others infected by it, and potentially figuring out a cure.

Like iZombie (in fact, even more so than iZombie), Santa Clarita Diet doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a show about zombies, after all! And yet, even through its utter madness, there are unsuspecting moments of clarity and wisdom that seep through (without trying to work too hard to look or sound preachy), which perfectly sum up the overall human situation in the world.

I love that both iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet have female protagonists heading the shows. Female protagonists who’re badass zombies and career women. Who’re badass zombies, career women, fiancées, friends, partners, wives, and mothers. Good at it all, but also flawed. Flawed and realistic. I also love that both these shows are unapologetically funny. If you believe a world in which zombies are real, and human flesh and brains are being consumed by them (even the well-meaning ones), then there’s already plenty wrong in the world. There’s already too much sh*t to deal with. It’s even more important to maintain a certain amount of humour in such a situation, because otherwise, everyone would end up struggling and delusional like Morgan on TWD. Being light-hearted about something doesn’t mean you don’t care, it just means you’ve gained perspective. And that is something I’ve felt has lacked so darn much, on The Walking Dead: perspective.

The close-minded herd mentality that’s become such a prominent feature on the show, as well as the sheer lack of interest by all the characters in finding out more about this virus, any potential cure or other survivors outside of the state of Georgia — it seems utterly unfathomable to me that the characters on TWD would just go on with their pseudo-lives, doing the same thing over and over again, fighting the same fights, talking the same talk and walking the same walk, making the same mistakes and the same promises, breaking said promises in the same pattern.

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The fact is, there’s too much of that happening in real life already. And while our TV shows needn’t be escapist fodder, I appreciate a zombie show that isn’t afraid to show me what life looks like from the other side (from the perspective of the zombies, obviously), a zombie show that isn’t afraid to laugh at its own absurdity and doesn’t expect everyone on the show to subscribe to some unattainable level of self-rightousness and moral superiority. A zombie show that looks beyond the bleak and morose, towards a better, brighter, funner future. We could stand to be that way in real life too!

Updated Date: Apr 23, 2018 18:27 PM