Zombie media fits a certain mold of the gritty, everyone-dies survival story where doom and gloom is the norm. “The Walking Dead” has defined the genre in its own way — being one of the most talked-about television shows of the past decade — but has set a bar in which a lot of zombie apocalypse media is compared to. Syfy’s zombie show “Z Nation” offers a comedic spin on the genre while still holding an engaging plot and surprisingly effective character development. Its diversity among characters is something not often seen among most zombie media and brings a refreshing take to the genre that one may not expect from a show (on the Syfy network, nevertheless) that utilizes humor in the way that it does.
The show takes the audience right into the action. A year into the apocalypse, a group of scientists are desperate to find a cure to the “H1Z1” virus. Unwilling prisoners are dragged into a lab testing area. The first two batches of the cure fail; as the lab is overrun by zombies, the last man is given the dose and is ripped apart as the zombies flood into the testing lab.
The audience is then taken to a group of survivors over at Camp Blue Sky a year after the lab incident took place. Here, we’re introduced to the main characters: Steven “Doc” Beck, the marijuana-loving grandpa, Addison Carver, the strong-willed, passionate fighter, Roberta Warren, a former Lieutenant of the National Guard and Charles Garnett, also a former National Guard member. Before the camp is overrun, they find a soldier escorting a man named Alvin Murphy. Murphy is the man from the lab who was attacked after receiving the cure — he survived, meaning that the cure he was administered worked. They need to take him to a CDC lab in California (they’re currently residing in New York) so that they can develop a cure from his blood to give to the rest of the surviving world.
The biggest problem is that Murphy wants no part in being the savior of the human race. The cure he had been administered seems to not have worked as much as they thought, as his skin begins to deteriorate. He finds himself with strange, mental connections to the zombies around them. He eventually turns blue (then eventually goes back to his normal skin color). Then he turns red. It’s a long story. Not to mention, the CDC lab they had been looking for isn’t all it was cracked up to be, forcing them to change the direction of their mission as Murphy begins to take charge in his own way.
First and foremost, the show is a comedy. And the first two seasons seem to really push this — oftentimes placing comedy before the plot of trying to bring the unwilling Murphy to California. But as Murphy begins to realize he has certain powers (being able to control zombies, being able to bite humans and have control over them) he begins to play a much bigger — and much more dangerous part — in the story. As he begins to play a more active part in the narrative, the actual plot of the show takes the forefront. The comedy begins to support the plot, instead of the plot supporting the comedy.
“Z Nation” is currently on its fifth season, taking a political direction with the “citizenship” of talking zombies as a civilization called Newmerica begins to rise from the ashes of the apocalypse. It balances very relevant themes of the spread of fear and hatred for those we do not understand, shifting the focus of the story away from Murphy and more towards the survivors. Its zany humor still remains — talking zombies, while reflecting oppressed people in this new world, are still exactly what they are: talking zombies. And with Murphy’s red skin gaining him the title of “Lucifer,” audiences can still have a laugh while remaining on the edge of their seats as the explosive plot unfolds. This season has been incredibly engaging, with cliffhanger endings to the episodes that keep audiences wanting more.
“Z Nation’s” strength lies in its characters. Anyone familiar with the zombie genre knows that it’s mostly dominated by white, male characters with the occasional woman thrown in for the sake of romance. But “Z Nation’s” protagonist is a black woman who used to be in the National Guard, with her self-appointed “second-in-command”: a bisexual woman who suffers from legitimate PTSD. Even our own anti-hero Alvin Murphy has his own PTSD acknowledged and his fear of scientists and laboratories since the incident that defined his strange, half-zombie existence (and yes, he’s referred to as a “half-zombie”). Native American characters are portrayed by actual Native American actors, and the women on the show have their own arcs and character traits that are not defined by the male characters.
In short, “Z Nation” is refreshing, engaging and legitimately funny if one can get past the first one and a half seasons where the show is still finding its footing. Like a band releasing its first album, “Z Nation” struggled to find its direction in the beginning, despite its interesting base of the cross-country trip to save the world. The characters defy the overused, problematic tropes that often are defined by their diversity. The show does not rely on character death to move the story forward (though, beware: “Z Nation” may be funny, but beloved characters still die). Its unique and refreshing perspective on the zombie apocalypse is hopeful, humorous and touching in ways one may never expect. For anybody sick of hearing about “The Walking Dead” (or zombies in general), “Z Nation” will give you hope for the zombie genre again.
Sam Walsh is a third-year majoring in Special Ed and English with a minor in Autism Studies. SW850037@wcupa.edu