ENTERTAINMENT

'iZombie' Brings Brains, Fun And A Great Cast To The CW

03/17/2015 03:04 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015
CW

If nothing else, "iZombie" gives a critic the chance to use the word "effervescent" in relation to a program about zombies. That is a welcome incongruity, given that TV can be a little too self-consciously grim for its own good these days.

"iZombie's" leading creative force is Rob Thomas, the creator of "Veronica Mars," thus it comes as no surprise that the show features mysteries, a female lead, sparky dialogue, sassy voice-overs and actors who are adept at delivering all of the above. It is in no way deflating to learn that Thomas and his writers -- several of them "Veronica Mars" alumni -- are up to their old tricks, given that their previous detective show is still much-loved for many good reasons.

Thomas' new detective show may be lighter in tone than his previous one, but both programs have a layer of quiet mourning in them as well. Quips and undead humor aside, Olivia "Liv" Moore, like Veronica Mars, has lost something precious to her and is in the process of rebuilding a new life out of the confusing, contradictory scraps of the old one.

As formerly not-dead young doctor Liv Moore, Rose McIver is just terrific, easily moving between the melancholy and motivated sides of her character. Liv's whole life went down in flames when she got the zombie bug -- or whatever it is -- at a party. The character is no shuffling meat-sack and retains all of her ties to her old life, but she's certainly not who she used to be. The goth eye makeup may mask some of the changes she's gone through, but unknown to her family and friends, she continually struggles with a hankering for tasty, tasty brains.

After the party incident, former go-getter Liv gets a new job in Seattle's coroner's office, where she has access to brains and can hide away from the world. As it turns out, her new job also gives her the chance to help out with unsolved cases, which generally proceed at an energetic pace. Between the voice-overs and the sprightly yet crime-centered tone, you'd be forgiven for thinking of "iZombie" as an undead "Burn Notice," or perhaps a witty, CW-friendly "Dexter."

You won't see him for more than a few seconds in the show's pilot, but David Anders is among the reasons to watch beyond that capable first episode. Anders is brilliant as Blaine, a zombie-connected guy who begins to loom large in Liv's life, and it's good to see him as a series regular on a show that knows how to write for him. Ander has popped up all over the TV landscape for years, and he's always good no matter where he turns up, but his "iZombie" role is deliciously tailored to his slippery skills. He's terrific at playing smart, sarcastic characters who also exude an air of menace, and the complicated unfolding of his relationship to Liv gives the show a spine off which it can hang everything else.

The rest of the casting is excellent as well: Aly Michalka, Robert Buckley and Malcolm Goodwin handle the show's banter well, and Rahul Kohli is particularly fun as Liv's new colleague, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti. Underpinning the whole enterprise, which is based on a Vertigo comic, is a thoughtful philosophical question: Maybe Liv's life is better now that it has changed so radically. The adjustment to her new status has brought a fair amount of heartache, but she'd been on a predictable path before. Now, almost anything goes, when it comes to humans alive and dead (or dead-ish).

So those are the pluses, but there are a few things that made me wonder if "iZombie" would end up as one of those likable programs that build up unwatched on my DVR. This next part discusses some plot points from the pilot, so you might want to bow out here if you'd rather not know about them.

Like most normal humans, Liv steals office supplies from work, but for her, the pilfered supplies come in the form of brains, on the assumption that dead crime victims no longer have any use for them. Liv soon finds out that eating a person's brains gives her that victim's memories and some of his or her personality traits as well.

The first part of that formulation works fine, more or less: Liv pretends she's psychic to the cop she works with, but all of her "visions" come from her secret snacking. The second part of the show's central schtick -- that Liv takes on the personalities of the people she eats -- leaves the show on shakier ground, in some ways.

I'm not sure Liv's character is so well-established in the early going that "iZombie" can afford to start trotting out new versions of the character every week. Obviously "iZombie" can't make full use of its premise without doing that, but the show may lean into the concept too much. I couldn't escape the feeling that, despite McIver's charms, I wanted to care more about Liv than I did, and having her become a new version of herself each week somewhat impeded that process.

It's not a problem that Liv's visions speed along progress on the case of the week: Plenty of lighter procedurals have run for many years without featuring weekly crime stories that taxed viewers' brains. Yet "iZombie" needs to avoid having cases that are either too lightweight and predictable or too confusing. Of the four episodes I saw, the fourth was so convoluted that I lost interest in the case long before it was solved. And this might be a weird ding on a zombie show, but I think McIver's makeup is too heavy. Clearly "iZombie" is not going for a documentary-style tone, à la the much grosser "Walking Dead," but the fact that no one comments on how otherworldly she looks is a little odd.

The good news is that this show's building blocks are very strong. The dialogue, the world and the cast are all enjoyable, and the show simply exudes potential. It also shares a good deal of DNA with The CW's superhero shows: Liv has a secret that she can't tell many people, and her loneliness and bravery make her plight quite relatable, even if she is a kind of on the dead side.

Ryan McGee and I discussed the season finale of "The 100" as well as "iZombie" and "Powers" on this week's Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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