iZombie is about as sunny and optimistic as the zombie genre gets, which of course isn't all that much. Even by supernatural standards, it's a bloodthirsty canon, demanding regular sacrifices of innocents and grisly feats of skull splitting and cerebellum cannibalizing. The CW's Seattle neo-noir boasts plenty of both to please zombie aficionados, but it also proves that creators — in this case the Veronica Mars team of Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright — needn't go "grimdark" to be urgently existential.
It helps that the midseason replacement is dazzlingly, tirelessly witty. The series' fizzy, pop-culture-savvy dialogue — along with its buildup of the weekly murder mysteries into a larger conspiracy story and its depressive but determined, petite-blonde amateur-sleuth protagonist (Rose McIver) — has earned iZombie a reputation among fans and critics as Veronica Mars methadone. The comparison is made easier still by the series' aim for the sweet spot between Y.A. and adult — a tricky and unsurprisingly infrequent demographic target that inspires cultish adoration (Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life).
An acute attention to human relationships distinguished those shows — a tradition iZombie continues. Buttoned-up E.R. medic Liv Moore (McIver) barely gets to live out her dream as a doctor before she's transformed on a boat party that ends in literal flames into a food-obsessed, melanin-deprived, super-strong ultra-insomniac who hasn't slept for six months. Uncertain of the dangers she might pose to her loved ones, she breaks up with her fiancé, Major (Robert Buckley), and conceals her condition from everyone except her new boss at the morgue, medical examiner Ravi (Rahul Kohli), who's confident that he can cure her through science.
The morgue is also Liv's source for brain-meat — a Faustian fodder that imbues her with some of the traits and memories of the person she ate. Do-gooder that she is, Liv uses these flashes of remembrance to pose as a police psychic — "I'm a crime-fighting zombie," she chirps at the beginning of each episode — to help out homicide detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin). Most intriguingly, Liv gradually uncovers a larger underworld of zombies — still unknown to us fleshbags — all sired by Blaine (David Anders), the same Billy Idol–ish, smooth-talking maniac who turned her.
I'm not gonna lie: iZombie isn't as good as Veronica Mars. But with just 13 episodes in its first season — 11 of which have aired thus far — it hasn't had the chance yet. (The last five episodes are on Hulu, while the previous installments are available for purchase on demand.) The promise is there: The cast is stellar, and the writers skillfully weave together the various plot threads while inspiring our confidence in the universe they've created.
Its charms are many, but here are five reasons why iZombie is the summer's most underrated series:
1. It breathes new life into the zombie genre through sly variations. As you've probably figured out by now, Liv is no brain-slouch, but every bit as smart and as funny as she used to be. But the best among Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright's deviations from conventional zombie lore are the contemporary, day-to-day touches on how zombies take pleasure (artisanal preparations of brain-meat) and disguise themselves in mainstream society (the undead are apparently keeping the tanning industry alive). For a show that trades in (light) gore, iZombie is a bracingly accurate mirror of our food-obsessed times. It's probably not too long before versions of the curries and terrines with skull offal from the villainous Blaine's "Meat Cute" deli begin popping up in Brooklyn.
2. It's a superhero story anyone can relate to. Given its comic-book origins (which I blame for the series' and main character's dopey names), it's no surprise that Liv goes all Peter Parker–y and takes a vow of angsty monkdom after her great powers give her too much responsibility. What comes out of that predictable development, though, is a highly relatable tale of how much self-isolation can make one feel, well, not-so-human. It's thus exciting to see Liv, who understands people on a superhuman level but can't be one of them, embracing not just a midseason romance with a fellow zombie (Bradley James), but discovering how much abnegation, like abstinence, just makes you hungrier for what you're denying yourself.
3. McIver and the rest of the cast can do anything. Try to name a standout cast member on iZombie, and you'd be hard-pressed. With his dashing British accent and effervescent comic chemistry with McIver, Kohli is certainly a frontrunner. But Anders gives Kohli a run for his money as a chatty ghoul, injecting the series with an entrepreneurial malevolence that seems to fit right in with the rest of this technologically cutting-edge, hyper-gentrifying-into–San Francisco version of Seattle. But the show belongs, of course, to McIver, who breezily takes on different personality traits every week, convincingly delivers earnest voiceover monologues about learning to live again and mercurially dispenses both the funny (Liv's hunger for food) and the tragic (her realization that she probably can't have children).
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4. Its world-building is thrillingly, frighteningly detailed. Other than McIver's snarky one-liners, iZombie stands up best to Veronica Mars through its world-building, which encompasses both Washington State color and Blaine's start-up empire, which he seems to grow by siring more zombies, then extorting money from them in exchange for food. The source of human meat, however, is tragically realistic, as are the more rarefied requests the zombie businessman receives from chichi clients used to getting the best (or at least the most esoteric), no matter the cost.
5. It's a crime procedural that actually cares about the victims. iZombie's cases of the week admittedly aren't its forte. If you've seen a procedural or two, you can generally guess who the killer is fairly early on in the investigation. And yet the show deserves recognition for not treating its victims as anonymous dead bodies, but as individuals with unique histories, talents and temperaments. The show's honest enough to admit that not everyone's worth mourning, as with an agoraphobic professional gamer/online troll whose decomposing remains Liv dreads slurping — she doesn't want to relate in any way to a Napoleonic fiend who wantonly destroyed lives from his basement. But the victims' idiosyncrasies also remind Liv — and us — that despite our specialness, most of us don't leave much behind when we go, if anything at all. Harder still is the constant and eternal struggle to not just exist or survive, but really live. Even for zombies.
Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.