Even way back in the distant past of 2009, the zombie genre was beginning to feel a little… well, dead.
Credit, then, should go to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writers who gave us “Zombieland,” a movie that managed to pull off the all-too-rare balancing act of keeping the comedy parts funny and the scary parts scary, and still retaining a cohesive whole.
Fans enjoyed it, critics approved, box office was solid, and even the famously unpredictable Woody Harrelson was champing at the bit to return to a rare zombie franchise that actually felt new and interesting.
A sequel seemed a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, “no brains” is exactly what tends to stop zombies, and this proved no exception. With years ticking by and a sequel looking increasingly unlikely, Reese and Wernick have turned their attention to the fledgling Amazon production company and turned Zombieland into a TV pilot, with hopes of a series. The pilot has just premiered, exclusively on Lovefilm in the UK.
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It would be all too easy to dismiss the idea out of hand because of the shocking pedigree of Lovefilm. History is full of technological Thunderdomes – two formats enter, one format leaves. Unfortunately, Lovefilm is the BETAmax of streaming services. It’s the HD-DVD of downloads. The war is over, and Netflix has categorically won, leaving Lovefilm feeling like those last few struggling video shops, offering little choice, no big titles, and a faint sense of embarrassment that you’re even browsing there at all.
Still, Lovefilm insists on continuing. Given that it’s dead and refuses to lie down, it’s quite fitting that they should attempt a comeback by hosting exclusive content and start with a zombie series.
How have they done?
Meh. Not great.
“Zombieland – The TV Series” starts off well – the opening scene is genuinely funny and suitably gory, but almost immediately, we run into the biggest problem: The casting.
Introduced to Kirk Ward’s Tallahassee, you can’t escape the thought that this is resolutely not Woody Harrelson you’re watching. Not even close. Ditto the rest of the cast; they’re game, but they only ever feel like a tribute act to a great original; the zombie show equivalent of the Rolling Clones, or Not The Hoople. Kirk Ward in particular deserves a critical ass-kicking. Harrelson’s Tallahassee was a bald, glowering avatar of barely suppressed rage. Ward, in comparison, is an overacting, over-hairy cartoon character.
What little plot there is is thin and frustrating, seeking to undo a lot of the good work done by the movie. The entire character arc of Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus in the film was that he had to learn to be brave and care about people, and as a result he won the girl (Emma Stone’s Wichita.)
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Except that wouldn’t work for the series, so now Wichita (played by the spellcheck-impervious Maiara Walsh) has gone off Columbus (Tyler Ross) again, and we’re back to square-one. The rest of the pilot revolves around the group seeking out other survivors because they’re lonely, which not only undermines a key theme of the film but also feels contrived. We’re asked to believe that this pilot takes place a scant two months after the initial outbreak of the zombie virus. There’s no reason that we’re given this time frame, in particular, and it makes it hard to believe that cabin fever could have set in for our heroes so soon.
Tellingly, the scenes that work best are the scenes that don’t include the four central characters. The opening scene is a standout, but so is the admittedly obligatory-feeling “zombie kill of the week” scene. Some of the best ideas come in the form of tragicomic zombie slapstick, but it’s hard to shake the notion that this could all have been done in the same world as the movie, but without having to use pale facsimilies of the original characters.
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I really wanted to like “Zombieland – The Series”, but so far I’m not convinced. At 25 minutes, the pilot feels half-assed, and the lack of familiar faces in what’s meant to be a familiar setting is just too jarring.
Maybe I’m wrong – maybe it’ll work out the way “M*A*S*H” did – but on first viewing, I can’t bring myself to recommend this series wholeheartedly. The best I can say is that I hope it improves, because maybe it’ll surprise us and become something special. Sadly, in the increasingly competitive world of TV, a pilot that “might have potential” is probably not going to be strong enough to survive.