There’s little doubt that when it comes to mainstream shows about the zombie apocalypse, The Walking Dead is the one most undead fans tune into each week. However, when it comes to character development, story arcs and an overall sense of entertainment, a high production budget doesn’t always translate into a consistently high quality show. Over the course of six seasons, The Walking Dead has managed to raise a very large fan base and has situated itself nicely at the top of Zombie Mountain – but that doesn’t mean The Walking Dead hasn’t been without its share of flaws.
Since season 2, critics and fans alike have taken issue with many aspects of the show. Killing off almost every minority character for no real reason, splitting the story arcs into multiple narratives, plodding storylines, a mind-numbing amount of exposition and other nagging issues constantly plague the show. However, one show has been quietly eating into the zombie television landscape and, in many ways, has grown to become a more well-rounded and enjoyable show – Z Nation.
It would be easy to dismiss the Syfy original show because it’s produced by The Asylum. After all, they are the same studio who gave the world Sharknado, Snakes on a Train and cheese-fest known as Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus. Yet, after a rocky start, the writers discovered they didn’t need to be cheesy to be entertaining. Somewhere after the fifth episode of the series, the show took a big leap in terms of writing, acting, and production value – making it a show you SHOULD be watching.
With that said, here is Why You Should Be Watching Z Nation Instead of The Walking Dead…
10. Characters act like they’re actually in an apocalypse
Too often, stories set in an apocalyptic world refuse to allow their characters to act in a realistic way. Granted, realism can take a backseat in a show involving zombified humans roaming the earth, but that doesn’t mean characters should be constantly brooding or acting like imbeciles – something The Walking Dead does on a fairly consistent basis.
Created by Craig Engler and Karl Schaefer (Eerie, Indiana, Strange Luck), Z Nation is made up of a core group of individuals – Warren (Kellita Smith), Doc (Russell Hodgkinson), 10K (Nat Zang), Addy (Anastasia Baranova), Murphy (Keith Allan) and Citizen Z (DJ Qualls). With the exception of Citizen Z, the group follows the leadership of Warren (a smart, tough and stable, yet emotionally vulnerable woman). She’s leading them to California in order to deliver Murphy (a convict who may hold the key to finding a cure) to the U.S. military. During their journey, Citizen Z gives them guidance from a military outpost in Antarctica.
Along the way, the group reacts to the world around them in ways that, while occasionally can be tongue-in-cheek, seems more plausible than anything in The Walking Dead: (i.e., not marching a thousand zombies down the street, baking acorn cookies, or dumping fuel into a water source then blowing it up with an RPG.)
9. Very few annoying characters
Even the biggest fans of The Walking Dead will admit the show is filled with so many annoying characters that most actually cheer when those people eventually meet their demise. Lori, Bob, Andrea, Eugene, Father Gabriel, Milton, and Sam Anderson are just a few of the annoying characters who dot the show’s landscape – five of which became zombie food without any fans shedding a tear.
In stark contrast, Z Nation has only one really annoying character for audiences to contend with – Citizen Z. It’s not entirely his fault that the character comes off as annoying, but DJ Qualls (whose typecast acting is an acquired taste) does his best with the limited role he’s been given. If he wasn’t isolated at the bottom of the world and had another character to interact with besides a dog, Pup, perhaps the character would be better. However, if Citizen Z was to ever simply disappear from the Z Nation’s story, I don’t think anyone would complain or even notice.
8. No toss away characters
The Walking Dead has a very bad habit of introducing new characters, integral to the story, and unceremoniously killing them off when they’ve served their narrative purpose instead of having to deal with them in future episodes. There has to be a better way to write characters in and out of a story without killing them off as if they were villains in a superhero movie (looking at you Batman, Spider-Man 2, and Man of Steel). It’s a lazy way to deal with the complications which arise by introducing dozens of characters over the course of a show’s run. There’s no need to “red shirt” them.
The writers on Z Nation have found a way to bring in select characters at the proper time and when they are no longer needed, shelve them until the time the story calls for their return. Two great examples are the con men known as Sketchy (Mark Carr) and Skeezy (Doug Dawson). The group first ran into these two guys at a gun show/shooting contest in episode seven of the first season, but then they disappeared until seventh episode of season 2. “Down the Mississippi” is one of the show’s most entertaining episodes and had those two been dispatched early on, then it never could have happened.
7. No split narratives
The Walking Dead has such a huge core cast, that often the writers will split the group up, allowing smaller characters to have a larger role in the overall story arc. Though many fans enjoy this technique, the storytelling method has its fair share of detractors. Splitting the narrative in this manner is a good way to bog the story down and can lead to glaring plot holes or worse, an incoherent story. More often than not, it leaves many characters simply “spinning their wheels” or stuck in story limbo.
Z Nation, on the other hand, doesn’t waste time with such devices. With few exceptions, the entire group is always together, and on the occasion one of them is kidnapped or separated from the pack, they ALL go looking for them. There’s no, “Wait here at the church while the rest of us go off looking for the others,” or “I’m a loner who needs to search by myself until I need the others to rescue me,” nonsense going on. The show is single-minded when it comes to moving the overall plot forward – which means no meaningless side-stories to weigh it down. Which brings us to our next point…
6. The show has an actual end game
The characters and plot on The Walking Dead wander aimlessly from season-to-season (like one of the Walkers they are constantly putting down), always searching for either a lost member of the group, some elusive safe haven or trying to rebuild their lives at a soon-to-be doomed location (a farm, a prison, and two towns). Their only goal seems to be survival, but at every turn they do something which impedes or sabotages the very thing that would help them achieve that goal. If you want peace, you don’t go out looking for war – this specifically applies to second half of season 6.
From the very first episode, one thing has been driving the motives and actions of the entire group on Z Nation – get Murphy to the military outpost in California. Why? Murphy was a convicted felon who unwillingly “volunteered” to be part of a military experiment in search for a cure to the zombie outbreak. He’s the only person known to have survived a zombie bite and not turn – obviously that makes him important – so getting him into the hands of the right scientist is imperative. While there are twists in the overall story along the way, the show never forgets or strays too far away from the main objective.
5. Improved writing from episode to episode
In terms of writing, both from a character and story perspective, The Walking Dead started out very good. For the entire first and second seasons, viewers were actually on the edge of their seats as the foundation was laid for future episodes. But somewhere along the way, the writers determined that extended sessions of dialog-free brooding and interesting (realistic) character development, should be replaced by a spectacular season opener, a mild-cliffhanger mid-season finale and huge cliffhanger season finale.
Truthfully, the first few episodes of Z Nation were hard to watch. The series started out like anything else produced The Asylum for the Syfy Channel. Abrupt character introductions, cheesy one liners, and unrealistic situations to which characters had unrealistic responses plagued the series. However, at some point, the writers realized they had a chance to make the show something better than it was. The writing tightened up, characters were given proper screen time and developed soundly – so much so, that when one of them dies, the viewers are engaged enough to actually feel it on some emotional level.
4. Creative zombie kills
It’s no secret the showrunners behind The Walking Dead have always said the series would be about the characters and not the zombies – but that doesn’t mean dispatching the undead monsters has to become mundane. In the show there are three preferred ways to kill a zombie: a shot to the head (via bullet or crossbow bolt), a knife to the skull, or a katana across the head. While all these methods are tried and true (and practical in most instances), they have become….boring.
In contrast, Z Nation has devised all sorts of unique ways to dispose of zombies, or Zs, that are both inventive and, dare we say, fun. While there are plenty of knife kills, headshots (by firearms or 10K’s trusty slingshot), and skull bashing present in the series, the show has gone out of its way to come up with interesting methods of dealing with these nuisances. We have two favorites: The Liberty Bell Death Roll from “Philly Feast” (HERE) and the Giant Cheese Wheel O’ Death from “Zombaby!” (HERE). Both are presented in a humorous way that lighten the mood in a apocalyptic world that is often filled with too much seriousness.
3. Unique zombie characters
There are two types of zombies in The Walking Dead – the “alive” kind (those meandering around) and the “dead” kind (those no longer a threat). That’s pretty much the extent of the creativity when it comes to seeing zombies on the show. Sure, the occasional off-kilter zombie will make an appearance (such as the zombie in the well from season 2), but those cameos are few and far between. While the makeup effects are stellar, every one of the creatures looks the same – except for when the show calls for them to look familiar, (like Father Gabriel’s former church secretary.)
Whether it’s because Z Nation doesn’t have quite have the budget enjoyed by The Walking Dead, or it’s a conscious decision on the part the creative team, the show has given viewers so many interesting zombie choices that it would be tough to limit our favorites to just one or two. A bus full of Abraham Lincoln impersonators, pigtail-wearing cheerleaders, an entire small town parade complete with people in costumes, radioactive zombies, a sheep, a bear and even a plant zombie can all be found throughout the first two seasons. With no signs of slowing that trend down, fans will surely see these unique zombies ramp up in season 3.
2. The show isn’t afraid to take chances
Every time it appears The Walking Dead is about to let its characters make a choice that would develop them in a way that would be contrary to the norm, they either back out or they are killed off. There’s absolutely no reason for some of these characters to still be alive (looking at you Carl, Glen and Judith). So instead of taking a chance creatively to see how the story might unfold by allowing something unpopular happen, the writers just casually toss it aside as a red herring or dismiss it entirely by ignoring any problem logic might dictate. An exception to this argument would be when Carol chose to murder Lizzie.
While Z Nation is very much a by-the-numbers serial drama, it hasn’t been afraid to try new things – whether they work or not. The biggest of these risks revolves around two babies: one who was zombified early on, and one that was born as a result of procreating with The Murphy. The show didn’t veer away from killing an infant (something other shows are often hesitant to do) and actually doubled-down by turning it into (horrible-CGI) zombie baby. They doubled-down again when one of the main characters was forced to shoot that baby in the head. Is it tasteless? Probably, but it was definitely a risk.
1. The show doesn’t take itself so seriously
While parts of The Walking Dead have proven to be entertaining (even if mildly), the show is constantly one long bummer. We know a world set in an post-apocalyptic world filled with zombies, cannibals, and a never ending supply of bad guys (who have a knack for always showing up at season finales) isn’t going to be a happy place per se, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be some levity and hope inserted from time-to-time.
This area is where Z Nation excels and has found a niche. Between Abraham Lincoln zombies, the Cheese Wheel O’ Death kills, Murphy having blue skin, Citizen Z surviving alone in Antarctica, and getting characters high on “Z Weed” (seriously, it’s marijuana fertilized by zombies), the show never lets its story get too weighed down with intense philosophical debate. There have been episodes staged at corporate retreats, an underground facility along the Mexican border and even an extraterrestrial encounter set near Area 51. It’s refreshing to see an invading zombie horde approached from a different, more humorous, angle for once.
We realize this won’t be a very popular opinion. It would be easy for most people reading this article to dismiss it as being controversial, but if you take the time to watch Z Nation you’ll see that it has turned into a quality show over the last two years – making our points valid.