[This is a review of Zoo season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
There is nothing inherently funny about an animal attack. And yet, Zoo, adapted from the novel of the same name by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, lends itself so easily to the growing tradition of unintentionally hilarious summer television on CBS – joining the ranks of the Under the Dome and Extant – that even while watching human beings menaced and attacked by lions (and I'm sure tigers and bears will fit into the equation somewhere down the line), your natural instinct won't be to shrink in terror, but to double over in a fit of laughter.
The series begins with a self-serious voiceover that asks a whale – or perhaps a muskox – of a "what if?" meant to establish the rules of the story early on, just in case you thought you were tuning into lighthearted workplace comedy set in a zoo, in which it was unclear whether it was the animals or the wacky employees who belonged in the cages! That "what if?" scenario asks: "What if, all across the globe, the animals decided 'no more'? What if they decided to fight back?"
The pseudo-contemplative voiceover is brought to you by series star James Wolk, famous for playing the alliteratively named Don Draper clone Bob Benson on Mad Men. Wolk plays a safari guide in Botswana by the name of Jackson Oz, because Simon Beastmaster and Wilson Liontamer were just too on the nose. Joining Oz is his fellow guide Abraham (Nonso Anonzie), and together the two drive tourists across the grasslands to gaze at all the wildlife the region has to offer. Oz even stops mid-tour to prove how pro-animal and just generally awesome he and Abraham are by having a Say Anything moment, wherein he holds a boombox above his head in a loving gesture to a rhino in the sights of a poacher who later exclaims he paid $200K for a "valid license to hunt that rhino!"
It's all very heroic in its own way, and it serves to establish the narrow dichotomy between friend and foe to the animal kingdom. Which is all for naught anyway, since the lions in the premiere are equal opportunity hunters who go after boombox-carrying animal lovers and deplorable publically urinating bros with equally deadly resolve. The first attack unfolds in the sort of way you'd expect; two guys in Los Angeles enjoy a late-night chat session, wherein they gripe about women and mark their territory on a bunch of containers in a dank alleyway (which may or may not be symbolic in its own right), as drunken bros with To Catch a Predator-style facial hair are wont to do. While one guy prattles on, the other is set upon by two lions who are by no means stealthy in their approach, they growl and make other lion-y noises before pouncing on their terrified victim. The other guy doesn't so much as pause (mid-sentence or mid-stream) and remains oblivious until it's too late.
The attack is an instant headline grabber and source of interest for intrepid junior reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly), who suspects the zoo's recent switch to a giant conglomerate, as its primary supplier of meat, is the real story behind the deadly attacks. Naturally, said conglomerate also owns the paper Jamie works for, meaning they don't take too kindly to her anonymous blog stating the meat is somehow tainted by chemicals and hormones, nor do they approve of her use of the word "pettifoggery," which is a dead giveaway to her editor, who proclaims Jamie has to shut down the blog if she wants to continue working for the paper (and sleeping with her direct supervisor played by Reid Scott of Veep).
Jamie wisely chooses to strike out on her own, because writing an anonymous blog titled The Girl with the Genie Tattoo (what's the Swedish word for copyright infringement?) is a great way to make a living in Los Angeles. That means leaving Dan Egan and the paper behind, so she can chat up a zoo's veterinary pathologist played by Billy Burke, who, as the show points out is not an "animal coroner," but is one of those people who prefers animals (and beer and pizza) to other people. Lucky for Jamie and for the show, Burke's misanthropic Mitch Morgan senses that something is wrong in the animal kingdom and is willing to help the plucky reporter get to the bottom of nature's revolt, telling her: "Usually when a girl gives me her number it doesn't have to do with rampaging lions." I can't imagine anyone who is that smooth with the ladies being averse to making a human connection.
While Jamie and Mitch are forming the United States leg of the When Animals Attack Task Force, Jackson and a French woman named Chloe (Nora Arnezeder) run from six hungry lions displaying the "defiant pupil" that was conveniently a part of Jackson's father's "nutty" scientific research into the pending crisis. As with all doomsayers, the elder Oz (played by Ken Olin) was written off as a kook, but now, after a close encounter with the king of the jungle, his son has become a believer.
Zoo plays with so many sci-fi tropes that it's hard to keep track of them, but you can certainly have a fun time trying. The first episode – delightfully titled 'First Blood' – is chock full of clichés and amazing lines of dialogue, like Chloe asking, "How does one get eaten to death?" and Jackson saying with a straight face, "It seems that the lions got to the radiator." Maybe you can blame the heat; it's almost certainly hot in Botswana (or Louisiana, where the series was partially shot), so, you know, maybe the temperature and the lions are having negative impact on more than the radiator of Oz' truck.
And it is summer everywhere else, too, which means, as the temperatures rise, we can expect things to get a little crazy. Perhaps, then, it's time to start celebrating CBS's burgeoning offshoot of reliably weird and laughable summertime television programs. You know, the kinds of programs where the glimpse of a lightly mauled Abraham in a tree, revealing he's still alive, mirrors the unwittingly hysterical and totally not intimidating shot of a gaggle (herd, flock, congregation?) of domesticated housecats in a tree, seemingly waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting neighborhood children who will soon be using the playground below.
Zoo is the sort of wildly inane show that either knows exactly how goofy it is, or is following through with its concept of a global animal uprising with genuine earnestness. It's hard to tell at times, but if you're looking for a reason to watch this series, trying to figure that mystery out will be the best reason you're likely to find.
Zoo continues next Tuesday with 'Fight or Flight' @9pm on CBS.