Rob Thomas’ new show premieres next Tuesday, and the question on many viewers’ minds has been: Could it be the second coming of his cult hit “Veronica Mars”?
That show, cancelled in 2007 after two strong seasons and a third weaker one, was in turn the second coming of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Set in the California town of Neptune (rather than Sunnydale), “Veronica” gave us another tough, sardonic, diminutive heroine who spent week after week taking down monsters, in whatever guise they came, while still trying to have a life.
Of course, life isn’t in the cards for Olivia Moore (Rose McIver), the protagonist of Thomas’ new show, who’s bitten in the pilot by a marauding band of the undead and wakes up as one of them. (Her nickname’s Liv, get it?) Mortality status aside, how does she stack up against the much-missed Ms. Mars (Kristen Bell), who remains one of my all-time favorite female TV characters?
Stylistically, the two shows have much in common. The music feels very similar, as does the overall look. Olivia’s dark, hoodie-centric sartorial choices are very reminiscent of Veronica’s. And both shows rely on noir-inflected voiceover from their stars:
Then there’s the question of attitude. “Veronica Mars” had snark for days, which was a large part of its appeal. The dialogue was reliably smart, quick, quippy, and playful, and Bell’s delivery was pitch-perfect.
Four episodes in, “iZombie” seems to still be finding its voice. It’s a fundamentally likable one, and McIver does bring a similar punchy confidence to the role.
But the writing’s not quite there; it’s not having as much fun as “Veronica Mars” always did, especially with the recurring theme of intellectually showing up bullies and bigots. This is partly a byproduct of its subject matter, I think; there’s not as much room for small-stakes banter in a straight-ahead crime show as there is in one that’s set partly in high school (and then in college). Veronica worked as a detective, and there was always a case to be solved, but it usually felt like the B-plot in any given episode.”iZombie” has steered itself more toward the type of sensationalist murder cases we’re familiar with from half a dozen other procedurals (though I bet none of their caseworkers ever ingested the cerebellum of a victim). I’m a little surprised Thomas and his writers think we really care that much about the crime-of-the-week. That’s not why his fans — of “Veronica,” or of his Starz comedy “Party Down” — are here. And focusing so much on that leaves little time for repartee between Liv and her adorable British co-worker (Rahul Kohli), or the lingering tension between her and the fiancé she left after becoming zombified, or what’s up with a very Spike-evocative fellow zombie (David Anders) Liv discovers is also living in Seattle.
On a more positive note, the theme of invincibility is a big one here. Veronica was, in her way, a superhero: Tiny though she was, she always managed to triumph when things got physically threatening. She didn’t have super-strength like Buffy, but she did have a Taser and a pit bull named Backup. Liv gets to flesh out the idea of the seemingly helpless blonde who’ll tear your head off if you cross her. When she’s threatened, she goes into “full-on zombie mode,” which is fun to watch (though I can’t help shaking my head a little at her use of the “you got your ass kicked by a girl” line, which feels outdated).
I think “iZombie” makes its biggest misstep in much the same way Whedon went off the rails with one of his later shows, “Dollhouse.” When Liv eats a brain, she takes on some of the personality traits and memories of its original owner – making her excellent at tracking down their killers, but also changing her personality and behavior with each episode. Likewise, the conceit of “Dollhouse” saw Whedon’s cast of mostly female characters having their memories wiped clean every week so they could be hired out for use in various tawdry scenarios. Eliza Dushku, whose character Faith rivaled Sarah Michelle Gellar in ass-kickingness in “Buffy,” finally got her own show – and was promptly turned into a sort of generic Charlie’s Angel.
In both cases, the deflating result is that the strong heroines we want to grow attached to disappear into the less-interesting procedural elements of a show – leaving not enough time for us to get to know who they truly are. In my more conspiracy-minded moments, I might wonder if both creative decisions came about as a result of strong-female-heroine fatigue at some executive level. Buffy/Veronica too sassy? Just dial her down a bit in her new iteration – she can be anyone you want! I get that the underlying message of “Dollhouse” may have been meta-commentary on the way TV shows treat women, or even of the top-down direction of that very show — but it didn’t come off that way.
But this doesn’t have to be the fate of “iZombie.” If it can find its voice — and raise its confidence in Liv as a character who’s interesting enough to hold our focus — it might have a chance at winning over the “Veronica” audience. Provided they stick around long enough to see it happen.