The 21st century has been a boom time for those in search of brains — at least to eat. Zombies beget zombies — the Danny Boyle–directed thriller 28 Days Later gave us the prestige-TV horror franchise The Walking Dead; the British zinger-fest Shaun of the Dead cleared space for the Jane Austen reboot Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Why so many zombies? They’re fine stand-ins for your unseemly mass movement of choice, from frothing comment-section ranters to overserved SantaCon revelers.
But iZombie, which just wrapped up its third season on the teen-at-heart network the CW (and is now available for Netflix bingeing), succeeds because of how it humanizes the brain-munchers in a zombies-are-people-too way. Olivia “Liv” Moore was once an ambitious Seattle medical resident until an ill-fated decision to attend a party led to her joining the ranks of the undead. In season one, as other Seattle zombies adopt a tan-and-dye strategy to blend in among the living, she lets her hair and skin go white, her goth exterior mirroring a deep depression. Afraid of infecting everyone around her, she splits with her all-American fiancé and gets a job at the King County morgue, where she can put her medical know-how to work and score a steady supply of brains to feed on, lest her hunger shift into a rampage-fueling hangriness.
The feeding is central to iZombie’s conceit in two ways: The show’s Liv-makes-a-meal sequences are some of the most lovingly photographed food prep this side of Chopped. And the chili dogs and PB(&B)&J wraps that Liv munches on not only provide sustenance, they give her the memories and mannerisms of the brains’ former owners. This being the morgue, many of those brains come from murder victims, presenting Liv a weekly opportunity to help a detective in the Seattle Police Department, the world-weary romantic Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin), solve crimes.
iZombie’s per-episode murder plots are often shaggy-dog stories meant to advance the series’ greater arc, namely, what happens in a major American city when a threat arises from within and shadowy people — evil capitalists, the Mob, a government military contractor — have huge investments in not letting that secret get out. But the “eat the brain, become the victim” twist allows Rose McIver, the New Zealand–born actress who plays Liv, to show off her comic skills as she filters a shifting set of behaviors through her central character. She chows down on the brains of an office gossip and begins obsessively jawing about everyone’s problems; eats the cerebral cortex of a preschool teacher and suddenly starts treating everyone in her life like they’re an overstimulated four-year-old; and snacks on the gray matter of a sexually liberated woman before turning into a martini-sipping vamp on the hotel-bar prowl. Liv’s partner in the morgue, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (played with exasperated yet charming gusto by British actor Rahul Kohli), is in on Liv’s undead state, but not everyone is, and the complications can seem a little sitcom-formulaic after a while.
Dr. Ravi’s search for a zombie cure means some characters shift between human and undead; zombie rules mean some characters who are killed reappear later. A beneficiary of both is brain dealer Blaine DeBeers (Robert Buckley), a so-bad-he’s-good guy who makes Seattle-appropriate music references while keeping the law enforcement team on their toes. Blaine brings to mind an updated version of Spike, the punky vampire antihero of the similarly situated Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and at one point he gets romantically involved with Liv’s best friend, Seattle assistant district attorney Peyton Charles (ex-teenpopper Aly Michalka).
iZombie is loosely adapted from the DC Comics series by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, who also shepherded the beach-town detective story Veronica Mars through its cult-beloved three-seasons-and-a-movie run. Both shows revolve around pugnacious heroines who buck the system, crack wise, and untangle clues that point to wider corruption in their communities. The similarities don’t stop there: Featured actors like just-this-side-of-smarmy bro Jason Dohring, surfer-dude smoothie Ryan Hansen, and comic genius Ken Marino turn up in both series, and Thomas and Ruggiero-Wright have a penchant for too-cute names for in-universe entities — iZombie has, among others, Liv Moore (get it?); a military contractor called Fillmore Graves; and an FBI agent named after Dale Bozzio, the singer of Eighties synthpoppers Missing Persons. (Veronica Mars’s winks were a bit more reined in, although giving one of Veronica’s college antagonists the name “Tim Foyle” should count at least double.)
But iZombie’s flipping of the zombie-story script, particularly this go-round, gives it extra dramatic heft. Season one revolved around the pain of Liv’s breaking ties with her family and friends; season two was about zombie-on-zombie bonds, and the greedy businessman who might be behind the city’s growing population of brain-eaters; season three is more politically loaded, with one of many antagonist groups a militia-like bunch of zombie conspiracy theorists who will do anything to keep Seattle pure. Do they gather online and listen to talk radio? Of course they do. But the presentation isn’t heavy-handed, although it very easily could be.
iZombie will be back for season four at some point in the next year or so. The CW’s short-run seasons and heavy series load mean that its exact premiere date could be pushed off until spring. But its snappy plots, fizzy dialogue, and fine performances from its vast cast — some of whom are undead, others almost there — make it an excellent show to binge-watch on a summer day when going outside seems like too much to bear. When the world seems crueler than cruel, it’s nice to be reminded that even those beings who chow down on brains can have a heart.