In the ’90s, we had Buffy. In the aughts, we had Veronica Mars. Now, we have the brain-eating, crime-solving doctor Liv Moore of iZombie.
To say that iZombie, the new CW show from Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero—which airs the final episode of its very enjoyable first season Tuesday night—is a pale imitation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars (also created by Thomas) is somewhat accurate. But it also completely undersells the show’s greatness. Sure, Liv, the undead main character, played by Kiwi actress Rose McIver, is, thanks to her zombie-ness, a paler, blonder version of Veronica Mars’ Kristen Bell. But iZombie is still a totally singular take on the beloved trope of the smart-talking, bad-guy-zapping, kick ass comic book–like heroine—which somehow seems to come along only once a decade (nope, CBS’s upcoming Supergirl definitely doesn’t count).
In the show’s pilot, Liv, an ambitious young doctor engaged to a good looking, all-American guy named Major Lilywhite (yep), played by Robert Buckley, goes on a booze cruise and gets mauled by a zombie and therefore becomes a zombie. She breaks off her engagement because, well, she’s a zombie, and moves from being a doctor who saves lives to working in the morgue, where brains are readily available. There, she meets her boss Ravi (Rahul Kohli), who is completely unfazed when he figures out she’s a zombie, and sets out to work on a cure.
One of the show’s greatest conceits is what happens after Liv eats the brains—she has flashes of the dead person’s life, typically their final moments, and joins homicide Det. Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) to solve the mystery of their death, which, of course, is never quite what we expect.* Similar to the opening of each episode of Six Feet Under, each episode of iZombie drops hints about a new character who has recently died—their death, and their life, serve as the procedural-like storyline that makes up the A-plot of the episode while still informing the larger, season-long arc of the show. Most of this is explained in the show’s excellent comic-illustrated opening credits that pay credence to its very loose inspiration: the 2010 comic book of the same name.
Of course, the past few years have seen a rise in powerful women solving other people’s problems while seemingly unable to solve their own, thanks in part to Scandal and The Good Wife. But the tradition of female protagonists that Liv falls into—with their comic-book-esque mix of high human stakes and wild fantasy—is different. It’s not that they all traffic in the supernatural—Veronica wasn’t a supernatural character, even if her powers often felt like they were. Like all good comic heroes, these characters are each a certain kind of outcast; a girl who would be, should be popular, but then a terrible event changes everything. Their home lives are messes and they can’t seem to explain their own complicated backstory, and, even if they could, no one would really understand. Instead, they assemble motley crews of sidekicks and together they solve other people’s problems—in the process, of course, solving their own. For Buffy and Veronica this started in high school, but Liv is already a doctor—which makes for an interesting twist on the comic-book coming-of-age story. A slightly older protagonist, one might say, makes sense for a show targeted at a segment of millennials still in the throes of their own post-college identity crises. In iZombie, Liv literally gets to live out other people’s lives in the process of figuring out who she wants to be.
In addition to experiencing flashes from the lives of the people whose brains she eats, she begins to embody many of their characteristics—when she ate the brain of an alcoholic, she became an alcoholic. When her boyfriend at the time, another zombie, ate the brains of a gay man, he no longer felt attracted to her. As soon as these characters eat new brains, the old flashes and feelings are replaced by new ones. Each character Liv embodies after eating their brain—as you’d expect from any good dramedy—helps her learn a bit more about herself.
The show, needless to say, is not perfect: The mythology is not as fully imagined as it was on, say, Buffy (where exactly do these zombies come from and do they only exist in Seattle, where the show takes place?) and it’s thus far missing one of the greatest strengths of both Buffy and Veronica Mars: the portrayal of supportive and also extremely intelligent female friendships. Liv is surrounded by a fascinating collection of ethnically diverse men, but her powerful best friend and roommate, who works in the DA’s office, all but disappeared until the final, crucial moments of the penultimate episode of the season, when she finds out Liv’s secret. Still, the show seems to be on track to flesh out its protagonist and her world even more when it returns to the CW—a network that is picking up steam with innovative shows like Jane the Virgin—for Season 2. iZombie’s Liv has the potential to be better than an imitation; she could be a new kind of heroine altogether.
Correction, June 10, 2015: This post originally misspelled Malcolm Goodwin’s first name.