In the US: Fridays, 10/9c, Syfy
When I watched Syfy’s Dominion in June and declared it to be a contender to be the worst TV programme ever made, I assumed that its awfulness was a mistake, the result of some bad creative decisions. Who would deliberately make something so terrible you’d rather sandpaper your own knees for a week than watch another episode?
But having watched Syfy’s Z Nation, I’m going to have to overturn this assumption because it seems that Syfy’s new programming strategy is to develop shows so deliberately bad that people can only watch them ironically. I suspect the root cause of it all was Sharknado, but to be honest, it doesn’t matter, because let’s face it, Syfy hasn’t made a decent original show in years.
Where Dominion tapped into what I assumed was a comparatively small market – people who like to watch angels firing guns at each other in quasi-futuristic settings based on movies that no one watched – Z Nation tries to exploit a much bigger audience: people who love The Walking Dead. This is, of course a show that airs on AMC, a network that normally breaks open the champagne whenever its ratings creep above three million, so The Walking Dead’s 14 million per episode is somewhat akin to having Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans turn up with vintage Taittinger, a large block of gold and the deeds to a small Caribbean island in AMC’s offices every week.
Naturally, Syfy would try to tap into that audience with something that’s almost exactly the same, just cheaper and, given its new programming strategy, colossally stupid. Eschewing all that annoying characterisation and plotting that The Walking Dead’s showrunners mistakenly think people care about, Z Nation instead gets down to recreating the aesthetics of a low-budget Sega Megadrive first-person shooter from the 90s, with a motley bunch of highly untrained actors being given weapons and told to pretend to be Delta Force (sic) soldiers, prisoners, survivalists et al in a post-apocalyptic world where most people have been turned by a virus into zombies. Their prime directive? Hit things in the head a lot so that blood goes everywhere.
In common with the infinitely superior and thankfully zombie-free The Last Ship, there’s a last best chance for a cure who needs to be shepherded somewhere; there’s also a lone soldier at an HQ somewhere trying to rally the world together using the NSA’s communications systems, a Good Morning Vietnam microphone and, improbably for a a high-tech communications centre, a record player and some LPs.
But although there are one or two good ideas in there, everything about Z Nation’s execution is appalling. While there’s a certain element of irony in the show, which knows it’s not brilliant and wants to have a little fun at least, the dialogue is on a par with ‘All Your Base Are Belong To Us’, the plot utterly generic, the characters nicked wholesale from The Walking Dead’s supporting cast, the characterisation so perfunctory that you’d be hard-pressed even to remember any of the characters’ names, the acting sub-Wing Commander and the action so badly choreographed, you’ll assume that everyone’s under some form of remote control run using a 33.3k modem.
There are perhaps four surprises in the utterly generic first episode. One of these is that the show is co-created by Karl Schaefer, who co-created the deeply fun and interesting Eerie, Indiana back in the 1990s. You seriously would never have guessed from the drekfest on display. The second is that innovatively the show kills off the cast’s biggest name – Harold Perrineau from Lost – before the end, which means also that there’s one fewer reason to watch the show as a result.
And of the remaining surprises, the underlying hint of irony means that they end up having all the impact and drama of discovering that one crisp you were saving at the bottom of your pack of Golden Wonders is actually a little smaller than you were expecting. And most of the time, you’ll be laughing when you should be hiding behind the sofa.
If you make it through even the first 10 minutes, I really will be surprised. If you make it through to the end, I’ll assume it’s because you’re obligated to because of your job, you’re being blackmailed or you’ve undergone some kind of traumatic head wound. But even if you intend to watch it ironically, laughing at how bad it is, it’s worth remembering that The Strain at least has some qualities that will make watching it bearable; Z Nation just hopes that by being rubbish, you’ll watch it. Don’t waste your time.