In the Era of Prestige Television, CBS’s ‘Zoo’ Is a Delightfully Terrible Outlier

Zoo may be a uniquely terrible series, but this author’s appreciation of it is anything but ironic.
By  · Published on July 21st, 2017

Zoo may be a uniquely terrible series, but this author’s appreciation of it is anything but ironic.

I take no pleasure in hate-watching a television show or film. I’ve never seen The Room, and even if I had, I would undoubtedly still have mixed feelings about The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s upcoming parody of (or love letter to) Tommy Wiseau’s infamous debut feature. For my money, people who ‘hate-watch’ a show or describe a movie as ‘good-bad’ simply lack the integrity to admit they genuinely enjoy what they’re consuming. So I’m not going to tell you that I’m hate-watching Zoo on Netflix, because that’s not true; I genuinely look forward to turning on an episode at the end of every single night. Instead, let me say that I’m watching a show I think I love despite the fact that it does some things worse than any scripted piece of fiction I’ve ever seen before in my life. Are you hooked yet? You should be.

I’m not the first critic to go passionately to bat for Josh Applebaum’s ridiculous television show about a mutation pandemic that causes animals to take over the world. That honor goes to Uproxx’s Brian Grubb, who has defended Zoo as one of the greatest shows on television for several years now. Was it a sincere defense? An ironic defense? I’ll bet even Grubb can’t tell the difference anymore, but there’s no denying that we both see something in this show that defies easy explanation. If you don’t believe me, here’s an excerpt from Grubb’s Season 1, Episode 4 review, which serves as both a hilarious descriptor of the series and an accurate recap of the episode’s events:

So, that’s what happened on Zoo last night. A swarm of murderous kamikaze bats killed two Britpop-loving lesbian scientists in Antarctica. What an incredible television program.

Yep. I’ve wanted to write about Zoo since I first started watching the series two weeks ago, but I figured I owed it to myself to finish the first season before I dove in. Now that I’m solidly into the second season, I can honestly tell you that I’ve never seen anything like it before. This isn’t a SyFy made-for-TV movie that winks at its audience as it serves up another sickly dose of fluff; nor is this a self-serious doomsday show like The Walking Dead or even The Strain. Zoo is something else entirely, a series that desperately aspires to be Jurassic Park but looks upon the storytelling and dialogue of Jurassic Park III with naked envy. In short, it’s bad television, but so undeniably singular in its awfulness — and so heartfelt in what it does right — that it radiates an earnestness that practically dares you to dislike it.

On paper, the series has a fair amount of talent in its favor. Zoo is based on a novel by bestselling author James Patterson, whose books have inspired enjoyable films such as Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. Its cast includes some of the beloved character actors from Mad Men (James Wolk), Cabin in the Woods (Kristen Connolly), Game of Thrones (Nonso Anozie), and the Twilight movies (Billy Burke), none of whom are giving anything less than 110% (no phoning it in with this crowd). There is also a strong sense that Zoo knows exactly the type of pseudo-science fiction crowd-pleaser it wants to be, favoring big, bold ideas over practical execution. What other show would treat a black ops ground assault against a group of leopards — viewed remotely by the show’s protagonists via an infrared satellite — with all the gravitas of Jack Ryan’s desert attack in Patriot Games?

When Zoo is at its best, which is weirdly often, it’s ignoring all semblance of scripting in favor of outrageous ideas. This is a show that looks you in the eye and tells you, without trace of a smirk, that lions are now capable of communicating telepathically over long distances. That carnivorous rats who can now produce asexually have managed to take over a small coastal city during tourist season. That packs of small dogs— formerly domesticated — are intentionally isolating tourists in Europe so they can be eaten without discovery. Zoo is a show that can spend an entire hour introducing a character via his bittersweet personal life before unceremoniously dumping his body by the side of the road a few episodes later. Hell, it’s a show where every major character’s haircut and/or facial hair can change drastically between Season 1 and Season 2, despite no time elapsing in the narrative. If you scream dissent at the television – something I have been known to do from time to time – the show seems to shrug, as if to say, whatever, that was yesterday’s news. And rather than frustrate me, I find this approach oddly delightful.

When all is said and done, this more than anything is what makes Zoo such a delightful show. It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world for the producers to develop another series where zombies or vampires run amok; take the exact same cast and a slight adjustment to the tone, and you’d have a mediocre post-apocalyptic series whose presence would be felt on subway walls and YouTube pre-roll around the world. Instead, Zoo chooses to earnestly and emphatically present new ways for domesticated animals to kill people, refusing to take the path of least resistance and settle into a course of mediocrity. Zoo is a bad show, but my admiration for it isn’t because it’s a bad show. I like it because in an era where the path to prestige is easier than ever to follow, Zoo is marching to the beat of its own alt-rock drum. It may seem like damning with faint praise to say that Zoo is the best-possible version of a ’90s Stephen King miniseries, but if that sentence means anything at all to you, then you might be ready for all the wonders Zoo has in store.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)