It's a jungle out there…
And so begins CBS new summer "mystery," 'Zoo'. Based on the novel by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, the series starts with two animal attacks by lions. One in Botswana, one in Los Angeles when two of the big cats escape the zoo.
Handling the African massacre is Jackson Oz (James Wouk) and Abraham Kenyatta (Nonso Anozie). They find a camp that has been wiped out by lions walking in single file, which makes it look like only a single lion entered the camp. Why the lions want to convince people there's only one of them isn't made clear. They go looking for lions and Abraham gets attacked and dragged off. So much for the local. Jackson picks up a survivor, Chloe (Nora Arnezeder), who is in Africa to collect on her honeymoon tickets even though her fiancée cheated on her before the wedding and she dumped him.
Jackson also has a scientist father, Robert (Ken Olin), who seems to have anticipated the sudden increase in animal attacks.
In Los Angeles, plucky reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly, doing double duty on this and 'The Whispers'), runs a not-so-secret blog against an evil corporation. Her boss catches on that she's attacking the corporation in print for giving zoos pesticide-filled food and kinda/sorta fires her since the same holding company holds both.. Jamie still seems to have a job, and goes after the CEO and learns about some cat disappearances. She also makes the acquaintance of Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke), a veterinary pathologist who is investigating the killer lions in LA. He's your typical scientist/nerd who doesn't particularly people, but seems to like Jamie just fine. They end up looking for the missing cats, and find... a tree filled with missing but still alive cats.
The lions are acting smarter and going after humans, and the premise of the show is that animals finally got tired of mean ole humans and decided to take a bite out of them. Judging from tonight's season previews, the rest of the animal kingdom gets in on the act, as does a serial killer who seems to be suffering from the same condition.
'Zoo' is in the tradition of big-network summer fare that probably wouldn't play during the regular season. It's also in the tradition of the oddball genre stuff we've gotten in the last few years like 'Persons Unknown', 'Siberia', 'Under the Dome', 'The Strain', and 'The Whispers'. It's based on a single standalone novel, so it seems unlikely that it will get a second season, but as they say, money talks, nobody walks. Which is why we're getting a third season of 'Under the Dome'.
The acting is competent, and you can't go wrong with cinematography of the African savannah. Just ask the people on 'Sense8' filming in Nairobi. The LA scenes are a bit less interesting, where we get the typical "Lone reporter against evil corporation" storyline. If I had to pick a weak link, it'd be Kristen Connolly, who seems to be doing a road-show Lois Lane. At least she's livelier than she is over on 'The Whispers'. Her characters is somewhat dense, using a blog name that can be tied to her.
If you're concerned about the treatment of animals, you probably should either give 'Zoo' a pass, or complain to CBS. Apparently PETA was assured that animals wouldn't be used or harmed and they'd rely heavily on CGI. Allegedly, CBS lied to them and the actors are now cheerfully tweeting from the set about their fun and frolic with real-life animals.
If 'Zoo' succeeds where 'The Strain' fails, it's because the idea of an animal going berserk and attacking you hits a lot closer to home than weird-ass vampires running through the streets of NYC and eventually conquering the world despite the efforts of Corey Stoll and his toupee. It's not just more likely to happen, but it's also more terrifying because those cats and dogs and birds could decide to come after you any time they feel like it. Which is probably why Hitchcock's 'The Birds' is so effective, and why nature-goes-berserk movies were popular in the 70s.
It succeeds where 'The Whispers' fails because the actor seem a bit more involved in the proceedings. Ms. Connolly may not be the greatest actress in the world, but at least they give her character more to do here than she has in five episodes of 'The Whispers'. James Wouk makes a likeable lead, and Billy Burke is pleasantly deadpan as a pathologist who doesn't know how to interact with other human beings. I'd rather see more of his character Mitch than any of the dullards on 'The Whispers'.
'Zoo' works where 'Under the Dome' doesn't, because it doesn't go off the deep end with aliens and invisible domes and divisible cows and virtual realities. It knows what it wants and that's where it's going.
So I'd recommend 'Zoo', with the provision that it's going to become a lot more potentially silly as birds swarm planes and cats and dogs start going after their owners. Check it out, on CBS at 9/8 central on Tuesdays.