The now-rare 22-episode season generally meant that most series would save their most compelling episodes for debuts, finalés, and sweeps, raising the chances that episodes outside of those times were mere filler. The recent shift to shorter or split seasons, therefore, actually often makes for tighter arcs, freeing series from having to mark time before debuting the big twists and character shifts.
iZombie is one of those series; with the exception of its second season, its stories have been limited to 13-episode seasons, with a primary antagonist that zombie/medical examiner Liv (Rose McIver) and her coworkers Ravi (Rahul Kohli) and Clive (Malcolm Goodwin) and friends Peyton (Aly Michalka) and Major (Robert Buckley) struggle against. In season one, it was Blaine (David Anders), zombie/former drug dealer/small business owner targeting Seattle’s homeless for brains to sell to the rich. In season two, it was Vaughn Du Clark (Steven Weber), the CEO of Max Rager, an energy drink company and a psychotic man-child using any means necessary to clean up the problem he created (that is, zombies). While each episode features a case of the week that may or may not be related to the central arc of the season, said episodes almost always move the season’s narrative forward in large or small ways.
In season one, this worked fairly well: it introduced newly created zombie Liv, examining the ways in which she rebuilt her life after being infected with the zombie virus, finding new purpose in working in the medical examiners’ office and eating brains of crime victims in an effort to help bring their killers to justice (by absorbing the victims’ memories). Season two, with six additional episodes, still managed to tell a tight story about the use and abuse of corporate power. The cliffhanger that ended “Salivation Army”, in which Vivian Stoll (Andrea Savage), CEO of Fillmore Graves (a private military contractor), was revealed as a zombie and wanted to know whether Liv was “with us, or against us”, set up season three’s narrative as moving beyond its “case of the week” format into the effects of Seattle’s relatively small zombie population on the city as a whole.
It’s an ambitious goal, and one that reveals the limitations of a 13-episode season. Not only does season three deal with the fall-out from season two, including a massacre at Max Rager, Major’s reversion to zombie-ism, and the side-effects of the cure Ravi developed, but also the zombie-led Fillmore Graves preparation for “Discovery Day” (when the general population finds out about zombies), corporate conspiracy, and the “zombie truthers” movement, a group that vows to kill on sight any zombies they come across. Limiting this to 13 episodes means that some of these stories were left undeveloped (the Russian hacker mystery in “Twenty-Sided, Die”, as per example) or undercooked (the revelation of Fillmore Graves executive Carey Gold [Anjali Jay] as the mastermind behind a corporate mutiny). There was not enough narrative space for these arcs to breath, giving the impression that season three serves only as a set-up for the even-greater ambitions of season four: a Seattle overrun with zombies, potentially holding the rest of the country hostage for enough brains to feed the populace.
That being said, the individual episodes, as always, were a delight. While McIver has repeatedly shown herself to be particularly versatile — playing, with equal skill and conviction, a dominatrix one week, and a Dungeons and Dragons master another — Buckley, whose stories within the series have often been either violent or tragic, revealed a gift for comedy, particularly in “Zombie Knows Best”, in which he goes all-in on teen girl brain. The scene between Buckley and McIver before Major takes the cure (which may erase his memory), is heartbreaking without being overdone.
It’s Liv’s relationship with Clive, however, that continues to be the fulcrum on which the series turns. Bringing Clive in on the existence of zombies near the end of season two was a wise move, and the connection Clive has to a family of zombies murdered in the first episode seemed rushed, but was redeemed in a subsequent episode that built up his interactions with them through a series of flashbacks. The same Clive that in the pilot said he’d kill any zombie without compunction becomes an ally once their reality is confirmed. Even better, the return of Dale Bozzio (Jessica Harmon) as Clive’s former love interest was a welcome surprise; that the two reconnect, and she learns of the existence of zombies just before she becomes one promises a meaty arc between the pair in season four.
If there was one character that seemed less well-served by the season, it would be Peyton, who spent a good portion of the season in a love triangle that brought out the worst in its participants: Blaine, who lied to get on Peyton’s good side, Ravi, whose jealously came close to making him permanently unlikeable, and Peyton, who was too frequently stranded in this mess with little connection to the other characters. Thankfully, Blaine’s return to his manipulative and sociopathic ways — and zombie-ism — plays to Anders’ strengths as a charming rogue; Peyton’s new job as chief of staff to Seattle’s newly elected zombie mayor is a promising development that will hopefully integrate her into the wider story arc; and Ravi (eventually) gets redeemed in his interactions with the zombie truthers and, most importantly, his final scene with Liv, that reaffirms one of the best parts of the series: the importance of friendship.
The DVD transfer is decent but, as with the previous two seasons, the collection limits its extras to deleted scenes and the 2016 Comic Con panel featuring the cast (minus Robert Buckley). Given the way the series engages — at least metaphorically and sometimes literally — with the contemporary sociopolitical moment, including the aforementioned Russian hacking storyline, a fringe group obsessed with “deep state” governmental dealings that appropriates the ideas and language of white nationalism, and the nefarious corporate antagonists the series specializes in, I would have enjoyed episode commentary from the writers and actors. A featurette on how they achieve some of the zombie special effects would have also been of interest.
As for the season as a whole, while they may have been constrained by the 13-episode format, creators/writers Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright have given themselves enough canvas to create an epic fourth season. Season three might not have always succeeded, but I can’t fault its ambition.