There's always something inherent in the premise of a Rob Thomas show that seems to get in the way of attracting a large number of viewers, whether it's the phrase "teenage girl private eye" or "on Starz." His latest series, iZombie, is no different. "Twentysomething girl becomes a zombie and helps solve crimes using the psychic visions she gets from eating brains," isn't exactly the type of log-line that will draw in NCIS-level crowds. But after the cult and critical successes of Veronica Mars and Party Down, Thomas has built up enough goodwill to earn the benefit of the doubt from viewers - and we promise it won't be wasted on his latest endeavor.
Based on the DC Comics of the same name, iZombie has everything you've come to expect from a Thomas series: snappy dialogue, wry voiceover, an ensemble cast you immediately want to be best friends with and, of course, a badass woman at the heart. Thomas initially turned down Warner Bros. TV's offer to adapt iZombie (multiple times, in fact). But when the insistent head of development explained that The CW needed its next great female heroine, Thomas couldn't resist. "I'd say more than an overriding desire to do zombies, it was this idea of filling this vacuum for The CW," Thomas tells TVGuide.com of why he finally gave in.
Like Veronica Mars, iZombie begins with a woman experiencing a life-changing trauma at a party gone wrong. Unlike Veronica Mars, this life-changing trauma was becoming a zombie. And with the exception of a similar noir-style voiceover from the show's leading lady and a few familiar faces (Hi, Ryan Hansen!), that's where the similarities to Veronica end.
After waking up undead, Liv (Rose McIver) discovers that along with her life, she also lost her can-do attitude. The over-achieving medical student soon becomes a lethargic coroner who isolates herself as much as possible from those closest to her out of fear of infecting them. But the walls she built around herself come crashing down when her boss at the coroner's office, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli), discovers her chowing down on brains at work. But instead of becoming panicked or hysterical, the truth merely inspires a childlike curiosity in Ravi.
"The character breakdown that I was given was that he was fascinated by mysteries," Kohli tells TVGuide.com. "It's sort of like you've just stumbled across one of the greatest medical finds in history. This is a dead person. She has every characteristic medically of someone who's dead, yet is still able to function to a certain degree."
Ravi soon becomes a beacon of salvation for Liv, being both her confidant and the only chance at a cure for her affliction. As the idea begins to sink in that she might not live out her entire existence as a brain-eating monster, Liv realizes she doesn't have to let any one traumatic experience - in her case, being turned into a zombie - define her. Soon, she starts actively parsing out her new place in life, rediscovering ways to relate to people and finding a new sense of purpose for herself.
When rookie detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) stumbles into the coroner's office stuck on a case, Liv finds just that purpose. Each time Liv eats a brain, she takes on memories from the deceased's life, sometimes even including the exact moment of their death. Blinded by his drive to get his first collar, Clive is more than willing to overlook Liv's unorthodox crime-solving techniques - which he believes are the result of her being a psychic, not zombie - and thus a beautiful partnership is born.
"When she turns into a zombie she loses everything ... She's lost a lot of her relationships with her family and connections, her aspirations and desire to do what she does for a living. But what she gains is this ability to help solve crimes," McIver says. "So while she loses a lot, she definitely starts to find a strong new sense of identity."
But even though Liv begins to add "life" to the things she's thirsting for beyond brains, her case methods aren't without their drawbacks. Whenever Liv eats a brain, not only does she receive visions from the deceased, but she also takes on aspects of their personality, which can mean anything from the desire to bed everyone she sees to the cold apathy of a psychopath. These changes Liv undergoes provide fertile ground for the show's more comedic moments. "It's really funny to hear a cranky, typically person complaining not about taxes, but like, 'Ugh, the brain of this person was a shopaholic and now all I can do is be on Amazon all day.'" says Robert Buckley, who plays Liv's ex-fiancé Major Lilywhite (for the story behind that name, watch the video at the bottom of this story).
"Zombies are ridiculous ... and I think with something so ridiculous like that, comedy helps sell it a little bit," Kohli adds. "It's got to be one of the two. You either commit to it, you go serious and you go hard and you go Walking Dead, which is a brilliant show. Or you do the opposite, and you see the lighter side of that and you kind of take it with a pinch of salt and enjoy it as entertainment."
However, the show's depiction of zombies isn't all tongue-in-cheek irony. There is a darker side to iZombie's walkers as well. When Liv doesn't get sufficient brains, she goes "full-on zombie," as she would say. "She gets very animalistic in some senses," McIver explains. "She's hungry. She's slightly more impulsive and has less control over how she behaves. We see it in things like these veins in her skin and there's a milky kind of red that her eyes turn, and she becomes a little bit more of the quintessential zombie."
And Liv isn't the only zombie out there. While the outbreak wasn't widespread, there are a few other brain-eaters walking around on the down low and Liv soon encounters the zombie who turned her, Blaine Debeers (David Anders). When we first meet Blaine, he's groping Liv at the boat party where he was dealing Utopia, the drug that started the zombie outbreak. And that was Blaine as a human, so you can only imagine what kind of skeevy zombie he turned into.
"We wanted a little outside-the-box villain for a zombie, the idea of a zombie that has some similarities to the James Spader character from Pretty in Pink. That's where he gets his name," Thomas says. "I think he's a guy who believes, as megalomaniacal people do, that he's meant for bigger things."
Blaine soon embraces his new lifestyle, quickly discovering ways to capitalize on it for personal gain. And while we don't agree with his methods (which often involve murder), we do have to give Blaine props for his entrepreneurial attitude. Because how often do you see a zombie villain who doesn't just eat brains, but has them himself?
This is only beginning to scratch the surface of how Thomas puts a little spin of every aspect of the zombie genre. So even though you might feel about zombies now the way we all felt about vampires in 2012, don't let that stop you from enjoying what is one of this year's best new shows.
iZombie premieres Tuesday at 9/8c on The CW. To learn more about it, watch our video with the cast below.
(Full Disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies.)