Screenshot: Z Nation

If Z Nation is going to continue to fill out its seasons with these amiable one-off adventures, let’s hope they’re all as entertaining—and as format-altering—as this one.

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What makes “We Interrupt This Program” work as a side mission is how it actually drives the plot forward, and leaves our heroes in a different place (both emotionally and story-wise) than they were at the beginning of it, something the series struggled with in previous years. Sure, it’s a disposable conceit—discovering the remnants of a TV station that first reported the zombie outbreak—but it serves the larger narrative by allowing the Operation Bitemark team to re-establish contact with Kaya and Simon, thereby providing necessary connective tissue between those locations and furthering the Zona storyline with that final “Black Rainbow” reveal. Best of all, it makes an ambitious play to shake up the episode format, toggling back and forth in time between the initial outbreak and the current escapades. You’d be forgiven for seeing that “Action News 9" chyron below our characters as they march down the street and thinking to yourself, “What the hell?”

Really, the episode is split into three arcs, as we go through the past, the assault on Camp Northern Light, and then our main characters’ attempt to get to the radio tower and communicate with Kaya. The transitions are often skillfully deployed, such as the remote crew shutting the trunk of the car only to have our people immediately open it back up in the present day. (Director Dan Merchant again demonstrates why he’s one of the show’s go-to helmers.) It’s not easy to continually intercut among different locations in space and time without harming cohesion and pacing—witness some of the clunkier installments of this season of The Walking Dead for proof of that—but here it works, maintaining a fleet momentum that carries through each storyline.

Screenshot: Z Nation

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The first is both the silliest and the most innovative, as Carly McFadden and the rest of the Action News 9 crew stumble into the onset of the zombie apocalypse, putting a real damper on Carly’s big day of moving into the news anchor seat. The opening weather report, followed by that breaking news chyron, made for an unusual and interesting tweak to the show structure, and it gave Z Nation a chance to play around with the origin story of the zombie epidemic.

Better still, all the lighthearted silliness of the premise, followed by the remote crewman becoming a Z and slowly turning every member of the office, managed to mask the fact that Carly’s struggle to survive and escape ended up being unexpectedly moving in its downbeat conclusion. The death of one-and-done characters is almost impossible to imbue with pathos, because we don’t spend enough time with them or have any investment in them beyond what they can do for our protagonists. But Carly’s story fit all the hallmarks of a normal “final girl” horror scenario, so when the show pulls the rug out and reveals that she didn’t escape and also wasn’t killed by Zs, but instead spent her final days trapped on the roof, waiting to die, it lands with surprising force. That lonely death is sadder and more melancholic than being torn apart by Zs—and more unusual, given the broad comedy of the build-up to it, Taco Tuesday bathroom disasters and all.

Screenshot: Z Nation

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But let’s not pretend this was some big emotional episode, because mostly it was a fun opportunity for jokes, many of which landed, even Murphy’s pained mistaking of Doc’s warning about the bathroom Z attack for a report on his bowel movements. (“TMI, man! Have a little class.”) From Murphy’s ongoing efforts to nail the cadences of TV news anchors to Kaya and Simon’s wisecracking recovery of the military base, everyone was in good spirits throughout the episode. The show has realized Doc doesn’t need to be the only joke-delivery system on the team, that everyone can have a sense of humor occasionally, including 10k and Sarge, in their own low-key ways.

The Kaya and Simon reunion was the most satisfying, largely because it previously seemed like that subplot was foundering on the shores of Lake Extraneous. But solid dialogue, followed by the Man With The Plan’s escape with the unknown dossier of intel regarding Black Rainbow, provided enough reason for Camp Northern Light’s ongoing relevance to the show, and an opportunity to bring that odd little family back to serve as long-distance eyes and ears. Also, we learn that Kaya didn’t name their child “Jay-Z” after the rapper, but rather “J.Z.” as in “Junior Z,” son of Citizen Z. Her poker-faced proclamations continue to entertain, and now that she’s had the chance to (not?) passive-aggressively bonk Simon for vanishing for two years, the snowbound quartet can hopefully be a source of aid once more.

Screenshot: Z Nation

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As Z Nation moves into the final quartet of episodes for the season, there are a number of big questions that need to be addressed, or at least better understood if the series is going to punt on delivering all the payoffs this year. The primary mysteries include the vanishing of the entire population of the refugee camp, the relation of Warren’s visions to their current reality, the nature of the Reset and the role of the Man With A Plan, and, of course, the strange outpost of entombed people being put to work clearing a facility for some unknown purpose—people with seemingly even more power than Zona. (Don’t forget that episode’s key line: “This is bigger than the apocalypse.”) That’s a lot of dangling plot threads to address, but this series has improved so dramatically, in almost every way, that I have confidence they won’t pull another literal cliffhanger. Let’s get back to uncovering these enigmas, Z Nation—you’ve got us hooked.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome back, DJ Qualls!
  • It’s been so long since society existed, Murphy doesn’t even remember the Green Bay Packers.
  • Murphy’s running shtick about wanting to be a news anchor back in the day was fun, but his one-liner stole the show: “I guess now we know what a local Emmy’s good for.”
  • Z Nation over-the-top flourish of the week: Blending that Action News 9 chyron into the present day, as though it were actually cutting into the show itself. Also, Carly’s initial weather report reminding us all that you can never have too many puppies and kittens.
  • Kaya’s flat-affect method of bringing Simon up to date was a pleasure, especially following his discovery of mad Zs: “I know, it’s a real bummer.” Also, great to see Simon get a couple genuinely funny lines that were story-based instead of hammy jokes. “Here comes your friend.” “He’s not my friend—he’s more like an acquaintance I keep murdering. Let’s go.”
  • R.I.P. Carly, you were the rare guest appearance whose death was an actual bummer.

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