The first episode of the James Patterson adaptation Zoo is entitled “First Blood”—even though this action drama, which imagines what would happen if the animals on earth decided to rebel against their human overlords, is relatively bloodless (it is CBS, after all). That said, it does contain plenty of B-movie thrills!
We open at dusk, as a man (series star James Wolk as Jackson Oz) walks his dog, Doc. Doc is nervous. He’s whimpering. “There’s nothing out there,” Jackson assures him.
Oh, this is the kinda show that helps you out with voice over? Awesome. “For centuries, man has been the dominant species. We’ve domesticated animals ... locked them up ... killed them for sport. But what if all across the globe, the animals decided ‘No more’? What if they finally decided to fight back?”
Guess we’re gonna find out! And what better way to find out than by being in a place where there are guaranteed to be some notoriously deadly animals: a safari camp in Botswana. It’s where Jackson, who’s apparently quite a fan of the bottle, and Abraham (Nonso Anozie) work, taking tourists around and showing them the wildlife. We meet Jackson’s father, scientist Robert Oz (Ken Olin), via a YouTube video that a young employee (Abraham’s son, maybe?) is watching in the camp. (It was Dr. Oz giving us the voice over, turns out.) It’s full of rantings that sound like warnings, but we can’t tell yet. And we learn from Abraham that one of the more distant camps is having radio trouble. “I haven’t been able to reach them for two days!”
Having just been clobbered by the foreshadowing stick, we’re treated to some lovely animal shots. Galloping giraffes! Lumbering elephants! Jackson’s narrating the jeep tour, while Abraham drives; when they spot a group of armed men taking aim at a rare rhino, their strategy is to hoist a boom box, Lloyd Dobler-style, and blast James Brown by way of alerting the animal. It works. Hey, these are good guys. They love animals! But the hunters, who bluster over showing off their permits and licenses, are pissed. “Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right,” Jackson informs them. Chests are puffed up, dicks are swung (figuratively) ... but the tense moment passes for now.
We move next to the urban jungle of Los Angeles. We know this because the screen fills with giant letters reading LOS ANGELES. Two bros are taking a piss in a back alley (a stray cat darts past), talking about woman trouble, when one hears a throaty growl. He looks up, and HOLY SHIT there’s a lion. In the alley. In Los Angeles. No wait. HOLY SHIT THERE ARE TWO LIONS! They do the only thing we expect ‘em to do: pounce on the guy. Rawr!
We learn, after a credits sequence filled with close-ups on the eyes of various animals (some more menacing than others ... are we really gonna see zebras attacking random humans on Zoo?), that multiple people perished at the jaws and claws of these creatures, both zoo escapees.
“Those lions behaved entirely out of character,” we learn via the clipped tones of journalist Jamie Campbell (Cabin in the Woods’ Kristen Connolly), who’s pursuing the angle that new food ... from a company with the ominious-sounding name “Reiden Global” ... is what sparked the deadly big-cat rampage.
But her boss—already angered by the discovery of Jamie’s secret blog, which she pens as an anti-biotech activist named “The Girl With the Genie Tattoo” (huh?)—orders her to drop the story. (Side note: the boss recognized Jamie’s prose because she’s the only person ever to use the word “pettifoggery” in a news story.) Apparently, the same giant corporation that own Reiden Global also owns the newspaper where they work, and it wields the kind of power that allows it total control over the newspaper’s content. Even when it’s apparently also got a hand in the impending worldwide animal rebellion.
Back in Africa, Abraham and Jackson are heading to see about that remote camp that’s gone radio silent. “All men are unknowable,” Abraham says as part of a conversation about Jackson’s father, who his son believes to be a brilliant man with more than one screw loose. “But with animals, you know where you stand.” The genial chatter takes a somber tone when both men agree animals are generally predictable ... and one thing they don’t do is commit suicide. Ok, so who in Jackson’s life killed himself or herself? We will no doubt find out.
But first, they reach the camp. It’s been completely abandoned, with apparent great haste; there’s still food on the tables. “I’m sure there’s a simple explanation for this,” Jackson says, and thank goodness someone left behind a video camera loaded with a recording that offers some pretty heavy clues. Can you guess what happened? Rawr!
Back in LA, we get a good look at Jamie’s genie tattoo (it’s not even that hidden, but apparently she doesn’t wear tank tops to the office) when she’s at home stewing over her suddenly derailed career. Two things: the TV is showing footage of a volcano erupting in the Philippines (this is so carefully planted it will be significant at some point), and not only does Jamie have a secret blog, she also has a secret boyfriend: her co-worker, who’s clearly a loser because he failed to stand up for her during the Genie Tattoo Incident. He also believes she’s a conspiracy theory nut, obsessed with “finding the unicorn that killed Kennedy,” but she’s over it.
Jamie may be out of a job, but she’s still on the biotech-caused-those-lions-to-kill story. “Let yourself out. I got unicorns to chase.”
She waltzes into a BBQ that the head of LA’s parks department is hosting at his Brentwood house, and though he’s annoyed, he answers her questions. We learn that Reiden supplies food for over half the zoos in the country, which can’t be good. (It also doesn’t explain why lions in Africa are now in kill mode, though.) But he’s more agitated about a matter closer to home: someone’s been abducting the neighborhood cats, including his young daughter’s beloved pet. Where are the cats? We’ll soon see.
But first, down in Africa, the men are trying to puzzle out what happened at the abandoned camp (though they only found one set of lion tracks, could it have been a pack of lions traveling single file to hide their numbers, Sand People-style?), when they discover a safari vehicle, also spookily abandoned. The men who abhor harming animals go into survival mode, hoisting their guns to their shoulders as they creep in to investigate. After the show deploys the creepy lion growl sound effect for, what, the third or fourth time by now, a figure bursts out of the grass, but it’s no angry beast. It’s a freaked-out French tourist, Chloe (Nora Arnezeder), who somehow survived all the carnage. The angry beasts come next, and they aren’t single file ... it’s more of a flanking maneuver, and they chase Chloe and Jackson to the jeep for a teeth-gnashing homage to that baboon scene in the Omen. (Abraham is still out in the grass, status unknown.)
With stammering words and the help of some of Jackson’s Kentucky bourbon, via a flask stashed in the glove box, she tells the tale, and it’s about what we’ve imagined: the group was set upon by lions who materialized seemingly out of nowhere. “How does that happen?” Chloe wails. “At what point do you die when you’re eaten to death?” Valid question. She’s on her honeymoon, of sorts, having taken the trip after finding out her husband-to-be was cheating on her. A bad vacation gets even worse when the jeep sputters and dies. Seems the lions are not only attacking humans, they’re attacking vehicle radiators. Jackson and Chloe have no choice but to walk the six miles through the snarl-infested savannah back to the abandoned camp. NOT IDEAL. But after a narrow escape, which affords Jackson a moment to realize what his father’s seemingly nutzo theory of what “a defiant pupil” means (we still don’t get a good explanation for it), they make it, and radio for safety.
We don’t get answers from Jackson—but we might get some from Jamie. Reporter’s notebook tucked in her back pocket, she strides purposefully through the City of Angels zoo, stepping over the “exhibit closed” chain to quiz a man hunkered down in the newly vacated lion enclosure. It’s Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke), friendly neighborhood veterinary pathologist, doing some sleuthing of his own. He shows her the bodies of Nick and Eddie, the dead lions, and explains a little of what he’s found. A little, because he’s pretty baffled by their sudden behavior change. Jamie explains about the food supply switch to pesticide-tainted meat sold by Reiden. But Mitch has other ideas. “It wasn’t the food,” he explains. “It might have constipated them, but it wouldn’t change their behavior.”
Good to know we’ve ruled out constipation as a cause for these gruesome murders.
Mitch thinks the attacks “just happened,” and that “sometimes a mystery is just a mystery,” but Jamie—who is armed with the information that more people die from choking on hot dogs at zoos than they do from lion attacks—is determined to find a cause.
His interest is piqued, too (by both the comely Jamie and the mystery), and he texts her just as she’s being offered a chance for a do-over with both her boyfriend and her newspaper job. Obviously, she eschews both, because the animal behavior thing is WAY MORE INTERESTING. “I found the cats,” Mitch tells her, and they meet in Brentwood.
The episode’s final moments are quick cuts between Jackson getting arrested (for interfering with the hunt that we saw earlier; seems humans are still fighting humans at this point); the young safari worker intently watching one of Jackson’s father’s videos (the doctor asks, at what point will animals take survival into their own hands, er, paws?) as many pairs of animal eyes glow in the background; and Mitch showing Jamie where he’s found the missing cats, including presumably the pet of the LA parks department guy. Presumably, because it’s a cat flash mob. SO MANY FELINES. EVERY CAT IN BRENTWOOD. All lurking in a tree, a la The Birds, which happens to overlook an elementary school.
And back in Africa, another tree, another group of cats, as a lion hoists Abraham’s limp body to drape over a branch. But he’s alive! He’s alive! How’s he gonna get out of this one? How many children will the neighborhood cats rip to bits? How long before Jackson and Chloe hook up? How long before Mitch and Jamie do the same? When will Jackson’s father step out of the computer screen and into the show proper, to espouse his theories in person? What other animals are going to join the attack squad? ZEBRAS??
We’ll have to wait for future episodes of Zoo to find out. And frankly, we’re excited to see where this craziness is heading next.