The Appeal of Crackpot Television


lionLast summer, my husband and I began watching what we believed to be one of the worst shows on television. The series, Zoo, is based on a novel by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge. Here’s the premise: The world’s animal population has turned against humanity. Lions are killing tourists, wolves are murdering prison inmates, even bats are flinging their tiny bodies against planes to bring them crashing down. An intrepid team — a zoologist, a veterinary pathologist, an intelligence analyst, a journalist, and a safari guide — must figure out why all the animals have gone crazy and how to stop them.

On Tuesday night, my husband and I were channel surfing when we stumbled across some familiar faces. “Dear god! It’s that show,” my husband said. “Zoo!” I screeched. “It’s back!”

I was flabbergasted. Zoo is so stunningly bad. Some reviews classify the series as science fiction. But that’s not quite right. It’s pseudoscience fiction. The characters use science jargon to disguise the utterly unscientific gibberish that drives the show.

Let me give you an example. In the first season, the team captures one of the wolves that attacked the prison. They bring it back to a hotel room for further testing. Because the wolf’s blood has an “off smell”, the pathologist and zoologist suspect the animal is infected with some type of bacteria that may be causing aggression. So the pathologist, Mitch Morgan, decides to conduct a little experiment. He fills a coffee pot with coconut water and hooks it up to a car battery. And then he offers this explanation.

“Think of the coffee pot as a wolf’s brain. The coconut water is chemically similar to the cerebrospinal fluid that flows through and around the brain. So if our bacteria causes a reaction in our coffee pot brain, then there’s a good chance it’s responsible for the wolf’s abnormal behavior,” Morgan says. “The current from the battery should stimulate the growth of the bacteria. We’re looking for some evidence that the wolf’s brain was agitated. For instance if the liquid starts to bubble up a little bit.” Morgan guesses this will take a couple of hours. The coffee pot immediately explodes. “Yeah. I’d say we’re on to something,” he says.

I KNOW! It’s so dumb. It’s like the dumbest thing that’s ever been written. So you can understand why I was astounded to find that CBS had decided to renew the show for a second season. But could the second season possibly be as inane as the first? Um, hell yes.

On Tuesday, the team discovers that ants are killing people by generating electricity and causing explosions throughout Geneva. When the team charts these explosions on a map, lo and behold they see a pattern. The ants seem to be headed for the Large Particle Accelerator. That could be bad, Mitch says. If the ants reach the accelerator they could cause a runaway fusion reaction “which would kill every living thing within a thousand mile radius.” So the team rushes to the accelerator. But the ants beat them there. To prevent catastrophe, they have to find a way to use the accelerator to diffuse the ants’ collective energy, which will require flipping a manual override switch. They flip it, there’s a shock wave, and the ants perish.

I am not making this up. This is what happened in Tuesday’s episode.

“As long as you’re not coming to Zoo for scientific accuracy — and if you were, surely you would have left a long time ago — I’d call season 2’s second installment a success,” writes Jodi Walker at Entertainment Weekly.

So if Zoo is so terrible — and it absolutely is — why do I keep coming back? Well, because the plot is totally bananas. I want to see what cockamamie theory the team will come up with next. I want to get riled up about the show’s stupidity. “Premium television is a wonderful thing. I couldn’t be more pleased that serious dramas and thoughtful, prickly comedies are thriving,” writes NPR’s Linda Holmes. “But on the other hand, they really don’t run enough legitimately bonkers television anymore, and if they can’t do it in the summer, when will they do it?”

When indeed.

So carry on, Zoo. Keep on being ridiculous. Just don’t pretend to be something you’re not — a science show.

Last month producer Bryan Oh told the Observer that “he wanted the science sprinkled throughout the show to inspire viewers to learn more.” I call bull honkey. When it comes to science, Zoo viewers couldn’t possibly learn any less.


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