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‘Zoo’ Review: James Wolk and Big Cats Save Summer Sci-Fi Series

Fun performances from human and animal actors make up for flat dialogue, thin characterization

“Zoo” answers a question that no one ever asked–what if the ’90s Fox clip show “When Animals Attack” was turned into an event drama featuring charming actors, dopey words and a bunch of pissed off cats?

Based on a novel by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, “Zoo” opens with star James Wolk as Jackson Oz, an expat American working as a safari guide in Botswana. We know that Jackson is a good guy, because he blasts James Brown out of a vintage boombox to keep hunters from shooting a black rhino. We know he has a dark side, because he’s really hungover when we meet him. We also know that he has daddy issues. Jackson’s father was a crazy-eyed scientist who thought animals could to predict an “extinction event” before humans. “Gibberish” Jackson calls a recording of his father’s lecture.

A minute later, we cut to Los Angeles, where a couple bros leaving a bar have their street urinating interrupted by a couple hungry lions. Sorry, bros. Looks like Jackson’s dad was on to something.

From there, “Zoo” tells two stories that appear destined to entwine, but for now mirror each other neatly. Back in Botswana, Jackson and his buddy Abraham (Nonso Anozie) encounter some local lions of their own, and Jackson trades his best friend’s company for that of Chloe (Nora Arnezeder), a French tourist whose safari companions are now cat food. In L.A., we learn that the Angeleno lions escaped from the zoo after killing their trainer. Intrepid reporter Jamie (Kristen Connolly) is convinced it’s the fault of big agribusiness and its crummy zoo food. But while chasing her story, she comes across a new mystery–why are all the housecats in Brentwood missing? Like Jackson, Jamie trades a familiar companion for a newer model. When her boyfriend–who is also her editor–fails to save her from being fired for her clandestine blogging activities, Jamie ditches him and starts hanging instead with a pathologist who is studying the two escaped lions’ bodies and might have a lead on those Brentwood cats.

Writers Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg serve as a rare quartet of showrunners. They keep things moving at a brisk, but not breakneck pace. And the parallels between Jackson’s story and Jamie’s link them feel relevant to each other.

But while the pilot script excels in efficient plot building, it lags in dialogue and character development. Lines that should slice sharply land with a blunt thud instead. “Drink this. It’s Kentucky Bourbon,” Jackson tell Chloe as they drive away from the lions’ dinner party. Chloe takes a drink and responds, “They do good work in Kentucky.” Sadly, Chloe has to deliver a bunch of boring exposition before she can get to that line. By the time, she does, it’s too late.

Fortunately, the show is cast with likeability at top of mind. Wolk has proven himself relentlessly appealing, whether working with some of television’s best material (“Mad Men”) or its most mediocre (“The Crazy Ones”). The heroic white guy running from his demons in a foreign land is a pretty stock character. But Wolk plays Jackson with such an easy air that the audience roots for him despite the thin characterization. Connolly’s task with Jamie is tougher, because her motivations are less defined and her stock quirks more annoying. But as she did on “House of Cards,” she pulls off a character who is maybe a little too principled to be believable. And like Wolk, she has a weapons-grade smile. Arnezeder, meanwhile, is really good at screaming while pretending to be attacked by lions.

Those lions are the real stars of “Zoo.” PETA has criticized the show for its use of live animals. But the producers have succeeded wildly in their goal of using four-legged actors to inspire dread and suspense without (so far) delving into gore. A final shot involving those Brentwood housecats is both silly and unsettling.

CBS has had mixed ratings success with these summer sci-fi series. The first season of “Under the Dome” was one of the surprise hits of its year. The second season drew underwhelming linear broadcast numbers–though not so bad as “Extant,” starring Halle Berry, which premiered last summer and was widely panned and little watched. Both shows, thanks to a deal with Hulu that makes them profitable despite lackluster ratings, were renewed for this season.

“Zoo” was made possible by a similar deal with Netflix–so its success may be assured. Whether that turns out to be “Extant” success or “Dome” Season 1 success remains to be seen.