Five episodes in, and the new Syfy show Z Nation puts you on notice: don't worship your heroes. The pilot episode introduced a special operations soldier as the potential hero of the show, only to kill him before the end of the episode, much to my kids' disbelief.
By the end of the pilot, you meet Garnett, a former National Guard soldier who takes over the special operator's mission to transport a kinda-sorta infected/cured human from the East Coast to California, where there's supposedly a lab that can use his blood to create a cure for the zombie virus. Okay, fine. It's not the rambling bumbling premise of The Walking Dead, but, rather, a "man goes on a journey" archetype.
It would be unfair to compare the two shows, but I will contrast them. TWD is all grim reality designed to make you despair for the characters week-in, week-out. There's no real nugget of story to the season-to-season arc, it's just a handful of characters doing whatever they have to do to survive this week's episode. It's well done for what it is, but it isn't compelling story-telling and most of the characters are so flawed as to be barely likable. So far, only "the Governor" had a plan for the post-apocalypse, but he was an unlikable tyrant. Rick doesn't have a plan, and, I'd wager, neither do the writers or producers. Fun to watch, but frustrating as hell, too, to see everything wasted on gibberish.
Z Nation aims to change that formula, by doing something almost logical: forming a group of disparate weirdos and sending them on a journey. Along the way, they encounter all sorts of interesting scenarios, including the entirely-plausible humans using zombies as a ruse to rob humans. It's a dog-eat-dog world in the apocalypse. The tenor of the show is the opposite of TWD, too. TWD is dark and gritty; Z Nation is almost-but-not-quite campy. The appearance of the show - cinematographically - is light and airy, almost "clean" and sunny.
Frustratingly, neither of the shows explains the origin of the zombie apocalypse, which is a common failure in zombie fiction. Apparently, nobody can come up with anything that isn't a military/pharmaceutical experiment gone wrong, so everybody ignores the "why" question of the zombie end times. [Cities of the Dead does not do this, by the way: you get a reason] Both shows more-or-less start after-the-fact, and you just have to deal with it. Fine.
The zombies in Z Nation are ragers while in TWD they're slow pokes. Nothing new there. I don't know why both shows - and much of zombie fiction - assumes that everyone is pre-infected with the zombie bug, but you just have to accept it. You die, you turn.
The ragtag band of characters in Z Nation complement each other well, even if their clothes are too clean and the ammo limitless. Stupidly, there's character who calls himself "10 Thousand," quickly rebranded 10K by the others in the group, because that's how many zombies he's going to kill before he reverts to his given name (Kyle, Eric, whatever). He's also the "cool character," dressed in black, loaded with weapons and an expert marksman (he'd be the hero in a video game version of the show).
Doc is comic relief and more-or-less uninteresting as an aged drug-loving hippie. Murphy is the comic foil-slash-infected-savior of humanity, if they can get him to California. The others are standard-issue cardboard cut-out characters along for the ride. If they live, maybe they'll be developed by the writers into more than what they are, now.
If they live. Mid-way through the season, they bring us to a mostly-plausible location in the mid-west where - implausibly - Garnet meets an old Army buddy running a high security refugee camp. Okay, fine, you go with that because it's an interesting idea melded into a B-story featuring a psychotic church pastor who thinks the undead are "the resurrected." Okay. Story A and B crash together in an almost-but-not-quite unbelievable moment, but, come on, this is zombie fiction, so run with it.
And then the show kills off Garnett just as you've gotten to like him.
For realz? Yes. This bodes ill for the rest of the characters (except, maybe, 10K, who seems to be slowly rising as the main character/hero [and who is, yes, likable and even desirable as the lead, but I contradict myself].
The only real stupid stupid stupid aspect of the show has to do with a character named Citizen Z, a lone surviving military operative at a super-secret military base somewhere in the arctic/antarctic/Alaska/snowy wilderness. He has limitless supplies and access to every known computer network on the planet. And he spends his time broadcasting in the blind to whoever might be able to have found batteries to power a portable radio. Three years into the apocalypse and this unbelievable character (he's the most non-military soldier you'll seen portrayed) is still at his post, trying to stitch civilization back together via radio waves.
On the whole, a likable and well-done show with a healthy dose of humor that doesn't take itself as seriously as TWD. There's a lot to work with in this particular apocalypse, and I hope to see something emerge as the rest of the season progresses.