Amazon’s ‘Zombieland’ Is Banking on the Fact That You Really Loved the Movie, and Offers Little More

Credit: Amazon Studios

Remember back in 1990, when you and the cousins would gather ’round the living room set every Thursday to catch the latest episode of NBC’s television adaptation of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? No. No, you don’t. And it’s not because you’re too young. It’s not because your family members were electricity-abhorring Quakers at the time. It’s because nobody watched, liked, or gave a damn about NBC’s television adaptation of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Not because they didn’t love the movie — au contraire. It’s because this revival of John Hughes’ instant classic characters in the small screen form, embodied by different actors altogether, was a bad idea at its very core.

And such is the case for Amazon’s new pilot Zombieland.

I know what you’ll say. You’ll say that Zombieland, the 2009 horror comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin, was conceived originally as a TV series. That its brand of comedy is perfectly suitable for the week-to-week format. We’re not denying that Zombieland could have worked as a television show. But a television show adaptation of the Zombieland movie cannot work. And the proof is in the bloody pudding that is Amazon’s pilot, newly released to those with a Prime account.

We pick up with the very characters we met in the ’09 film approximately one month after the events therein. Only… they look different. Our stammering hero Columbus has taken form as relative newbie Tyler Ross; his hillbilly foil Tallahassee has become perpetual background player Kirk Ward. And while neither actor does a particularly poor job with his performance, all you can think the whole while is how much you miss Eisenberg and Harrelson. Their individual charms, their mismatched banter. The off-the-wall quirkiness of each Zombieland headliner’s performance is what instilled the movie with as much of a vehement fan base as it has mustered.

So you’ve got to wonder why — with this fact being such a certainty that the very realization that Ward is portraying Harrelson’s Tallahassee brands the show as D.O.A. — producers didn’t simply opt to give this new set of players different characters altogether. We don’t even mean dissimilar characters. Sure, we’ll take another awkward B-type as the series lead. We’ll take a maniacal, but good-hearted Southern fella as his begrudging best pal. And the caustic female leade (originated by Emma Stone, adopted by Maiara Walsh) can easily be reproduced in a character other than Wichita. The dynamic can remain. But these characters, if kept the same, will always falter in the shadows of their big screen counterparts.

And then we have the material, which deals with the same problem. By nature, a half hour comedy series is going to deal with less gravity, and a lighter demeanor, than a feature film… even if it’s got zombies running around, killing people. Zombieland the movie reveled in its comedy, found humor in its tragedy, but it never took its subject matter lightly. Its deaths were always dark, even when its characters were brought to make light of them. But it’s the show itself here that pokes fun at its menagerie of deaths: its minor characters are sacrificed moments after introduction, seemingly only to provoke a chuckle out of viewers.

Yes, the episode wraps up with some sentiment. But it’s nothing compared to the heavy heart and depth of the ’09 film. Okay, maybe Zombieland wasn’t exaclty an emotional triumph, but it had its sweet side, its humane side. Among other things, this is what the series lacks. Instead of just hoping that fans of the movie would brainlessly feed on the program, the Amazon series should have vied to be something all its own. But all we have here are Twinkie jokes and Zuckerberg meta-references. Not much to survive on.

Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter

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