Rob Thomas’s career was going to be defined by petite, enterprising blondes who solve mysteries no matter what he did. Just like Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon can direct the third-highest-grossing film of all time and remain Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon in the cultural lexicon, Thomas is and will always be the man who gave the world much-beloved television (and, as of 2014, film and literary) detective Veronica Mars. All of the young-adult novels he’s written and the cult sensation adult comedy TV series he created for Starz[/url] stand on their own as properties that any creator would be happy to build a career on, but when Rob Thomas’s name comes up–if fans aren’t confusing him with the Matchbox 20 frontman–they’re thinking “blonde detective.”
With his new show for the CW, Thomas appears to have leaned into that distinction. On its surface, iZombie–which had its world premiere at SXSW, and then March 17 on The CW–has little in common with Mars: Thomas’s breakthrough hit was a real-world show about a young woman who has to solve a series of smaller mysteries in order to resolve a pair of large mysteries that have overwhelmed, and forever changed, her life. iZombie is about a zombie.
But outside of the logline premise of iZombie, the show is Rob Thomas through-and-through. The series stars Rose McIver as Liv Moore, a promising young medical intern who becomes a zombie after a biological agent used as a designer drug at a party leaves her forever changed. She takes a job at the local morgue (a great source of fresh brains) and continues her life as a zombie, albeit one with the ability to recall the memories of the person whose brain she most recently ate–a talent that makes her invaluable to her local police department in the investigation of homicide cases.
The pilot for iZombie, in other words, is about a young woman who undergoes a major life change from “bubbly, popular young woman” to “distant, forlorn loner,” and who subsequently takes on a side gig solving mysteries, all narrated in the first person with pithy asides. Sound familiar? So how does Thomas follow up his career-defining character–one he revisited just a year ago with the [iVeronica Mars[/i] movie–with something similar, while keeping it fresh? We picked his brain on that and other topics ahead of the show’s premiere.
“I think about Veronica Mars a lot when we’re doing iZombie,” Thomas admits over chips and salsa after the SXSW premiere. “I worry about it. I have some fear that the reductive thinking could be: ‘petite, blonde crime-fighter with first-person narration. It’s just Veronica Mars, but she’s dead!’ I hope that’s not the case.”
To Thomas, Veronica and Liv are very different beings, and he knows them both very well. “In my mind, they’re two very different people, but I understand the similarities,” he says. “When I would talk to the writing staff on Veronica Mars about how to write her, I would say, ‘Her spirit animal is a porcupine.’ She is not cuddly. She would rather fight than play nice. I would never tell the writing staff on iZombie to think of a porcupine–it’s a whole different vibe to Liv.”
The voiceover serves a different purpose on iZombie than it did on Veronica Mars, too. On Mars, the voiceover was deployed very specifically. “I wanted noir. I wanted to recall this Raymond Chandler sort of thing. I think if you watch iZombie, the voiceover shrinks and shrinks and shrinks,” he says. “One of the tough things with pilots these days, there’s so much to get across in that 41 or 42 minutes that you can be seduced by, ‘Hey, if I use VO, I can take 12 pages of scene-work out of this pilot.’ So there’s a little bit of a crutch there.”
iZombie isn’t Thomas’s first attempt at a zombie show. In the late ’00s, Thomas spent six weeks with his producing partner putting together a detailed pitch for a zombie apocalypse series. “We were all set to go. We had spent all that time and energy, and the week that we were going to take it in, the front page of the trades read, ‘Frank Darabont sells The Walking Dead to AMC,'” Thomas recalls. “It just killed our pitch in its crib.”
Years later, Thomas found himself pursued by Warner Brothers (part owner of The CW) with the iZombie comic book, which was created by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred for DC/Vertigo (whose parent company is also Warner Brothers), and he finally had the chance to realize that dream.
“iZombie happened to be the thing that brought these two elements together–get a kickass female lead on The CW, and I finally get to do zombies.”
Warner Brothers didn’t approach Thomas because of his interest in zombies–they were, he says, looking for the next Buffy or Veronica Mars–but when Thomas saw the cover of iZombie #1, he knew he could bring his interests together in recreating the aesthetic.
iZombie is a zombie story, but it has very little in common with The Walking Dead–or the storied history of zombie fiction. A series about a mindless zombie wandering around, arms outstretched, trying to get through a fence might be interesting for a few minutes, but at this point, the gimmick would wear thin pretty quickly.
“The things that defines ‘zombie’–the sort of brainless lurching-around killing machines–we don’t have in the show,” Thomas says. “So I don’t want to undersell the amount of confidence that [2013 zombie romantic comedy] Warm Bodies gave me going into this. I don’t know how confident I was [before that]. But since I was thoroughly entertained by Warm Bodies, I thought, Yes, it’ll work. It worked on me, hopefully America will buy it. We do actually get to some of the quintessential, textbook George Romero zombies on our show, and we try to make it a point that if Liv fails to keep eating brains, she will devolve into exactly that kind of zombie.”
Thomas loves zombie stories, but only a very specific kind–and that’s what he’s most interested in exploring in iZombie. The Vertigo series included ghosts, mummies, and were-terriers, but the TV version is straight (fake) science.
“I have a hard time with the supernatural in my mind,” Thomas admits. “All the zombie things that I like are the fake science, rather than the supernatural–I’m into 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, World War Z, where there’s a virus and the stuff we’re faking is science, as opposed to the curse of the mummy where they’re coming up from underground. I know we’re using dorky fake science, but it grounds it in a way.”
Ultimately, Veronica Mars was a show about getting to the truth above all else–regardless, even, of whom that hurt. iZombie is about very different things. Veronica was abandoned by her friends and wanted revenge, but Liv finds herself avoiding the life she led prior to the pilot to spare her friends and family from harm. That’s an important distinction, and it runs through the core of iZombie. It may be a show about a brain-eating zombie who solves mysteries with her detective pal, but it’s also very much about the alienation that comes when the people you love don’t understand you anymore, and about the realization that your life doesn’t always turn out the way that you’d hoped it would.
“We talked a lot about Liv having the textbook quarter-life crisis that so many people that age are going through now. They did everything that they were supposed to, and it’s a generation that has gotten a lot of positive reinforcement,” Thomas says. “And Liv–daughter of a tiger mom–kept her head down, made good grades, dated the nice boy, had her life charted, and then she gets to this place and the rug is ripped out from under her. We keep being interested in stories that underline that very zeitgeist notion that a lot of her generation are going through, and it’s a common thing: Those quality jobs that were supposed to be waiting for people who did all the right things that simply aren’t there, and Liv isn’t getting what she wanted to do, either.”
Thomas is 49 years old. At SXSW, he’s in a smart gray plaid suit and glasses, snacking on chips at a high-end downtown Mexican restaurant with a cast that’s a couple decades younger than he is. He made his name on a show about a teen detective, he published young-adult novels, and, before his career took off, he taught high school. So is he comfortable being a voice for a generation that he’s not a part of?
“I’m completely content writing about young people,” Thomas says. “I don’t feel like I’m in the ghetto of teen stuff–I’m proud of writing for that age group.” Still, there are challenges that come with that, too, he admits.
“The writers gave me this nickname on the show,” he confesses. “The writing staff started calling me Old Man Thomas because their script came in and I didn’t know what EDM was. It’s a joke, but there’s going to come a time . . . I like staying pretty hooked into what’s going on in pop culture, but EDM is a pretty basic thing to fail on. I taught high school for a number of years, and I felt very au courant, but have I been away too long? Are these young writers going to be snickering behind my back? Time will tell.”