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Pass the Popcorn: ‘Zoo’ is Equal Parts Entertainment, Cautionary Enviro-thriller.
June 29, 2015  | By Alex Strachan

“Whatever you do, don’t run.”

That simple rule can mean the difference between life and death when faced by a lion in the real-life African bush. As truisms go, it’s true enough that veteran safari guide Peter Allison even wrote a book by that name, Whatever You Do, Don’t Run: True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide (Lyons Press, 2007).

“Only food runs!” Allison added, cheerfully. It’s a cheerful book, if a bit bloody at times.

When early in Zoo, the new CBS summer series adaptation of James Patterson’s bestselling beach read, a renegade zoologist and social outcast, played by James Wolk, (with Nonso Anozie, right) is menaced by not one but five full-grown male lions in the tall grass of Botswana, he does what any sane but unaware person might do: He runs, grabbing a French behavioral ecologist, played by Nora Arnezeder, as he does.

Zoo, being a TV show — and a reasonably entertaining one at that, based on the early evidence of the series’ pilot, written by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Fringe co-producer Jeff Pinkner — he survives. 

And a good thing, too. Zoo, which premieres Tuesday, 9:00 p.m., ET, wouldn’t be much of a summer series if the hero was mauled to death in the first 10 minutes.

Moments later, he tells his flustered companion, “I know one thing about lions. They recently fed. They won’t be doing any long trekking,” — followed in short order by, “Something clearly is not right here.”

As someone who has taken a dozen or so journeys into the African wild over the past 15 years, I can faithfully report that there’s a lot Zoo gets right. Many of the early incidents depicted in the pilot episode could have happened or actually have happened in real life.

The trophy hunter determined to bag himself an endangered rhino, because he’s paid a humongous license fee for the privilege, will remind some of the controversial case of Corey Knowlton, a Texas hunter who earlier this year paid $350,000 to shoot a rhino in Namibia, in the name of conservation. True story: I’m not making this up.

The scene in Zoo’s opening hour, in which a game scout is attacked in his truck by a rampaging lion, has eerie echoes of a real-life incident last month in South Africa, where a lioness killed an American tourist — ironically an editor for Game of Thrones who was in Africa for a post-season volunteering effort for a good cause — by grabbing her through an open car window at a safari park.

Zoo’s early scenes, in which animals escape from their enclosures and menace Los Angeles residents, may remind some of a real-life incident earlier this summer in Tbilisi, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where animals escaped the city zoo following heavy flooding. Police had to shoot a tiger after it mauled a man to death; animals as large and potentially deadly as lions, bears, hippos, and wolves were reportedly still running loose only two weeks ago, this in 2015, in a city with a population of 1.17 million.

Zoo poses the question of what would happen if wild animals started turning on people in a coordinated way, silently communicating with one another and attacking as a unified force. Think of it as payback for centuries of trophy hunting, wanton destruction of ecological habitat, and too many days at the circus.

It’s a preposterous premise, to be sure, but then most thrillers are, especially summer beach reads.

Zoo is no award winner, but it’s surprisingly diverting — an entertaining popcorn-cruncher that’s neither a cop show, courtroom drama or hospital drama.

Billy Burke, fresh off the recently canceled Revolution, plays a veterinarian who starts noticing changes in zoo animals’ behavior. He hooks up (left) with an ambitious news reporter — no, they’re not extinct yet — played with an unfortunately vacuous Val-speak accent by Kristen Connolly, who actually hails from Montclair, New Jersey originally.

It’s hard to take any reporter seriously who speaks like that, but then Zoo isn’t meant to be taken seriously. And one of its saving graces is that, like Under the Dome and Extant before it, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite all the talk about climate change, Sixth Extinctions and people behaving badly.

CGI lions look pretty lame, and some details have been changed to make the story more TV-friendly. In real life, an adult male lion can smash a windshield with one swipe of its paw — yes, they’re that strong — but, again, the hero has to escape somehow if viewers are to come back after the next commercial break.

Zoo is intended to be fun, but there’s a thought-provoking message, too, for those willing to pry below the surface. If nature is really going to get even with humankind, it’s more likely to come in the form of a superbug, along the lines of SARS or MERS, than a noble lion or tiger.

The reality is there are probably too few lions, tigers and other alpha predators remaining for them to survive as a species, at least in the wild. But they can’t know that, can they?

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