'When animals attack . . ." is both the name of one of those ridiculous docu-specials Fox used to run, drawing an audience in with salacious footage of nonhumans going berserk, and the premise of Zoo, the adaptation of the James Patterson novel of the same name.
Perhaps those Fox specials had more depth than this CBS summer offering, which premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Mad Men's James Wolk plays Jackson Oz, a guy with the kind of name that exists only in paperback airplane thrillers. An American expat, he has decamped to Botswana to give safari tours and escape the legacy of his professor father, who believed animals would one day organize and revolt against the dominant species. That, of course, would be us.
As Wolk shows tourists black rhinos and valiantly stops an evil poacher, young reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly, House of Cards) starts to poke around an incident in which two escaped lions mauled three and wounded five in Los Angeles. Jamie thinks it has something to do with their food, made by a Monsanto-like conglomerate, a theory that does not make her editor happy.
She eventually teams with Billy Burke's veterinary pathologist ("one of those," Jamie says, a guy who likes animals more than people; "One of those," I say, a TV character who says he hates people but gets along famously with his female partner) to figure out why all the cats in Burbank have disappeared.
The action switches between L.A. and Botswana (although the show was shot in New Orleans). As Jamie goes down her own rabbit hole, Jackson investigates a friend's disappearance and learns that lions attacked his camp, leaving one survivor: gorgeous, French Chloe (Nora Arnezeder), who looks fantastic even after she's been chased by four big cats in the African bush.
The teams begin to figure out there's something going on beyond the everyday lion attack.
Zoo is not The Birds, though. The pilot episode never lags, moving along quite nicely, but it never serves up scares, either. Part of the problem is the lions themselves, which look more cuddly than the kind of beast that could kill an entire safari party. A successful thriller at least needs to thrill. The near-constant score and heavy-handed intro ("We've domesticated animals, locked them up, killed them for sport," a voice intones. "What if the animals decided: No more?") push thrills that the show does not actually deliver.
Wolk is an affable screen presence. He has found roles that fit perfectly with his sweet face and easy appeal - the swiftly canceled Lone Star, account-man-with-a-secret Bob Benson on Mad Men - but they never last. He brings that inherent likability to Zoo, though he does not seem particularly dashing or adventurous. He has shown he's considerably more talented than Zoo lets him be.
Of course, that's not Wolk's fault. Zoo is the kind of empty programming networks put on in the summer hoping to attract viewers who have nothing else to watch.
There's potential here, especially if it's not burdened with biological mumbo jumbo that makes little sense in explaining why these animals are going ape on humans. But even that potential is only that of a Patterson novel: cheap, easy to digest, and you don't have to think all that much about it.
Premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on CBS.EndText