Review

It's all great fun as animals run amok in CBS' 'Zoo'

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

I think I speak for everyone when I say that television has ignored the dramatic potential of the rogue American zoologist for far too long.

Mercifully, just such a man anchors the new CBS series "Zoo," which debuts Tuesday.

That he is played by the preternaturally boyish and increasingly ubiquitous James Wolk only adds to my delight, which burbled high like a nonwater-rationed fountain from the moment I clapped eyes on the first "Zoo" trailer. The summer blockbuster staked its claim on television long ago, but we've all been so fixated on zombies, werewolves and aliens, we've almost forgotten the coolest and creepiest apocalypse scenario: Animals Run Amok.

Even more than classics like "The Birds," scenes from "Day of the Animals" and "Squirm" haunt my dreams; I can't see a wasp (or a bowl of creamed corn) without thinking of "The Food of the Gods."

So bring on the ravening lions with their suddenly aberrant and deadly hunting patterns, the brazen rodents and the contemptuous chimps, the increasingly aloof and possibly organized house pets with their murderous agenda — I am in, CBS, with all four paws.

And not just because the other protagonist is an intrepid reporter for a fictional Los Angeles newspaper (with a circulation of 8 million! Where do I send my resume?), though it is still tough to beat an intrepid reporter in a scenario like this.

Based on the novel of the same name by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, "Zoo" opens with lion issues on two continents. In Africa, Dr. Jackson Oz (Wolk) is an anti-hunter conservationist and tour guide still trying to flee the memory of his father's breakdown and suicide. Dad, also a zoologist, spent his last months spouting nonsense about animals realizing they didn't have to be dominated by humans. You know, nutty stuff that is, fortunately for Oz and possibly the world, still available on YouTube.

Because, as Oz and we learn when another camp doesn't answer its radio (never a good sign), Dad may not have been so crazy after all. Lions are attacking, in multiple male groups that few can survive. Mercifully, one of those few is the very beautiful and very French Chloe (Nora Arnezeder), who quickly teams with Oz to create, presumably, a love-among-the-carnage subplot so beloved by the genre.

Both scenarios are mirrored in Los Angeles, where the killing spree of two escaped lions seems to support the conspiracy theories of reporter-secret activist blogger Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly). She enlists the aid of veterinarian pathologist Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke), who is puzzled though not panicked. For now.

Moving between the African plains and the Los Angeles zoo, the pilot does an excellent job setting up both the global disaster aspect and the teams that will, one hopes, prevent it, while falling in love. (Oz and Chloe have that open-collar "Out of Africa" sex appeal, Jamie and Mitch get the snappier dialogue.)

It's all great fun, especially for those of us who have not read the book and so do not know if there is a clever cause or a nifty solution. Even if there is not, we get to watch a solid cast work its way through this latest spin on a classic tale, while keeping a wary eye on our own pets.

Who have been acting a bit weird lately, now that you mention it.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Zoo'

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday

Where: KCBS/Channel 2

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