Zoo Shows That Summer Popcorn Fare Isn’t Just for the Big Screen

CBS's big swing is worth watching, for now

From Jurassic World to Avengers: Age of Ultron, summer movies are all about escapist fun. As CBS looks to lure audiences during the same season, it's found a show that distills the pleasures of those summer popcorn films in Zoo.

Premiering Tuesday night and based on James Patterson's best-selling novel, Zoo takes place in a world where animals begin rebelling and attacking humans. James Wolk stars as zoologist Jackson Oz, a former Bostonian who now works as a safari guide in Botswana. He teams up with a French investigator (Chloe Tousignant), who survived a lion attack while on safari. As the zoo attacks begin, Oz senses a connection to his late father's theories about how animals might someday overtake humans. 

At the same time, an L.A. journalist (Kristen Connolly, from House of Cards) teams up with a veterinary pathologist (Billy Burke, the best thing worth watching in NBC's frustrating Revolution) to investigate a similar wave of violent animal behavior. 

In lesser hands, it could be another Sharknado, but the actors have done an impressive job of selling the story and keeping the potential cheesiness in check. Much of that responsibility falls on Wolk, who has gained a reputation for being a gifted actor who ends up in beloved but short-lived shows—Lone Star, Political Animals, The Crazy Ones—but he once again delivers in Zoo.

The show's timing couldn't be better. In less than two weeks since its release, Jurassic World is already the country's highest-grossing film of 2015 (it's made $500 million in the U.S. and $1.25 billion worldwide), so audiences are primed for a show in which wild creatures repeatedly stalk and attack humans. And Zoo certainly delivers on that front, with several creepy, compelling visuals, including a scene in which lions turn the tables on a suddenly vulnerable Wolk. 

The show also looks great—while much of it takes place in Africa, it's all shot in and around New Orleans—which goes a long way toward making Zoo feel special and different from the usual procedural dramas one might expect from CBS. (CBS Entertainment Chairman Nina Tassler told me last month she gravitates toward epic and "highly serialized" shows during the summer—Zoo qualifies on both counts—to recruit new viewers and get them to stick around for fall.)

My recommendation comes with a lion-sized caveat: CBS now has a summer tradition of debuting a new series with a riveting, visually striking pilot—both Under the Dome and Extant had memorable premiere episodes—only to have the compelling story line flame out midway through Season 1. And Zoo's premiere offers a dozen ways this could all go horribly wrong, perhaps as quickly as the second episode. But for now, the show is worth a look.

In a summer packed with quality TV—in addition to Orange is the New Black's return, there are several superb new shows, including Comedy Central's Another Period, USA's Mr. Robot and Amazon's sensational Catastrophe—there isn't anything quite like Zoo. It's not essential viewing on par with those other shows, but it does offer a kind of entertainment that has otherwise been lacking in summer television. (If you don't want to watch Zoo on CBS, the entire season will be available on Netflix shortly after the finale airs.)

Enjoy, and pass the popcorn.