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The zoological minds behind TZGZ's 'Wild Life' explain how you crossbreed Friends with The Walking Dead
So no one told you life was gonna be this way *vigorously claps four times with porpoise flippers*.
With TZGZ's Wild Life coming to SYFY this weekend, we leave Central Perk behind for the literal zoo of an abandoned zoo in the aftermath of an apocalypse. The new animated comedy series follows a group of talking animals, who get up to all sorts of wacky hijinks in the toxic and mutant-filled wasteland that is the end of the world.
"I had been making weird cheetah sketches for a long time, all these weird little lumpy characters," co-creator/executive producer Adam Davies tells SYFY WIRE. "Then I started to realize, ‘Oh, this is something about friendship’ when a koala appeared. And then, very quickly, it was like, ‘Oh, what’s the scenario in which these characters would believably connect?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh! A zoo! But not a normal zoo. Ohhh, the background is on fire. OK, here we are, [a] post-apocalyptic zoo.’ That just felt like a chemistry experiment. Right then, all these possibilities just opened up."
Davies, whose counts Mad Max among his favorite post-apocalyptic touchstones, says that the elevator pitch for the show was: "If The Walking Dead smoked Adventure Time and stayed up all night watching Friends."
He continues: "There’s a lot of truth to that, the aspect in The Walking Dead [of building] communities and societies, but also trying to figure out that day-to-day [stuff]. Like, ‘How do you get a glass of milk in the apocalypse?’ And Adventure Time is sort of like a more imaginative Dungeons & Dragons view in of, ‘Oh, the apocalypse, thousands of years later, let’s play!’ Those were some apocalypse references I would put out there."
Personally, we here at SYFY WIRE like to describe it as DreamWorks' Madagascar films crossbred with Bethesda's Fallout video game series.
EP Dylan Dawson, who also voices a number of background characters in the show, is a fan of classics like 1984's Night of the Comet and 1988's Miracle Mile. To him, Wild Life represented an opportunity to explore the humdrum nature of everyday life through the lens of existential oblivion. "Faced with total annihilation, holding onto the mundane for dear life," as he puts it. "Those are my favorite apocalyptic movies. Not the ones where a giant wave annihilates the Statue of Liberty or whatever. It’s these smaller-scale ones."
"On the surface [of] animation, you can make things very cute, but then talk about really dark stuff," Davies adds. "We want cute animals, furry butts, fun colors, but then, ‘Oh, what’s this show actually about? Deep existential despair and danger around the corner and dark humor, gallows humor.'"
After coming up with the core idea, Davies got in touch with Alex Plapinger, who, in turn, recruited Dawson. Together, the three executive producers continued to develop the project, defining characters like Glenn (John Reynolds), a cheetah with an identity crisis, and his best friend Darby (Reggie Watts), a laid-back koala who enjoys licking psychedelic toads.
"I immediately fell in love with it," Plapinger admits. "[Adam] had all these amazing drawings. There’s one in particular; there’s a character page for Glenn and it’s just him posing with his butt first. And he doesn’t have a tail, so it’s really prominent and there was just an arrow pointing at it with the words ‘nice butt’ next to it that just made me laugh out loud. It was fully-realized, even when it arrived to me and then I shared it with Dylan, and he reacted the same way. Truly, this whole thing is Adam’s brainchild."
What the trio didn't account for was the arrival of an actual apocalyptic event: the COVID-19-pandemic. All of the sudden, life was eerily imitating art. "It’s been very wild to make an entire season of television... in the middle of the situation that we’re in," Dawson admits.
"Fortunately, I feel like it’s been — and I hope that people who watch it feel this way about it, too — it’s been almost like a source of comfort for us," Plapinger continues. "We like working with each other, we like working on the show, and this is the kind of show that we ourselves would be fans of. I think there’s this comfort in, ‘OK, we can go to this other apocalyptic reality where everyone’s kind of getting along and having a nice time together. It’s a little bit of an escape... They have a more functioning democracy with not having to have a democracy at all."
Davies echoes that sentiment, saying: "It’s sort of like a therapy zone for us to process the current state of things, which is interesting because the original kernel started maybe back in 2016. One of the first references Alex and I connected on was Calvin & Hobbs and the combination of innocence, plus those panels of them staring off into the galaxy and deeper philosophy. I think for us, it really is a process of therapy to be able to make this show."
Another unexpected turn of events was the fact that zoos and aquariums (bereft of guests early on in the global health crisis) allowed certain animals to roam around the premises. In addition, certain ecosystems began to self-regulate by virtue of the fact that humans were no longer going outside as much as they once did. For example, while this was eventually debunked, it was reported that dolphins were spotted swimming in the famously polluted canals of Venice, Italy. Still, these incredible stories of animals taking over in the absence of mankind were a big creative boost for the Wild Life crew.
"The core premise is like the apocalypse happens and it’s paradise for animals and we’re literally watching that unfold. We should lean on that harder," Plapinger says.
"It’s like, ‘Did we go into a time machine? How is this happening?’ Yeah, it felt very much like animals having sex and dolphins taking over Venice and alligators or whatever. It felt like PR for us before we even got fully going," Davies continues.
Dawson reveals that they "were definitely sharing all those videos with each other."
So, let's get this question out of the way: Can the animals in Wild Life talk as a result of atomic radiation, or are they just anthropomorphized cartoons? Don't expect firm answers from the producers, who are remaining tight-lipped for the time being.
"We find a lot of comfort in ambiguity," Davies says. "I think leaning towards the interesting, 'How’s that working?' kind of hooks people’s imagination. We try not to define things like that because the show is about the animals and by defining what happened — 'What was the apocalypse? How are these animals talking?' — those are human questions that a human would ask. And we’re trying to not make this a show about humans, this is a show about animals. We both know and we also don’t know."
Dawson did add that Davies "has a whole secret mythology for the show... It’s vast and awesome and never to be shared with the public." Plapinger describes it as "vast and comprehensive" and hinted that there are "clues hidden in the show for people to draw their own conclusions and theorize about what’s really going on.
"There are certain rules that you would never guess are rules, but we were like, ‘Adam, does this pass the mythology rule?’ And he’ll let us know," Dawson adds. "A lot of great jokes... happily fall to the wayside. This mythology does exist and hopefully eagle-eyed fans might pick up on it."
The ensemble voice cast also includes Claudia O’Doherty as Marny, a bubbly dolphin; Baron Vaughn as Hudson, a hyper fox; SkittLeZ Ortiz as Debbie, a self-care-loving panda; and Natalie Palamides as Viv, an energy drink-guzzling sloth. According to Plapinger, he, Davies, and Dawson did a lot of fan casting during development and pretty much bagged all of their top picks.
"We’re really thrilled with how it worked out," he says. "It’s like a dream cast. These are the comedy people we love; they’re so cool, they’re so nice to work with, it feels so collaborative, they write funnier jokes on the fly when recording than we can write when we spend months on these scripts, so it’s just been amazing."
When asked what we can expect from the debut season, Dawson teases a number of guest stars like Tim Heidecker (Us), Rhys Darby (Jumanji: The Next Level), and Peter Serafinowicz (The Tick). "There’s a lot of cool guest stars coming down the pike that are very funny and they’re all playing different animals. That’s something to look forward to," Dawson concludes.
"I feel like, over the course of the season, that kind of core, Friends-like crew in the world of Walking Dead starts to come to life as its own character," Plapinger finishes. "Hopefully, people will wanna come back and hang out with these characters more."
And who knows, it might just offer you solace in these trying times. "I hope audiences come out of it feeling like ‘What the f***?! Why do I feel comforted?’ That’s my hope," Davies says.
Wild Life premieres during SYFY's TZGZ block this Saturday at midnight.