CBS’ ‘Zoo’: The animals go on a mauling spree, but there’s no bite

(L-r) James Wolk as Jackson and Nora Arnezeder as Chloe Tousignan Oz in the CBS miniseries “Zoo.” .”CREDIT: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/CBS.)

“Based on a novel by James Patterson (and Michael Ledwidge)” isn’t the most welcoming phrase for viewers in search of highly original storytelling, but for others, it’s a stamp of summertime approval, the television equivalent of a light beach read left behind by the previous condo-rental tenant. This is your brand of ice cream or it isn’t, but a laughably over-serious pilot episode makes it difficult to take “Zoo” on its own terms.

It’s a 13-episode action thriller about a sudden change in temperament among the world’s animals. From wild lions on the African plains to diabolical house cats (and presumably more species as the story builds), animals have decided to work together as a unit to kill humans. James Wolk (poor James Wolk, can’t we find something better for you?) stars as a zoologist who’s been slacking off as a safari guide in Botswana. When a group of male lions uncharacteristically raids a nearby resort, killing guests and employees, Jackson is haunted by the crackpot theories of his late father, who predicted such a calamity.

Meanwhile, a Los Angeles newspaper reporter (Kristen Connolly) defies her editor (who is also her lover, because on TV shows, all female newspaper reporters are required to sleep with their immediate male superiors) and pursues a far-fetched tip that zoo animals are being fed unsafe food manufactured by a major corporation; she finds a sympathetic ear in an animal pathologist (Billy Burke), and very quickly the global plot comes together. (Just wait until they find all the kitties perched in a tree above an elementary school, waiting to pounce. It’s cats doing Hitchock’s “The Birds”!)

As the actors react with horror when computer-generated animals go on the offensive, you realize that “Zoo” might have worked better as a piece of intentional camp. It’s almost there (in the first episode, I began to wonder if some of the cameos, such as “Veep’s” Reid Scott, weren’t meant as some kind of “Sharknado”-style slumming), but “Zoo’s” biggest mistake is taking the straight-and-narrow approach. For all the mauling, it’s got very little bite.

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“Zoo” premieres Tuesday, June 30, at 9 p.m. EDT on CBS.