DMZ Review: The Vertigo Comics adaptation of HBO Max leaves too much unspoken

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DMZ Review: The Vertigo Comics adaptation of HBO Max leaves too much unspoken

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ZDM carries the unfortunate distinction of suffering from one of the worst disruptions of the pandemic in a show that has aired. Originally planned as a full-fledged ongoing series for HBO Max, the series discontinued production in March 2020 following filming on the pilot, resuming in late 2021 as a four-episode miniseries. According to showrunner Roberto Patino, this leads to ZDM becoming a smaller, more personal story. Under these constraints, it is miraculous ZDM it came with a purposeful and coherent story to tell. It just isn’t particularly satisfying.

Freely adapted from the comic Vertigo by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, ZDM follows Alma “Zee” Ortega (Rosario Dawson), a physician in a New York City fractured by a second American Civil War. In this alternate near future, the country is divided into Free States of America and what remains of the United States, with Manhattan declared a “Demilitarized Zone” – effectively a no-man’s land abandoned by both governments, where those who might be evacuated they went and those who could not are forced (or choose) to fend for themselves.

Almost a decade ago, on the day of the evacuation – when Manhattan became the DMZ and many residents tried to escape the city – Alma was separated from her son on her way out, losing him in the DMZ while she managed to escape. Over the next several years, she has searched for him everywhere, and the series immediately begins with learning from a reliable source that may still be in the DMZ, and then embarks on the perilous journey of finding him.

Richard DuCree / HBO Max

ZDM it establishes both his status quo and Alma’s motives quickly and badly. Viewers wishing to understand what led to the collapse of the United States and why Manhattan is a demilitarized zone will not be satisfied; the rules of this alternate future are confusing at best. It’s best to approach the series in character-based terms: Alma is looking for her child and goes to the most dangerous place in the country to find him. A place where she happens to have awkward past connections.

Despite this personal focus, ZDMAlma’s four episodes are not enough to make Alma’s journey satisfying: the world around her is too rich to ignore. This is the best thing ZDM, a series that, once underway, feels more lived-in and full of life than many genre shows. Life in the DMZ is dangerous but not discouraged: it is a community of black and brown New Yorkers who come together to get through a difficult time, despite external and internal forces that would prefer to subjugate them in one way or another. This danger is played by Paco Delgado (Benjamin Bratt), a charismatic gang leader in the wake of Roger Hill’s Cyrus from The warriorstrying to unite the various groups of the DMZ by also establishing himself as the recognized leader of the DMZ in the first election of the island.

Benjamin Bratt as Paco Delgado in HBO Max's DMZ

Photo: Richard DuCree / HBO Max

Undershowrunner Roberto Patino, ZDM is quietly transformed into a Latin American story, not only by virtue of casting Latinx talent, but by focusing on characters from Manhattan’s Spanish neighborhood of Harlem and Nuyorican culture. It’s a show that cares how people live, in the music and the jargon and the rot of machismo that threatens to make that culture poisonous. This specificity is admirable: a Latinx genre show that doesn’t do much to be on Latinidad! – but still: the rest of the DMZ is there, compelling and full of hard-to-forget questions for the viewer, with good reason. Unnecessary, ZDM it’s Alma Ortega’s show, but other inconsistent but compelling snippets show up regularly, pulling what could have been.

Because ZDM it could have been a timely job. The miniseries already touches on dozens of ideas relevant to the present moment: it suggests a future in which Americans violently tear their country apart in a present where it seems all too plausible. It presents a dystopia about people building communities instead of indulging in the survival fantasy of clich├ęs. And in the absence of law enforcement, it suggests an interrogation of their necessity. The list goes on: ZDM it has so much room to tell compelling and vital stories, targeting people who would otherwise have been abandoned in our popular narratives. You can see the bones here; every 10 minutes another missed opportunity flashes on the outskirts. Instead, ZDM reflects the country it depicts: full of promise, but abandoned.

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