Wednesday, October 26, 2011

High Hopes for "The Walking Dead"

Most zombie media share certain familiar characteristics. People become zombies en masse with the ability to infect others, creating a pervasive threat to the rest of the populace. Social infrastructure has broken down or is inaccessible, leaving the heroes to scrabble for survival by themselves or in small groups. This makes zombie apocalypses a great opportunity for scrutinizing social ills and social dynamics, looking at how people behave when you remove all the niceties of civilization. George Romero's early films always had sharp insights about racism or consumerism embedded at their cores. The only trouble I really have with zombie films, and most horror films for that matter, is that so many of the characters are very superficially drawn, so as to provide easy zombie fodder. So when you have a whole zombie television series, surely all the extra hours means you could really delve deeper into the social critiques and actually get to know some interesting characters before they get chomped on and dismembered, right?

Well, maybe and maybe not. After marathoning the first six hours of the gorgeously grim "The Walking Dead," I commend the creators for delivering a show that looks great, that has lots of explosions and action scenes, and isn't afraid of showing off the gore and bloody kills. The zombies look fantastic, and the post-apocalyptic landscape is marvel, especially the zombie-infested city streets the pilot, littered with artillery and other signs of struggle. So it's disappointing to have to report that "The Walking Dead" really isn't doing anything interesting with the premise. The first season is mostly concerned with the consolidation of a group of survivors lead by Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who wakes up in a hospital "28 Days" style, to find the world in shambles, and much of the population dead and shambling. His immediate goal is to find his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and young son Carl (Chandler Riggs), who may have been evacuated to Atlanta.

Much of the effectiveness of any kind of survival story depends on the characters you're following. "The Walking Dead" takes place in Georgia for the most part, and has a strong Southern Gothic flavor to it. And sadly, many of the recurring characters are pretty basic, one-dimensional Southern types - the troublesome redneck brothers Merle (Michael Rooker) and Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), an abusive husband Ed (Adam Minarovich) and his meek wife Carol (Melissa McBride), and an old man with an RV named Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn). Oh, and one of Steven King's favorite stock types, a man with prophetic visions, Jim (Andrew Rothenberg). I should point out that the minority characters, one scrappy Asian youth (Steven Yeun), a Latino father (Juan Gabriel Pareja), and an unrelated black woman (Jeryl Prescott Sales) and black man (IronE Singleton), are badly characterized and have little to distinguish them but their ethnicities. But frankly, hardly any of the characters enjoy much development, making it difficult to care when they fall prey to zombies or simply choose to leave the group and fend for themselves.

One exception is Andrea (Laurie Holden), the only female character who gets to do much of anything, who cobbles together a makeshift new family with her sister Amy (Emma Bell) and Dale. Another with some potential is Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), an asshole policeman who worked with Rick and may have betrayed him. Neither storyline has really gone anywhere yet. "The Walking Dead" is fun and exciting as long as it's dealing directly with zombie attacks and other external threats. But when it comes down to basic interactions between characters in quieter moments, the show drags laboriously. Practically all attempts to offer social commentary fall flat. Racism and misogyny are addressed, but in a blunt, clumsy manner that rings totally false. Right now I'm with those who think the show may have peaked with the pilot, where Rick spends most of the hour with Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), a compelling pair who are never seen again in subsequent episodes. Rick himself makes for a good hero icon, but he's also totally flat as a character. Thus, "The Walking Dead" doesn't come remotely close to the level of fellow AMC series "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" when it comes to good, solid human drama.

But, and it's an important but, the first season was only six episodes, and we're just getting to the point where all the characters are on the same page, and we've figured out who the long-term players are going to be. "The Walking Dead" has loads of potential to improve upon itself, and it could turn out to be a very good series in the long run. I'm happy to give it more time to work out some of the issues I've pointed out. There are clearly enough talented people involved in this show that they should be able to to hammer things out eventually. And thank goodness for the zombie apocalypse to distract us in the meantime.

Now on to to Season Two.

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