I know I am late to the Walking Dead party, this is always the case with TV stuff. But with the DVD coming out today and having a chance last night to watch the entire first season in one sitting (Thanks Anchor Bay!), I can now see why all the writers of the show were summarily fired, or moved onto other projects (depending on which side of that story you accept.) I like the look of the zombies (CGI Blood is surprisingly not annoying!) and the abandoned Atlanta setpiece (not a single car on the road going into the city though? Seriously? I guess it makes the above screenshot work.) Don’t get me wrong, the production in handsome, and the acting is certainly serviceable, but here are some questions to level at the creators (or fans) of the show, that need to be addressed if the show is going to shake its Season 1 growing pains and aspire to something.
Warning *Potential Spoiler Elements to Follow*
1. What is the show about?
Survival, disease outbreak, decay of social order? Sure those are a given in any modern zombie treatment, at this point, you very likely cannot do ‘zombie’ without them. I am not asking for the levels of blunt social commentary that (ahem) plague the last three Romero-Zombie movies (and are handled pretty damn elegantly in the first three), or even implying that the series should be a concise or coherent allegory – but after 250+ minutes of show, that I cannot actually figure what the show is about is a little crazy. Family ties vs. surrogate community (the greater good)? The country vs. the city as a nurturing force? Energy Crisis? (the show begins and ends on a discussion of conserving energy.) I think solid dramatic shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire or Deadwood (even genre-shows like Battlestar Galactica) work because they ask interesting questions of our times and morals. I’ve yet to see The Walking Dead do anything interesting with its story other than fulfill the usual tropes (to again cite Romero – Night’s holing up in a house, Dawn’s entrapment in a storefront, Day’s medical science in a government/military institution. Is Season 2 going to be “The Road?”
2. Why the Soap Opera?
There are times when The Walking Dead, with its type-characters, and ‘milling around the camp’ background players threatens to resemble the first season of Lost without the ‘mystery-box’ elements. (A flash-back sequence in Episode 5, and doomsday red digital countdown kind of echoes that show as well.) Whoever thought that relationship drama/conflict needed to be shoe-horned into what is already and end-of-the-world scenario. Deputy Walsh has got to be one of the most poorly written characters in the show and his relationship/arc with both Sheriff Grimes and Wife Grimes is belaboured to the max; the clumsy and out-of-place rape/apology scene is more than a bit of a howler.
3. Dysfunction in slow motion, is it necessary or appropriate?
Now I can see why the group dynamic conflicts are the story driver in George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead. The stakes are really high, the box is really small (a single farmhouse) and in-the-moment-panic is going to happen. It totally works there. But some of the ‘dysfunctional decision drama’ in The Walking Dead is baffling. The ‘hospital gang’ encountered in the middle of Atlanta and the ransom exchange that takes up half of the show has got to be a low-point. The actor who plays “Guillermo” is BRUTAL with his ‘head twitch to the side’ dialogue delivery. Please don’t bring him or his hospital of infirms back into the story, it cheapens the show with rank sentimentality. Anyway, given the TV pacing of the show, the relative strongholds the characters find themselves in, and the focus on the family, it seems that people might just find a way to be more co-operative in the simple things. Easing back on the melodrama and ‘hick’-gender politics might not hurt either, there is something about the way an abusive husband, or racist thug is written here that just seems off. I’m not sure if it is overwritten or underwritten (it surely cannot be both!)
4. How to find the big picture / small picture balance?
The Walking Dead is about the zombie apocalypse of the world at large, starting in rural Georgia, scaling up to Atlanta, and finally to the entire United States and abroad (if only by the merest mention of France.) It keeps the focus on a few characters, kills several of them arbitrarily and brutally and is not afraid of having characters consider suicide (as it should be in a zombie horror/drama.) I like that you are teased about the wider world, while focusing on the struggle of only a dozen people. But even then, it seems that while there are radios and CBs on the characters at all times, and a lot of time spent in Atlanta, the survival portion is small. Maybe it is a function of its TV budget (and constraints of casting in TV production), or sticking to the graphic novels, but if you are going to bring the wider picture into things, you’d best find the balance of widening the number of actors beyond the usual TV ensemble structure. Also, I’m not sure how I feel about ‘guest stars appearances’ like Noah Emmerich’s CDC doctor, or Michael Rooker’s neo-nazi-hick who seems written into and out out of the first season at random (or at best a cliff hanger to come up at some inopportune time in future seasons.)
5. Musical Cues from Danny Boyle films?
This is more of a nitpick than a legit question, but 5 is rounder than 4, so please indulge me. Actually, closing out an episode/season with a great song has been done enough times at this point (from The Wire to Big Love to Battlestar Galactica to Lost.) Let’s retire this and think of a new way to evoke emotion via montage, shall we? But really what is baffling is the musical echoes of Danny Boyle films. Using a score that evokes the 28 Weeks Later… use of Brian Eno is fine. We are in Zombie territory, and knowing nods are fair game but kinda poor timing on the use of the Sunshine score (John Murphy) as a lot of film trailers have been using it, and its use just seems lazy here. Is an A.R. Rahman bollywood number going to show up in Season 3?