I hadn’t really watched any of the recent slew of high-quality, critically acclaimed cable shows. Then, Netflix happened. *dun, dun, dun*
What did I choose to check out first? That zombie show, of course!
Well, strictly speaking that isn’t true. I tried to watch Portlandia which was recommended to me, but I really couldn’t stand the sketch comedy format and despite growing up in the nineties, I think I was missing the big joke of that show right from the get go.
So I clicked on Walking Dead out of sheer impulse. I’d also heard good things about it. And it had this awesome promo image attached to it.
How could I resist? I don’t love zombies, but I do love post-apocalyptic, survivalist, skin-of-the-teeth dramas. Well, some of them. I generally love the settings if nothing else. There’s just something really interesting to me about poking around in the remnants of civilization all rules and objectives having been removed except survival and whatever else (if anything) is truly important to the characters.
The zombies, I thought, I’ll just put up with. Besides, I’d heard that the show was just as much about the dangers posed by the other survivors as by the zombies and indeed this proved to be true.
“Days Gone Bye” has got to be one of the best pilot episodes of any show I’ve ever seen. There are precious few shows that have engaged me this much from the very first episode. I usually find I have to be more patient with television. I realize it’s a serial medium. They’re taking it slower than cinema and often that’s very rewarding. So unless I am finding no enjoyment at all, I usually give shows until halfway through the first season to grip me. That wasn’t necessary at all with Walking Dead.
It wasn’t until I’d watched a few episodes that I realized the show was produced and adapted for TV by Frank Darabont, the director behind the well-known and regarded Stephen King adaptations Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (also The Mist, but let’s not talk about that). I’m probably slightly less bullish on Darabont’s films than the next guy (which isn’t to say I dislike them) but I have to admit that his ability to tell compelling and memorable stories-within-stories is a huge strength when it comes to a television series. I sometimes felt like Shawshank and Green Mile were being drug out like a TV series.
Darabont’s cinematic experience shows especially in the first episode and all throughout the first season. The season plays out like a long movie and, with the exception of occasionally dodgy CGI (which is forgivable), the show looks cinema quality as well. That’s pretty cool.
The best thing about the first season is its sense of urgency and mystery. There are always a couple of important questions the characters are trying to answer in these kinds of stories like: how widespread is the infection? Are there any safe places left? Is somebody working on a cure? Or even just the basic survival question: will I get eaten today?
And even though the answers to a lot of these questions are vague or standard, that last lingering question of survival is always there. The show builds an environment where you really don’t know who will live and who won’t. For that reason I really recommend you avoid any and all possible spoilers if you want to watch the show.
Something that constantly bothers me in fiction is when the writers let characters off too easily. If you build up a big threat and topple it without the slightest bit of trouble then you’ve pull all the teeth from your story. I will no longer believe anything you say when you tell me something is dangerous or threatening.
The Walking Dead has no such problem. There are consequences for all of the actions of the characters and consequences that are merely inherent in the harsh post-zombie world. In fact, this might be the only show I’ve seen where the writers could stand to be a little nicer to the characters. But, hey, seeing someone go through hell is a lot more interesting than seeing them go through Candyland… unless it’s full of zombies too.
Even if someone doesn’t die, there are nearly always negative consequences to plague the characters. Sometimes dying isn’t the worst fate.
Season one had me absolutely hooked from the get-go. For me it was the television equivalent of a “page-turner.” Do we have a phrase for that? We need one.
Then came season two.
I liked it. I watched it with almost as much enthusiasm as the first, but I also watched it directly after the first season without waiting a year. I imagine if I had been anticipating season two for a whole year I might have been disappointed with what I got.
The more you anticipate something, the more you expect of it and are likely to be disappointed with the actual outcome. It’s an interesting little bit of media psychology. I guess it relates to everything though, but it seems especially true and obvious when it comes to media. I saw the Matrix films years after they had all come out so I wasn’t nearly as disappointed with the sequels as most people.
Season two’s production, from what I understand, was plagued by budget cuts and the ousting of Frank Darabont. It shows. It’s not that the production quality decreases. The focus just narrows. The entire season takes place in more-or-less the same location rather than covering a lot of ground like in season one. So the sense of discovery is lost to a great extent. It is replaced by an increased focus on interpersonal drama and the supporting cast both of which are welcome… for awhile.
Unfortunately, the show also gets a little too bogged down. A little too slow. And characters start making the kinds of stupid decisions common to horror which really flies in the face of the caution exhibited by the survivors in season one (well, generally speaking).
There’s one point where a character who is in no position to leave the group goes off on her own because… I donno. She took stupid pills, maybe? Heck, when I was growing up we weren’t even supposed to go out on our own at scout camp and there were a lot fewer zombies there. Maybe only 50 or 60.
Ultimately the story arc of season two proves rewarding although it gets even darker by the end. So, yeah. This isn’t a show for the faint of heart… in case you didn’t summize that from the – y’know – zombies and mass destruction.
It’s quite bloody and gory. I mean really bloody and gory. It’s probably average for zombie stuff, but I don’t watch horror myself so I wouldn’t know. Apparently there’s no such thing as blood borne illness in The Walking Dead or zombie fiction in general because these people are regularly covered in blood and gore but nothing happens to them so long as they aren’t bit.
The show is also quite tense and filled with conflict. So if that kind of thing gets on your nerves then you won’t like that aspect of the show either. I know some people object to such infighting when the characters are faced with overwhelming odds. But it’s pretty hard to argue that people (especially untrained people) don’t tend to act rationally or calmly when they don’t feel safe.
While it is far from unique or groundbreaking to incorporate Nietzsche’s well-known adage “be careful when you fight monsters lest you become one” as a theme, it works really effectively in Walking Dead. As one critic said, the show it at its best when it’s not being subtle.
The surprising theme of the show is family. It’s actually quite sweet and heartfelt many times. There were individual scenes in the show I could picture my mom really connecting with… in between the scenes of zombies eating people’s intestines. Seriously! The themes of sacrifice, family, hope, and faith ring true most of the time they’re explored. Maybe it’s because it’s set in the South, but the show seems to be actually quite steeped in traditional values when it comes to family and the roles of men and women. That’s a refreshing change of pace from some of the more “progressive” shows which are clearly pushing for new paradigms in gender roles and family values (although is it just me or do all the women seem either heartless or abused?)
There’s one really touching scene in the first episode of the second season where a woman begs God for help and you really feel the desperation of not only her situation but of the entire group and humanity as a whole. I at least saw this as symbolic of how truly desperate humanity’s plight is. Our society and our transient accomplishments blind us to the need for reliance on God but stripped of that these characters must put their faith in something or else become suicidally hopeless or inhumanly monstrous. Of course the show is more interested in exploring “faith” in that silly, hollow, trite way television does, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s not like I expected The Walking Dead to be the show that gets theology right.
The show has hooked me. Season three starts in October and I’ll be happy to have a current drama to watch again (my last was Stargate Universe which I’m still mad at SyFy for canceling just when it was getting good). It does feel like it’s going in a bit more comic-bookie direction. Yes, I know it’s based on graphic novels, but I’m worried that they might start doing “cool” stuff for the sake of doing cool stuff. Hopefully instead it will continue to be well-written, unpredictable, and thrilling. For the most part, it has been so far. I finally like zombies for something more than video game target practice.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Candyland zombie movie pitch to work on.