Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Walking Dead: Review of Episode 1, Days Gone Bye

By Dread Sockett

I was cautiously optimistic when I heard that there was going to be an adaption of Robert Kirkman's famed comic series, The Walking Dead. As with any adaptation, one needs to hold expectations in check and deal with the fact that some things will be changed (plus, who doesn't like a little floss in their sauce to spice up the same ol' same ol? Go on, admit it, Fanboy, a little variation ain’t hurtin’ nobody and it keeps things interesting.). I was fine with some changes as long as the tone that made the comic book popular in the first place was retained. Unfortunately, the TV version delivered a couple of head scratchers. Even if I could guess why the show's creators switched things up, and to be fair it is the same set of writers, I’m still left wondering why the comic's method of doing the same thing wasn't adequate.

Putting comparisons to the original comic to the side, I did enjoy THE WALKING DEAD as zombie comfort food and look forward to seeing how the series develops. Above all else, as any zombie film masochist can tell you, it's damn good to see a TV show with actual scary zombies. Hell, if I can enjoy revisiting THE FLESH EATER or ZOMBIE OASIS for shits and giggles, I'd be an idiot to not find a serious attempt at zombiegeddon worth my time. So please do keep that in mind as these reviews progress over time. I’m admittedly a little harsh on the first two episodes. Thanks to FRANK DARABONT for giving the Zed genre a shot in the arm. Hopefully he is able to keep the genre alive and spare us from sexy teen zombies who fight crime for a while.

Overall, the biggest, most wonkiest switch/development that I'm still grappling with is WHAT A BUNCH OF ASSHOLE CHARACTERS. Now, before someone says the survivors here are acting like “real” people would during a zombie crisis, all bitchy, squabbling, freaked out, etc., I do hafta enact the comic book comparison clause. If you've read the comics, you know that sure, there are good and bad characters in them. And yes, there's that whole stressful zombie apocalypse thing going on. However, we move along in the journey with the characters and watch them become or show themselves to be unlikable or questionable. The characters are given a chance to develop and readers are given a chance to develop opinions and deal with gray area moments. As readers, we are given a chance to at least understand the character's actions and why they are being jerks. You at least know why you can't wait for someone to get their ass eaten. On the TV series it is zero to asshole in less than 60 seconds.

 I appreciate the show's attempt to keep it real, but even a slight build-up could've helped and at least I wouldn't be wishing they all got eaten in five minutes so that we could just start with a fresh group. Lord (Satan) knows, I woulda packed my last MRE and got the Hell outta Dodge rather than rely on these wankers to have my back. Some of what I saw in the second episode felt like we were really watching the fifth episode and that I missed everything before it. We are merely dropped into asshole city and I don't mean Atlanta's zombie population. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let's start with the introduction to the characters of Deputies Rick and Shane. Sweet jeezuz, if they wanted to paint Shane as an unlikable, woman-hating asshole, they did a good job. So good that now Rick is guilty by ASSociation (see what I did there? We’re clever like that here at RM.), especially when he doesn't bother to lift an eyebrow at some of Shane's ridiculous women-as-doorknobs monologue. Serve and protect, indeed. This is partly, I suspect, due to Rick being lost inside himself, trying to gain control of his wandering Southern accent (this condition manifests again when he awakens in the hospital and goes from varying country boy twangs and crescendos to when he bursts through his family's front door screaming in perfectly enunciated English). Just sayin’.

< tangent> It’s interesting that the comics’ opening in the hospital was pushed further into the episode, presumably to steer away the inevitable (and misinformed) nerd comparisons to 28 Days Later. Instead the show opens with the good ol’ boys car chat. That harkens to a just as similar zed story opening, Joe McKinney’s DEAD CITY. You just can’t win in a zombie apocalypse. They shoulda left well enough alone.

 We proceed from their squad car coffee klatch to what feels like a COPS-styled chase segment (the officers even joke about it). I suspect it meant as a bone to those who might not be able to withstand the episode's understated remainder. Did the producers think the original comic fans were too marginal an audience that they had to have immediate action to make this mainstream? I felt this whole segment was rather unnecessary and as my co-editor said, it also felt as if the producers didn't have enough faith in the source material's own opening, that devotes a mere page to this cops and robbers nonsense, and proceeds to focus on Rick's hospital wake-up.

So now, before we really get started we have two main characters that must now prove themselves to be likable or at least tolerable (read: worthy of us giving a damn). Suddenly one is shot and put into a coma, but now because of the wonderful character studies beforehand, we need to try to give a shit that he's in this situation. Normally simply coming out of a coma would’ve granted him a free pass. The comic certainly wins here, because its sequencing allows the reader to journey WITH Rick and discover the deep shit he and the world faces. Who he is or was at that point is not particularly relevant because he's enough of a blank slate that we could all identify with him in some way. Unlike his TV counterpart, we don't have any preconceived notion of his character. And when the comic Rick awakens, we are right there along with him as he is forced to define himself in this new world and this sets up our investment as readers. His TV counterpart has a slight tarnish from the start for being at the very least an enabler to a misogynist. In a story where you are expected to care about a character's plight, all of this doesn't exactly win sympathy votes, gunshot or not.

It took a second viewing for me to really settle into the episode's rhythm, which initially felt choppy from my attempts to process all the changes. I did come to appreciate the use of quiet and stillness as a means to further depict Rick's isolation, all while walking right down the middle of main street USA in broad daylight. This was a pretty risky move on Darabont's part after beating viewer's over the head with the opening chase sequence. It's especially interesting because this contrast works well and while disliking the chase's inclusion, I can see the justification as a set up for this powerful, silent, lonely walk home.

Just as the focus on Rick was wearing thin (in that 'OK, we get it...he's fucked up and buggin’ at all this, can we move along cuz even the camera angles are becoming cliché’ kinda way), thank the great zombie gods we were blessed with the appearance of Morgan and Duane – not only for the show’s exposition, but for some other people-people. Unfortunately, like the majority of the show's cast thus far we are kicked in the pants with the initial appearance of this traumatized father and son duo. Understandably, the pair is FUBAR thanks to the Zed crisis, but their characters are introduced a little too aggressively and we as viewers still aren't even sure WTF is happening. Rick may look a little toasted, but he ain't exactly zombie-looking, yet BAM! He’s clocked with the shovel and next thing we know Rick is tied to the rack in some bedroom (Ooph! Sounds kinda hawt, now all we needed is Michelle Pfeiffer in her CATWOMAN outfit). These beat-you-over-the-head introductions (err, no pun intended, really) are made more glaring when you look back at the scenes of Rick's journey home and how effective those are without doing a damn thing but showing him walking around. This borderline character lunacy from the get go just stoops to those in the back row who might not be paying attention and isn't necessary to convey the desperation. Even the comic's shovel scene doesn't come off half as batshit crazy, yet manages to convey the duo's desperation and suspicion of Rick. Darabont plays subtlety well, I just wished he did a little more of it here and not played to those who need their crisis front and center.

Damn, and I said I did like this show so far, right?

So do you want to hear what sold this show to me as worth giving a chance? It was the portrayals of Morgan and Duane (Lennie James and Adrian Kali Turner) after the shovel mayhem wore down. Until his appearance, even Rick, our hero, did not display the emotional range or even the humanity that James' character does. This of course is not Andrew Lincoln's (Rick) entire fault, but the producer's who chose action over substance then relied on the walk to invest us in the character. Here Morgan gives the show a dose of tenderness, sense of loss, and everything else that Rick should’ve been carrying on his shoulders from the start.  Morgan’s initial ferocity towards Rick, however pushed, is still palpable, and makes the scope and feel of the crisis really take shape for a viewer. His relationship chemistry with Adrian Kali Turner was believable and it also helped that Turner's performance felt convincing. He wasn't the usual smarmy kid we see in end-of-the-world stories. He comes off as a genuinely scared little kid making his way with his dad and trying to rise to the occasion.

I bought their performances and if the show as a whole can give me at least one of these characters to give a shit about each episode, I'm in. This is where the show feels like its source (comic readers will know exactly what I mean). I was waiting for someone to give a damn about and surprisingly, it wasn't Rick, but Morgan and Duane. Hopefully, Rick can grow similarly into a character that we can feel for (rather than being told we should care for him).

That said, the final few minutes are where the show just lost control and will lose fanboys like myself. So Rick finally gets into Atlanta on horseback. Hell, there’s even an iconic scene of him arriving on the freeway overlooking the city that just says some serious shit is about to go down. And it does….. more or less. In the concluding moments of the episode Rick finds himself trapped, the show has finally gotten us to give a damn. Like really fear for his safety. I loved how this was setup. No way out, Zeds for days, and everything a zombie fan would want is delivered. The tension mounts as option after option proves futile. Then, the radio breaks into the moment with a stupid “hey dumbass” transmission and (choke*gag) some beats start bumpin, telling us the show is fixin’ to do some you know, cool shit like pan out from the tank and sell some CDs.

It wasn’t enough to ruin a perfectly timed sequence and the show’s most intense moment with some snarky comment, no… the camera then pulls back to reveal the scope of Rick’s plight and instead of cashing in on this, the producers determine that they should continue some wonky pop-shit music track to accompany this. It just ruined the whole tension that was built when Rick was trying to save his skin. You almost expect one of the zombies to come cruising through on a Moped winking at the camera. Welcome to the YouTube apocalypse, ya’ll.

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