Saturday, January 21, 2012

Pretty Much WALKING DEAD Already

[I've cross-posted this over at my movie blog.]

American Movie Classics used to be a cable station that specialized in a wide variety of classic movies from every era of the cinema, screened uncut, without commercial interruptions, and usually shown in their original aspect ratios. It was a must-have for movie lovers. Several years ago, the sages charged with running it decided to change things, and, under their wise guidance, it became, instead, a cable station devoted to a very limited selection of mostly recent movies that were either outright awful or that everyone had already seen a million-and-a-half times, screened chopped to ribbons, usually panned-and-scanned, packed with as many commercial interruptions as could be squeezed in, and then repeated ad infinitum. Perhaps because no one wanted to look at such a station, the AMC gang started dipping their toes into the potentially much more lucrative field of original programming. As it turned out, they were extremely lucky. Two of their early acquisitions, MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD, proved to be some of the best television on television, and though not particularly huge ratings successes, they did well enough, and brought AMC some things it hadn't had since the format change: respect and even prestige. AMC played up the angle. "AMC: We know drama," the ads proclaimed. Or "AMC: Telling the best original stories on tv." Those who write about such things agreed--or at least bought into it--and were usually discrete enough, when singing AMC's praises, not to bring up the fact that it was still mostly just a channel that re-re-replayed lousy, way-overscreened movies.[1]

Such praise makes for good ink, and, to an extent, the mystique it generates can act somewhat like teflon when it comes to future projects, which have little hope of measuring up to those early successes. That mystique can make some be much more forgiving toward an offering from the Masters of Drama at The Great And Powerful AMC. It can also become a curse, as well, though, because it can make others expect a great deal more than the merely mundane that is most television.

Given the remarkable surge in the popularity of zombie tales in the last few years, it was inevitable that a zombie-centric project would eventually make its way to American television, and the gang over at AMC made a good call indeed when they decided they were going to facilitate the creation of a tv version of THE WALKING DEAD, a popular comic book set during a zombie apocalypse. AMC's signature dramas were adult, complex, well-written, and what the PR boys call "edgy." As these were the very qualities that had made the comic a success, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Fans of the comic, fans of AMC's dramas, and the larger community of genre fans, who had been in love with zombie tales for years, greeted news of the project with enthusiasm.

It started very strong. The pilot movie, "Days Gone Bye," was a direct adaptation of the first few issues of the comic. Helmed by Frank Darabont, the series' showrunner and general guiding light, it debuted in October 2010, after a massive promotional campaign, and became the highest-rated cable series premiere of the year. The series had a successful but brief first season (only 6 episodes), and returned this past October for another, which, in its first 7 episodes, has garnered even higher ratings (as of this writing, the series is on mid-season hiatus until February).

But while everything about TWD on television has come up good ratings, the first season became, in some ways, creatively problematic almost immediately. The series, overall, didn't live up to the hype. In fact, by the high standards set by AMC's signature dramas (and by some of the other great television of the last few years), the episodes were frequently mediocre-to-terrible. The much higher standard set by the pilot wasn't matched by anything that followed (and, to date, still hasn't been), and a slow but steady decline set in.[2] Collectively, though, these first six installments were still relatively good by the generally low standards of television, and set up what could have grown, with a little polish and fine-tuning, into a solid series. Unfortunately, this brief, flawed first season, even with warts and all, quickly began to look like the good ol' days upon the inauguration of season 2, when the quality of the series crashed as dramatically as a truck full of pianos charging over a cliff. By the time the mid-season ender rolled around, its title, "Pretty Much Dead Already," looked like a metatextual comment on the series itself. Many successful television series suffer a "sophomore jinx," and, for whatever reason, just can't get it right in their second season. TWD has to be one of the most extreme examples of this in the history of the medium.

How has something so full of potential and based on such solid source-material gone so terribly wrong?

TWD would be a difficult property for most commercial television outlets. It's a very dark story, set in a bleak, unforgiving, relentlessly dangerous world that, on a regular basis, forces tough decisions on its characters, the kind that could utterly alienate a mainstream television audience. Where such audiences typically demand a stable cast of familiar characters, no one in TWD has script immunity; anyone can be killed at any moment, including your favorites, and they routinely are. AMC's prestige dramas aren't mainstream fodder. They don't have to draw the ratings of NCIS. They go in directions that, on a regular network show, would be unthinkable. That's why there was hope, when it was announced AMC would be creating the series, that it would be done justice on the screen. Of course, when it comes to screen adaptations of literature, everybody knows the movie ain't never as good as the book. Ideally, an adaptation aims to capture the spirit of the original work, if not necessarily its letter. Even in departing from the source material, though, it can rise on its own merits. In the first season, TWD was passable entertainment, but, as an adaptation, strictly weak tea; in the second season, it completely lost its way on both counts--it has been both a terrible adaptation of the comic and a terrible show.

When it comes to adapting print to the screen, there are a lot of legitimate reasons for changing things, and this is particularly true with regard to an open-ended project like TWD. Obviously, the creators of any ongoing series will want a certain amount of freedom, and not to be tied, in an overly restrictive manner, to the material they're adapting, but when it comes to changes, the creators of TWD have exercised absolutely wretched judgment. In almost every instance, the extensive changes they've enacted in the comic story and characters significantly weakened both, are completely unnecessary, and have caused, in themselves, all manner of problems.

For example, our hero Rick Grimes is a very stoic fellow in the comic. It's one of the things that makes him a natural at being the leader he later becomes. He isn't made of stone, by any means, but he's very controlled, takes things in stride, and isn't easily upset. It takes a lot to make him completely lose his composure, and when he finally loses it, it can be quite a sight. The series began to dispense with this right from the pilot. In both the comic and series, Rick is a Kentucky police officer[2a] who is left in a coma after being wounded in the line of duty. He awakens from it to find the world has been overrun by walking, flesh-eating corpses, and no living people to be found anywhere. He immediately goes to his home, finding it abandoned, his wife and child gone. At this moment in the comic, he looks around, finds nothing, and walks back outside, looking puzzled and a bit frustrated. On tv, he finds the house abandoned and, in an ominous sign of things to come, has a big emotional breakdown, sobbing into incoherence--completely hysterical.[3] Unnecessarily amping up the melodrama to 11 in this way becomes a major problem, in general, as the series progresses, but it's a particular problem when it comes to Rick. In season 1, he
does still manage to demonstrate significant leadership skills. By season 2, though--the point where most of the more serious problems with TWD kick in--he is devolved rather spectacularly. The writers still want to follow the comic in making him the leader of the survivors, while, at the same time, constantly undermining the things that made him a natural choice as leader. Rick has been shown, throughout season 2, as overly emotional, weak-willed, indecisive, and just plain dumb--no leader at all.[4]

As that suggests, no real thought seems to have gone into many of the changes, which, at times, made a real mess of the plot. For example, the dead, in both comic and on tv, rise and overrun the world while Rick is comatose. As the zombie situation starts to become a concern, Rick's friend and fellow officer Shane accompanies Rick's wife Lori and son Carl to Atlanta, where Lori's parents live, leaving Rick at the hospital at which he's been receiving care. In the comic, they end up stranded on the outskirts of Atlanta. Lori is distraught about what's happening--Atlanta has fallen to the dead--and, in a moment of weakness, has sex with Shane, who'd been secretly carrying a torch for her. A one-time thing, and something she immediately regrets. About a week later, back in Kentucky, the hospital is overrun, and Rick awakens. He deduces Lori's likely destination and sets out for Atlanta. A fairly simple scenario. Too simple, it seems, for the tv writers. Rather than having Shane accompany Rick's family to Atlanta while the hospital is still operational and the zombie problem not yet at a crisis level, the series offered up a flashback showing Shane present at the hospital at the very moment it was being overrun. He unsuccessfully tries to rescue Rick, and ends up leaving him behind, believing him dead. At the same time, the series also changes that one-time sex business to an extended, passionate affair between Shane and Lori, carried on after they'd left Kentucky, and after Shane told her Rick was dead. But if Shane was present in Kentucky for the hospital's fall, there's no time for the extended affair with which we're presented. Rick awakens at the hospital within, at most, a day or two of its being overrun--maybe even on the same day it was overrun--and, after a night spent with a pair of local survivors, drives to Atlanta the next day, and is reunited with his family.

To be fair to the pilot movie, neither the the extended affair between Rick and Lori nor the flashback showing Shane at the hospital were present in it. These items were added to subsequent episodes, creating problems where none existed. This wasn't the only time something like this happened in the first season (and the pilot, though pretty good overall, is by no means innocent of this sort of thing, either). When, for example, did the zombie uprising begin? The writers never got it straight twice running, and none of their various answers were even remotely reconcilable with either one another or with what we're shown. In both the comic and series, the zombie apocalypse takes place after Rick is shot and left comatose. It hasn't started before he's hurt; he has no knowledge of what's happened after he awakens. In the comic, he's asleep for about a month. The series never says exactly how long Rick is comatose, but its creators' habit of making unnecessary changes kicked in and made a hash of it. Whereas in the comic, Rick's wound was basically healed at the time he awakened and was never an issue, Rick's wound, on tv, is still enough of a mess that it needs to be kept covered, and will have to be kept covered for some time after. This would suggest it had been two weeks or less since he'd been shot. Before the pilot had even concluded, though, problems arose. The first survivor Rick meets relates to him what's been happening, and says the zombie situation got really bad a month earlier. Even if one stretched enough to allow that Rick was in the hospital for a full month with a wound that inexplicably refused to close, this still implies the zombie uprising had been going on for quite some time before even that.[4a] As impossible as this is to reconcile, it gets even worse with subsequent episodes. In episode 5, set three days after Rick awakens, a lone scientist, still working on the zombie phenomenon at the CDC in Atlanta, makes a video log stating that the zombie virus first appeared 6 1/2 months earlier and went global 63 days ago. This means that the dead began to rise over 5 months before Rick was shot, and that, at the time of that shooting, a full-scale global zombie apocalypse had been underway for over a month, and neither Rick nor anyone else noticed.[5]

What it actually means is that the writers on the series have problems. Showrunner Frank Darabont must have noticed--after the first season, he fired them and brought in a new team. The results, however, have been disastrous. The sorts of things I've been outlining, here, became, in season 2, an every-episode epidemic, while the quality of the show--the thing that made one willing to be somewhat merciful toward them--plummeted. The new team didn't even seem to know or care what TWD was about. TWD is, as the comic legend says, a "continuing story of survival horror." Robert Kirkman, the comic's co-creator (with artists Tony Moore and, later, Charlie Adlard), said his idea for the book was to show what happens, in a DAWN OF THE DEAD-type world, after the helicopter leaves the roof at the end. The central theme of the comic has been exploring, on an open-ended basis, how this harsh, unrelenting world changes the characters, and is forever breaking down their, broadly speaking, civilized values. In order to survive, even the best of them end up having to do some pretty horrible things, at times. In season 1, the writers often de-emphasized the horror elements, in what I suspect was a misguided effort to "mainstream" the show.[6] Their plots always flowed from survivalist concerns, but, because they were muting the horror elements, they were also soft-pedaling these concerns. In the comic, when the characters are out on the road, they're short of everything, starving, stinking, at the mercy of the elements, of zombies, of other humans, and are rarely far from devastating harm. There was little sense of this in the series, and the atmosphere of desperation it produced was almost entirely absent.[7] But while the 1st season writers were soft on these things, those comprising the new team behind season 2 apparently had no interest at all in writing either a horror story or a survival story. They aggressively removed as many of the horror/edge-of-survival elements as they were able, and seemed to resent the whole zombie apocalypse thing, as if it was just some inconvenient angle toward which they were sometimes forced to offer a tip of the hat, rather than the basic premise of the entire project. Instead of trying to capture something of the spirit of the book, their work is like some twisted mirror image of it. The book is set during the end of the world; they remove the end of the world. Where the book perpetually challenges those civilized values, they try to perpetually reinforce them.[8] The book is printed in black-and-white, but deals with moral dilemmas that are distinctly grey; their work is filmed in bright color, but they've kept the morality rigorously black-and-white. The book is great; their work sucks.

"What Lies Ahead," the season 2 opener, begins with the survivors driving the freeway, and, in a situation that will become a painfully apt metaphor for everything that follows, they're brought to a complete stop by a large traffic snarl. As things progress, Sophia, a minor character who, up to that point, hadn't spoken more than two or three lines in the entire series, is lost. Astonishingly enough, the search for her--a character of absolutely no consequence about which the audience has been given absolutely no reason to care--becomes the thing around which the writers organize the first seven episodes, over half the season. They don't dedicate a moment of those seven episodes to giving the audience any reason to care about Sophia, either. They make a fundamentally wrongheaded decision to strip the series of nearly every horror and survivalist element, and the characters end up camping on a farm for the duration, free of the troubles of the zombie apocalypse, and looking, looking, looking for Sophia.

The end of the world as they've known it becomes a thing about which they still sometimes talk, but the disconnect between that talk and both what we'd expect to see in such a situation and what we're actually shown, episode after episode, is so severe that it plays, at times, like a Monty Python sketch. By episode 6, Rick has discovered Lori is pregnant and they stand around having an emotional moment, full of the clichés bad writers mistake for existential angst about whether it's right to bring a child into such a horrible, fucked up world, and the entire scene is shot against a backdrop of absolutely beautiful farm country, the birds chirping, bugs buzzing, the sun sinking low in the evening--there's even a windmill in the background. And, of course, it comes after we've watched them spend episode after episode on what amounts to a camping trip in the same idyllic country setting.

Yeah, that's a really terrible world you've got there, Lori.

It's hard to overstate the extent to which the end of the world is pushed aside as the season lumbers along. In one typical sequence (from the 4th episode), Glenn and Maggie, two of the characters who are becoming close, take a trip to a drugstore in the nearby town, which is presented like a deserted version of Mayberry. It's a leisurely horseback ride in the sunshine, Glenn and his favorite gal running errands for Aunt Bea. They tie the horses up outside, even though zombies eat horses, the good town druggist has been kind enough to leave the door unlocked with a sign telling passers-by to take what they need, and everyone else has been kind enough not to loot the place. They go in, pick up what they need, and even take a break for some sweet afternoon delight, without a care in the world. Tension and a sense of danger and of what has become of the world could have been imparted to this simply by including a brief shot of something watching them pass from inside one of the buildings, or by throwing in a glimpse of a shuffling ghoul in the background of one of the long-shots, or by just putting a dead body in the street somewhere. Instead, there is, as with most of the season, nothing.

The zombies themselves didn't entirely disappear, but the writers adopted an apparent quota system for them. There's usually at least one brief, token zombie encounter per episode. Sometimes, they're written in to serve some plot need. When Glenn and Maggie make that same trip to the drugstore again in a later episode--repetition being the soul of TWD this season--there was a need for Glenn to convince her that the rotting, people-eating walking corpses that had overrun the world weren't just "sick people"--obviously a very bright girl, right?--so the writers put a zombie in the drugstore, had it attack Maggie, and had it survive a counter-attack by Glenn that would kill any living person. Other times, it's just a filler scene, tacked on to meet the quota and eat up screen-time. In episode 4, for example, the characters discover a zombie that has fallen down a well on the farm. The farm has four other wells around the property, and dealing with this would seem to be a simple matter of closing off the well, and just using the others. Instead, they decide to try to get the zombie out. They opt not to shoot it, because that would contaminate the well, and if anyone present realizes having already had a rotting corpse in the water for weeks makes this an absolutely absurd concern, they don't bother to mention it. They adopt a ridiculous plan that involves lowering Glenn into the well in the hopes that he can get a rope around it so they can drag it out.[9] Glenn succeeds, nearly being eaten in the process, and as they're pulling out the waterlogged corpse, it splits in half, spilling gouts of guts into the water. Looking over the carnage, T-Dog, one of the underused characters, offers, in response, the best line of season 2. "Good thing we didn't do anything stupid, like shoot it." More metatextual commentary? Perhaps, but the writers did manage to burn through a few minutes of the episode with this, and the zombie quota was met.

Once the quota is met, the rest of THE WALKING DEAD features little of the walking dead. Rather than coming up with anything original or--heaven
particularly forbid--anything uniquely in line with the premise of TWD, the writers filled time by turning, for inspiration, to bad television and movie drama, particularly that bastion of high-quality entertainment known, colloquially, as the soap opera. Actually, I'm pretty sure the word "inspiration," with its connotation of originality, can't be sufficiently stretched to cover their practice of precisely replicating cliché'd scenarios and scenes such programs have done to death for decades. At the same time, the word's positive connotation means it seems wrong, in a different way, to apply it to their practice of replicating the soaps' glacial pace and insanely overwrought melodrama. Let's just put it this way: if imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery, the hacks who have ground out these awful programs for all these years ought to be feeling pretty damn appreciated by TWD writing staff just now. With the zombie apocalypse removed, this season of TWD has wallowed in missing child melodrama, love-triangle melodrama, baby-daddy melodrama, and they've even managed to burn through a lot of time with a Woman Who Refuses To Be A Victim Anymore melodrama, among other well-toasted chestnuts of the genre.

Replicating the snail's pace of the soaps,[10] the writers concocted only about two episodes worth of actual plot then stretched it out over seven. Most of the running time for this season, to date, has been made up of padding. The eternal search for Sophia--the central plot--was stretched over the entirety of this time. Lots and lots of scenes of planning, planning, planning to look for her, followed by lots and lots of scenes of people looking, looking, looking, and finding nothing. With mind-numbing regularity, the characters repeat exactly the same scenes, the same conversations. After Rick's son Carl is shot in a hunting accident and hovers close to death, Rick has to be told--cliché alert--that his place is with his son (because he wants to run off and tell his wife). Then, he has to be told this again (because Carl needs some medical equipment from a nearby school, and he wants to go and get it himself, instead of allowing Shane to do so). Then, he has to be told it again (because Shane doesn't return as soon as they'd hoped). And so on--all in extended fashion. The farm being such a safe and idyllic location, Rick wants the group to stay, so he talks it over with Herschel, the farmer who owns it. Then, he talks it over with him again. Then he talks it over with him again. And so on. With Carl hovering close to death, Lori and Rick get into that cliché'd version of existential angst, wondering if it would be better if Carl didn't make it. Then, they do it again. And again. When, as I wrote earlier, Rick learns that Lori is pregnant, they do it yet again. And so on. Every species of filler has been on full display.

Of all the many changes the writers made to TWD in bringing it to television, the one that has always seemed, to me, the biggest departure from the comic is the tone the writers imported from the soaps. In their treatment of the characters and their interactions, the writers mercilessly jettison any hint of subtlety, complexity, or maturity in favor of extreme, jacked-up melodrama, with everyone nearly going glassy-eyed from being so perpetually wide-eyed and overwrought. The contrast between scenes that happen in both comic and series is striking. When Lori discovers she's pregnant, it turns into a ridiculously overwrought multi-episode melodrama. She's emotionally devastated, because she just can't understand how she's going to manage a pregnancy and baby in this awful world. She decides not to tell Rick or the others. She has to tell Glenn, because she needs him to secretly retrieve the pregnancy test to confirm it. Then, Glenn is so overwrought and, as he puts it, so bad at lying that he seems as if he's going to spontaneously combust if he has to keep the secret (we're meant to find this humorous). Then, Lori has him retrieve "morning after" pills, which can't abort a pregnancy, but Lori, being the bright girl she is, thinks they will. Wild-eyed, she tears them open and swallows them. Then, she becomes uncertain, and makes herself throw them up. Rick returns to their tent, finds the pills, and goes out to confront her in the big, emotional scene I described earlier. Anger, frustration, perspiration, wild emoting, yelling at one another. In the comic, when Lori feels pregnant, she immediately tells Rick. Her concern with this is written in her sober, earnest expression. She solicits his thoughts. Both clearly understand the potential difficulties, but he is cautiously optimistic. And that's it. No extended melodrama, no overwrought emoting, the matter handled in a simple, mature manner, and it took three pages. And Lori, from the comic, lived in a
much harsher world than her television counterpart. Everything on the series is handled in the same stupid, overwrought manner as this; it stands in very stark contrast to the tone of the comic.

Even beyond the lobotomy demanded to bring the character in line with the soap approach of the series, Lori has been much abused in the translation to television. The writers' clumsy tinkering with the details of her affair with Shane meant that, almost immediately after thinking her husband dead (probably within mere hours), she started having regular sex with Shane. If Rick
had died, the body wouldn't have even been entirely cold, and this makes her the subject of a lot of hatred on internet message boards, but I suspect that's just because it's an easy target, and that the rest of the story behind the extreme reaction to her is that, in every scene the writers have ever given her, they've gone out of their way to make her stupid, selfish, bitchy, totally unlikeable and totally unsympathetic. They've abused every one of the female characters in this way,[11] but their treatment of Lori has been the most extreme--unlike some of the others, she's never gotten a single scene or line of dialogue that gives us any reason at all to be on her side. Sarah Wayne Callies, who essays the part, hasn't helped, as she has played the character with one expression throughout: standoffish.

As astonishing as it may sound to those who only know the tv version, Lori is actually a
good character in the comic. Not always agreeable, but smart and likeable. She and Rick, unlike their television counterparts, have a good marriage. Some of the other characters who, in the comic, brought interesting dynamics to the group were gutted, those dynamics tossed, but not replaced with anything nearly as interesting (when replaced at all). In the book, Andrea is, like Lori, utterly likeable. She goes through the tragedy of her sister's death to emerge as a sort of female version of Dale (to whom I'll get in a moment). She would spot trouble, among the others, and try to head it off. On the series, she's written as a moronic, self-obsessed woman-child. Comic Carol was young, beautiful, and rather desperately clingy, her radiant exterior often concealing her pathological need for love in a world that didn't have much of it; the series made her older, the cowed wife of a batterer who, most of the time, is just a quietly passive non-entity. The children Carl and Sophia were much younger in the comic, maybe five or six years old. They became chums, and Kirkman used them to great effect with poignant, Peanuts-style mouths-of-babes type observations on whatever was happening; the series made them older, nearly teenagers, and took away anything of interest they had to say.[12]

Other characters have suffered in translation for other reasons. In the comic, Dale is a careful observer of people who often gets in everyone else's business because he's trying to head off potential conflicts before they balloon into problems that could endanger the groups' survival. Though the television version of the character is made to express himself in the same wide-eyed, mouth-agape, overwrought way as everyone else--that soap lobotomy--he is otherwise an almost direct copy of his comic counterpart. The reason
this has become problematic is that, while season 2 has moved along, the writers have retained Dale's behavior, while removing its rationale--the horror/survival elements. With the group in no danger, Dale doesn't appear to have any strong, logical motive for his prying, and has started to come across as just a nosy old dick.

It's hard to overstate how profoundly awful the writing has been this season--incompetence cross-breeding with indifference, generating plot-holes and logical problems in their wake at every turn.[13] Carl is shot in the midsection in a hunting accident and very nearly dies before Herschel is able to perform emergency surgery on him. A little over 2 days later, story time, he's walking around as if nothing had ever happened. When Rick came to Atlanta in the pilot, he brought a bag of guns and 700 rounds of ammo, which, during a zombie apocalypse, would be second in value only to food and water. Rick gave some of the guns and something less than half of the ammo to another group of survivors who were guarding a nursing home. That's the last ammo the group picked up anywhere,[14] but this season, the writers decided the group would start holding shooting practice. Eight or nine characters, standing on a range, shooting at bottles and cans. If Rick had kept, say, 400 rounds, this would be gone in a matter of minutes in such a situation.[15] And it got worse, because at the end of the mid-season finale,
still having made no effort to secure any more ammo, they spray more rounds than the Wild Bunch taking out a large group of zombies. When, in season 1, Lori discovered Rick hadn't died in the hospital, she angrily tells Shane (who had told her Rick was dead) to stay away from her and from her family. Three episodes later, he attempts to rape her. In the very next episode--the season 2 opener--her son Carl is trying to solicit fatherly interaction with Shane, Shane is cold toward him, and Lori, apparently furious that her would-be rapist may no longer be acting as her son's role model, starts bitching at Shane over it. And so on.

A likely contributing factor in the series' precipitous decline is that AMC instituted deep cuts in the budget for season 2. Reportedly, the budget, per episode, went from $3.4 million to $2.75 million.[16] Then, some sort of unspecified technical problem rendered unusable a lot of the footage from the intended season opener, presumably meaning another episode had to be produced on even slimmer money to fill the order for 13.

Showrunner Frank Darabont couldn't understand the logic behind cutting the budget of one of the most successful cable series of all time, and when he griped about it too often and too loudly, he was fired, less than 2 months into the production of season 2. Internet fans of the series, shell-shocked by its decline, have often tended to attribute that decline to Darabont's firing, but I've always been skeptical of that. When Darabont was given the boot, he was still trying to edit the intended first episode, the one with the problem. Even that work was never used. Instead, the last few minutes of footage from it (footage unaffected by that technical issue) were tacked on to the intended second episode, creating the slightly longer season 2 debut that actually aired. Darabont probably didn't see, to completion, even a single episode of the season, and given the rushed, down-to-the-last-minute nature of television production, that means what actually made it to the screen is probably different--maybe quite different--than it would have been if he'd finished it himself. Jeffrey DeMunn, Darabont's friend and long-time collaborator who plays Dale, has, for example, spoken publicly about how extensively Darabont had his hands in the editing of the series, and how his absence has been apparent in that area. Still, his contribution to the first 7 eps is, by every report, significant. He signed off on the writers. He approved the scripts. He oversaw the filming of at least two episodes, and maybe one or two more (he was fired at some stage of advance preparation for episode 5). The decline had clearly started under his reign, and the 1st season, over which he had full control, was hardly classic.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was, though. It gave birth to the modern version of zombie tales back in 1968. THE WALKING DEAD came about because those tales have become so remarkably popular in recent years. An ongoing series set during a zombie apocalypse is something no one has done before, and among those of us who were fans of this sort of tale, who have seen such tales done right and who realize their potential, I can't imagine how the series can be seen as anything other than an unfortunate waste. It isn't the absolute bottom of the barrel, to be sure--that slot, at present, is occupied by such brain-dead rubbish as the RESIDENT EVIL films--but TWD, this season, has scraped close enough to that edge to pick up splinters

Horror is all about metaphor, and zombies are one of the richest metaphors in horror. "They're us," as Fran correctly notes in DAWN OF THE DEAD. Twisted reflections of people. Their potential is endless; one can use them to tell literally any kind of story. Zombie tales have been actioneers, romances, comedies, character studies. They can be (and have been) used to address any matter of social concern, or, indeed, any aspect of the human condition. I suspect the genre could never be--forgive me--done to death. Those who take to message boards to complain about TWD's sparsity of zombies are inevitably met, by the show's defenders, with the assertion that TWD is about the living people, not the zombies. I've always found the innocence of this somewhat charming. One way or another, zombie tales have
always been about the living. The best of them operate at a much more intellectual level than most horrors, and most who try their hand at it fall short because they either don't really have anything to say, or don't have the skills to say it. With TWD, it's probably a lot of both, and perhaps that robs any point from any impassioned lament over its creators' terrible, terrible shortsightedness in turning the series into just another bad tv melodrama and treating the zombie premise as if it's something they resent and try to avoid whenever possible. But I've rarely been one to avoid an impassioned lament when the spirit is on me, so I'll do my best to make the rest of this one short. An ongoing zombie tv series is unique, and the rich zombie premise rendered through that unique format, means those behind TWD have, in their hands, a creature that, if they would (or could) embrace its potential, would allow them to tell stories--stories of any kind--that have never been told, at least not as they could tell them. Instead, they seem content to badly tell stories that not only could be told on any other show but have been told on every other show. And told. And told. And told. They could be engaged in an ambitious project. The comic they travesty certainly is. Instead, they're just adding another shitty project to all of the other shitty zombie projects already out there. With zombies, as with anything successful, you always end up with a lot of lousy knock-offs, rip-offs, and remakes. The good stuff still turns up, though. I wish TWD was among it.

--j.

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[1] Maybe because, by then, they weren't pan-and-scanning as many of them?

[2] When it came to the writing on season 1, plotting was a problem--plenty of plot-holes, dumb ideas, some manufactured drama, etc.--but the dialogue and the character interactions were often quite strong, for television, and certainly one of the series' biggest pluses.


[2a] UPDATE (17 Oct., 2012) - Actually, this turns out not to be the case in the television version. I assumed, throughout this article, that this was the case based on the TWD pilot's remarkable fidelity to the comic, but FloridaSunshine, a poster on the IMDb's "Walking Dead" board, was able to freeze-frame and magnify a creased patch on the uniform of one of the police extras seen in the pilot, and it says "King County, Georgia." This was the (fictional) county in which Rick and Shane worked, so they were, on the series, from Georgia, rather than Kentucky.

[3] For another contrast, in both the comic and season 2 of the series, Rick's son Carl is accidentally shot. In the comic, when he sees the boy isn't dead, he hurriedly takes command of the situation and deals with it. Through he's exhausted and looks worried to death, he keeps his composure throughout the ordeal, and does what he has to do. TV Rick, on the other hand, has another hysterical breakdown, his reason departing him entirely.

[4] This is an example of another problem that will arise repeatedly. The comic's plots are driven by the characters' personalities. When those personalities are fundamentally altered, the plots that flowed from them, in their original form, no longer make any sense. The series radically alters the personalities, then tries to use the plots anyway.

[4a] UPDATE (22 March, 2012) -- "Deanshore," a reader on the "Walking Dead" board at the Internet Movie Database, has pointed out that I'd gotten the comments by this survivor wrong. As I remembered it, he'd said the zombie situation had gotten bad a month earlier, and that this was when the utilities had gone out. What he actually said was "[The] gas line's been down for maybe a month." Earlier in the pilot, he'd been describing how the situation had become dangerous as the zombie problem had progressed, and I may have juxtaposed those two scenes in my head, but I'm really just guessing--I don't really know how I made a hash of it. Chalk it up to the danger inherent in working from memory.

It's a relatively minor point, and doesn't really alter the underlying criticism I'd offered--it still extends Rick's time spent comatose to a month, and still implies the zombie problem had been going on for a while before even that--but I'm a stickler for getting things right, and I definitely didn't, here.

[5] Like Biblical apologists who try to "harmonize" the contradictory gospels, fans of the show attempted to construct a timeline at Walking Dead Wiki that would incorporate everything we've been told about the zombie apocalypse. This unintentionally hilarious effort has Rick in a coma in the hospital after it fell, without any supervision, care, food, water, etc., for an incredible 55-60 days.

[6] For me, the loudest illustration of this phenomenon is Jim's end, from the first season. In the comic, that's a seriously grisly piece of business, and it haunts one's brain well after one has read it. Jim is a character who lost his family to the dead, ends up bitten by a zombie, and, as he's dying, he has the others abandon him near Atlanta, in the "hope" that, when he comes back, he may be able to find his family in town and be together with them again. On tv, they just made it into a generic drama scene we've all seen a million times in a million movies and tv shows. All that business about his finding his family removed, they just leave him under a tree, with him saying what a nice day it is, the director using a hammer to the face to tell us we're supposed to be sad about it. More generally, the cast and crew of TWD don't, by and large, bother with subtle touches that would suggest the characters live in a frightening environment. No offering up an occasional paranoid glance at an odd sound, no speaking in controlled tones, or anything like that. When it comes to shooting the show, we don't even get any menacing angles, unsettling camera movements, or sinister lighting. Nothing. For that matter, the cinematography, in general, is flat, dull, and totally uninspired. It shows no ambition at all, and no originality--not even so much as an unorthodox camera angle.

[7] Oddly enough, the CDC plotline, which was pretty dumb, was one of the only times the series briefly featured the sense of desperation that hovers over the characters in every issue of the comic when they're out in the open. With the exception of that one story (which mostly just paid it lip-service), the series does
very little to convey this.

[8] To, in the words of the announcer at the beginning of DAWN OF THE DEAD, "pitch an audience the 'moral' bullshit it wants to hear."

[9] It's completely ridiculous, and both it and its subsequent execution wouldn't be at all out of place in a slapstick comedy, but here, they're treated entirely seriously.

[10] I'm not really bothered that much by the pace of the show. The complaints about it are by no means limited to those without attention-spans (who are the most frequent complainants against pace), and I certainly wouldn't dismiss them, but to me, TWD has so many other problems, pace is too far down the list to give much time.

[11] The writing of the women on the show this season has drawn charges of misogyny, and, in fact, every female character has been presented as a Clueless Male caricature's negative caricature of women. They're selfish, cartoonishly over-emotional, bitchy, stupid, whiny, totally uninteresting, and totally unlikeable. They're generally treated like children, then written in such a way that justifies that treatment. One, Andrea, constantly bitches about being denied a gun. She gets a rifle. She draws down on what she takes to be a zombie approaching across a field. Her target is actually Daryl, one of the other survivors. She's facing into the sun, at long range, and can't even clearly see the target at which she's aiming. Another group of characters are between her and her target, and could be hit if she fires blind. All the males tell her not to shoot, but, out to prove herself to the boys, she does it anyway, and hits Daryl in the head, nearly killing him, and confirming, in the most dramatic way possible, the wisdom of the menfolk in having, earlier, parted her from firearms.

[12] Most of the characters that are original to the show have been very poorly drawn, as well. Some were nameless cannon-fodder, destroyed during a zombie attack on the survivors' camp. Others were non-entities: one fellow and his family left the larger group to go their own way, while another, a woman, committed suicide by staying at the CDC as it was about to explode (a profoundly stupid plot element). Merle, the racist redneck of the first two episodes, became very popular. It wasn't that racist rednecks were suddenly in fashion; it was that the most excellent Michael Rooker was playing the part. It's unfortunate that Rooker wasn't given a larger role in TWD--if Rick was written for television the way he is in the comic, Rooker would have been great in the part. After Merle disappeared, there was a great deal of enthusiasm among fans for his return. Season 2 obliged, but, being a series that wallows in cliché, only brought him back as an hallucination his brother Daryl has after being injured in a fall. Daryl himself, played by solid Norman Reedus, has become a fan favorite in season 2, but he was a horrible, stock one-note character in the first season, with nowhere to go but up; his standing could have been improved merely by giving Reedus something to do besides being really angry.

[13] A very minor example happened only minutes into season 2, when the characters encounter that traffic snarl. A lot of the cars involved are filled with mummified corpses, which is impossible, because if these were people who had died where they were, they would have come back as zombies, and if, for whatever reason, they hadn't reanimated (or if someone had come along and shot them while they were in their cars), they'd have only been there a few weeks, not even remotely enough time to mummify. That's a very minor example, of course, but indicative of the lack of care that would follow.

[14] The details of that episode underlined the importance of weaponry. Rick, upon entering the city, was swarmed by thousands of zombies and separated from the bag, then led a group back into the city on an incredibly dangerous mission to retrieve them. In the course of this adventure, he was prepared to launch a firefight to the death--one there's very little chance he or anyone with him would have survived--against what he took to be a gaggle of gangbangers, rather than give up that bag. The "gangsters" were actually defending the patients of that nursing home, which is why Rick shared a little of the hardware. An entire episode, from a season of only six, was devoted to this story.

[15] In the comic, they also held target practice, but only after Rick and Glenn raided a gun store, securing a huge supply of ammo. Many in the group had no experience with firearms, and teaching them to shoot is a good idea, but making them somewhat proficient requires a lot of ammo, which the group, in the series, does not have. To state the obvious, if you burn through all your ammo, all you have is a bunch of people who now may be able to hit the broad side of a barn--they're not going to get much better than that with such a microscopic supply--but no longer have any ammo with which to do so. That will certainly help when the next zombie herd comes along.

[16] That should still be more than adequate--most of the great zombie
features have been made for far less, and, in any event, very little of the $2.75 million made it to the screen anyway. In four of the seven episodes, there wasn't, excepting pay for the cast and crew, more than a few thousand dollars actually on the screen, or, more precisely, there wasn't anything on the screen that, under competent management, would have come to more than a few thousand dollars worth. In any event, if you have less money, you write something that doesn't take as much money. The creators of TWD weren't up to that.