As a long time fan of the Zombie genre, an avid read of The Walking Dead graphic novels and a lover of television, I was thrilled when I heard that AMC, Robert Kirkman (creator of the graphic novel series) and Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption) were coming together to adapt the novels into a TV series.
After the first episode I was mildly disappointed – it was slow moving, but still enjoyable. I am not usually impressed by pilot episodes – they are often slow at character and plot development, so I figured my initial feelings toward the show where in my normal vein of impatience. I was wrong. The first episode could very well have been the high point of the series (although the last episode did have a few redeeming qualities).
The series follows Rick Grimes as he wakes up in a hospital bed to find the world has been overrun by the living dead (not a nod to 28 Days Later – although very similar). He vows to find his family, which he believes to be alive, despite pretty much everyone else being dead. He meets Morgan Jones and his son Duane whose role it is to teach Rick and the viewers what happened to the world, how to kill Zombies and that there is a rumoured survivor colony in Atlanta. This is a technique I hate in movies and television: the use of another character whose role it is to give the viewer the Coles notes set-up of the show. It’s clumsy writing and assumes that as viewers we need to be spoon fed information.
One of the many problems with the series lies in poor character development. Rick, our hero, is prone to monologues that if occurred in the real world would get him punched in the face. He’s the idealist, the good guy. But, he isn’t believable. And the character itself is inconsistent: in the first episode he’s desperate to find his family and when he does, in a small survivor colony outside Atlanta, he leaves them at any opportunity to “save the day”. Literally, the day after finding his family, he’s back off to Zombie infested Atlanta to save a racist red-neck who is mostly likely dead. Rick’s wife and son are essentially bystanders in the show. They have no depth and exist simply to give Rick a reason to exist, even though it seems his real reason to exist is to be a hero. Other poorly constructed characters include Glenn, the funny guy, who can run fast and Andrea the tough chick with a soft heart and Dale the old guy who habitually philosophizes (annoyingly, I might add). The characters are too earnest and it comes off as overly sentimental. So far the only character that I find interesting is Daryl, the red neck and potential psychopath.
The characters is what makes the graphic novel series so compelling, In spite of the minimal writing the characters are complex. The Rick Grimes character is the hero, but he’s also the villain. Where the graphic novel series really soars is in its commentary on those living. The series asks the questions: Who are the real monsters? When the world ends what are people really capable of? What does the constant threat of death do to our psyche? What are the strategies we use to survive and at what cost? The television show, thus far, doesn’t look as these issues, or perhaps they try to, but the effect is trite. This is a show about the end of the world and there isn’t a single character that I want to survive. There hasn’t been a single dilemma that has been thought provoking. In fact there isn’t anything provoking about the show at all. The graphic novel shows us a new world, unencumbered by social constructs, where regular people, even children, are capable of imaginable horror. It also shows us a world of new social constructs: women and men equally doing what it takes to survive. Andrea in the graphic novels is an ace sharp shooter, a killer, but in the television show she does laundry (gender roles still intact despite the end of the world!).
So, if the show isn’t great at character development or delving deep in the psyche of survival during the apocalypse, then surely it’s got to be suspenseful. Or a major gore-fest. Hardly. In the first few episodes, only a few Zombie’s get the axe. Brownie points for the one scene where Rick and Glenn cover themselves in Zombie guts to trick the Roamers into thinking they are dead. There are seemly many excuses to go back to Atlanta to try and create more drama, but these efforts are continually thwarted by poor writing. The fourth episode, Vatos, is a good example of this (minor spoilers ahead).
Glenn, is kidnapped by what appear to be Latino gang-bangers. Rick (obviously) must save him and finds the gang-banger hideout. There’s a stand-off – guns are drawn, we are on the verge of a major bloodbath, hearts begin pounding. And then an old grandma shuffles her way in, causing hearts to soften, guns to drop and friends to be made. Turns out these gang-bangers have hearts of gold and are taking care of dozens of seniors who were abandoned when the dead began walking. Let me get this straight: the world has been taken over by Zombies, resources are scarce, people are doing their best to survive and a group of men decide to share their meagre resources with a bunch of old people who they don’t know and who are really just one breath away from becoming Zombies themselves. Maybe I have no faith in humanity, but I really believe when faced with the end of the world people become pretty selfish. Oh wait, that’s called survival (My view of the end of the end of the world looks more like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Oh, and we never find out why the Latino gang-bangers, who are really good guys, kidnap Glenn, which was the point of the entire episode. Groan.
This episode pretty much sums up why I think this show is unsuccessful. It all ends up feeling campy. And I love camp (Peter Jackson’s Braindead!!!). But camp only works when that’s the intention. And I get the feeling that we are supposed to be taking all of this seriously. When camp doesn’t work it becomes really cliché. The Walking Dead hides its triviality behind great special effects, beautiful camera direction and big names like AMC and Darabont. A few widescreen shots of dead bodies and a big budget can’t help poor writing – perhaps that’s why Frank Darabont isn’t using the writers of Season 1 for Season 2.
In the end, The Walking Dead lacks imagination of what it really means to survive. There is no contrast between the mindlessness of the Dead and the thoughtfulness of the Living. The Walking Dead has a bit of gore, but no guts.