Monday, October 15, 2012

TV Review: The Walking Dead

Last night, The Walking Dead television series made a gory comeback to AMC with the premiere of its third season. After a hotly debated first season, and a highly criticized second season, fans and critics alike have been either excited for dreading what the next season may bring to the beloved zombie-survival series. With the widely publicized addition of iconic graphic novel characters Michonne and The Governor, as well as the tease of The Prison as the end of the last season, fans of the comic book have a lot to look forward to in this upcoming 16-episode run. Having started and caught up on the graphic novel during Season 2, I write this review from the perspective of someone who is a fan of both versions of The Walking Dead. I plan on writing a full review of the comic series one day soon, but for now, let's stick to the television show. As much as I'd like to speak about every element specifically, I have a feeling this will be long enough if I just stick to my general impressions, so that's what I'll do.

Anytime you attempt to adapt a written and/or illustrated story over to a live action format, there are inevitably going to be compromises and issues that arise. Also, if the source material has a passionate and dedicated fanbase, there's the added pressure of trying to win them over while not copying the original to the point where it's redundant. The style of The Walking Dead series is exactly how I like stories to be transferred from one medium to another. The key characters are there, as well as familiar settings and story arcs, but as soon as the television series begins, it's clear that it's not a shot-for-shot remake of the comic series. There are characters who are added/omitted, or introduced earlier/later, or killed off before/after it occurs in the original narrative. Also, just because something major happens to a character in the books, doesn't mean it'll still happen to that character, or even at all. Keeping the storylines and characters fresh was a great choice by the writers/showrunners, and what's important here is that they've maintained the overall atmosphere (and carnage) of the original, so that we can still recognize the show as an adaptation/interpretation and not something else entirely.

On the surface, The Walking Dead series, in both of its forms, is about one of everyone's favourite 'what if' fantasies: a zombie apocalypse. A police officer wakes from a coma to find that 90% of the world is now a zombified monster that craves the brains, flesh, and blood of the living. He reunites with his estranged wife and son, joins a group of fellow survivors, and the game is on. However, like any great piece of horror/science fiction, the heart of the story lies in its major themes: Figuring out what's right when everything has gone terribly wrong, maintaining humanity in a world of zombies, and deciding where to draw the line between necessary survival and being just another murderous monster. The lead character, Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln), is anything but a straight hero, he's a complex character who struggles to be a good man and do what it takes to protect his loved ones. This dynamic introduces a lot of tension and moral dilemmas, and other than excessive zombie violence, this is the main attraction of the series for me.

It's important to note, for those unfamiliar with the series and possibly interested in giving it a chance, that this isn't all-out zombie action. I find a lot of the show's critics expect too much in the way of pacing the action, when it's entirely understandable that these survivors wouldn't be fighting zombies every minute of every episode. Robert Kirkman, the comic's creator, understands that in order for there to be tension, we have to care about the characters, and in order to care about them, we need to know who they are and what drives them. Achieving this takes dialogue, conversations, exposition, the kind of stuff that brainless viewers can't stand. Although, I will admit that at times, the dialogue can be overly melodramatic to downright cheesy, but I can forgive the writers for trying to add depth, even if it falls flat sometimes. As for the performances, there is a large and varied cast who all do the best they can with the material they are given. That being said, some performances definitely outshine others. Special shout out to Jon Bernthal's portrayal of Shane in Season 1 and 2, he played a perfect mix of sympathetic anti-hero and downright asshole.

This isn't a show about the undead, it's a show about the living, and how they deal with the situation they are in. There is at least one wicked zombie kill per episode, sometimes much more than just one, but please expect the action to slow so that the characters can process the horror that they're experiencing and develop accordingly. That all being said, I should mention that while Kirkman appreciates the need for fans to connect with the characters, I've never seen a creator be so cruel to its characters, he really puts these people through living hell, both in the comic and the show. So just when you think you have a favourite character, one that you really care about, the next scene they're being ripped to bits. It's a mean way to go about writing a popular story, but it also keeps the suspense right up and keeps the surprise factor high, so much so that you're almost afraid to turn the page or watch the next scene.

One of the main highlights of this television series is the design of the undead walkers, which comes from the talent and creativity of the make-up artists and the dedication of the extras, who really have to delve deep into their zombie personas. In order to live up to Charlie Adlard's amazingly realistic and gruesome animation in the comics, the showrunners fully embraced the fact that they would have to go all out with the design of the zombies. Even if they are only on screen for a second before they're re-killed, each zombie has its own backstory and varying level of injury/decomposition. I've heard about a million different complaints regarding this adaptation, some of them reasonable, but I almost never hear any criticism about the portrayal of the zombies. In terms of current shows that stimulate the eyes, as well as the brain, The Walking Dead is easily one of the best I've seen. It has its problems, like any show, but cinematography and design help elevate this series past a regular old survival drama.

In the first season, the show did exactly what an opening season does: The characters are introduced and outlined, the story is set, and the rules of the universe are offered. Of course, the production value of any first season won't be very high, and the characters aren't very fleshed out, but as an introduction to the series, the first 6 episodes do their job quite well. The second season, as per usual, looks a lot better in terms of cinematography and overall budget, and now that we know the basic personalities of the main characters, the writers can start to really mess with them and test what each character is made of.

The first half of Season 2 deals with a disappearance of one of their own, and the 2nd half deals with the aftermath of that situation, as well as the increasing turmoil over how the group should be led, and also a major dilemma about whether to execute a stranger who knows too much and is connected to potentially bad people. And it all culminates in one of the most exhilerating and terrifying sequences I have ever witnessed on television, as their safe haven is overrun by a herd of walkers, bigger than they've ever witnessed. While the pacing was a bit uneven, and some of the character development was problematic, I enjoyed Season 2 a lot more than most people. Sure, I could nitpick the logical inconsistencies and brag about how much better I could have written it, but at the end of the day, it's escapism entertainment in a one hour episode, there's no point in tearing it apart. If it doesn't work for you, that's totally fine, not every TV show will impress every viewer. For me, there was enough in the way of action, dialogue, suspense, gore, and humanity to keep me interested.

Which brings us to Season 3, the one that I expect will be notoriously remembered for years to come, whether or not the story sticks to the comics. In the opening of the episode, we see a different group from last season. Time has passed since we've last seen them, and even the weakest members of the group have been trained to better deal with scavenging and zombie combat. They run like a well-oiled machine under Rick's command, which is refreshing, since a major criticism of the show has been some of the character's uselessness and ineffectiveness. I like this development, because the more these character adapt to this new world, the more the writers have to work with. And let's just say, with the zombie-killing aspect down, these character may start to feel a little too comfortable, right before they meet the true villains of this world: other people. A huge theme of the comic series, one that has very much run over into the show, is that zombies are actually the easy part of this survival tale. It's the other survivors, the ones outside our main group, that pose the biggest threat to these characters. Up until this point, the survivors have only had to deal with the undead, a couple of strangers, and one of their own turning psychotic. There hasn't been a clear villain in the series yet, but that's exactly what the Governor is for, to show them just how brutal this new world can get. As the tagline for this season says: Fight the dead. Fear the living.

Overall, I was quite satsfied with the premiere of season 3. It introduced the characters all over again, as well as the main setting of the season, The Prison. We didn't get a glimpse of the Governor, but we see Michonne and her new friend Andrea heading out to find a better situation, which will inevitably lead them right to the Governor's doorstep. So I'll be patient for now. Once again, with a new season, we see yet another step up production quality. Plus, a whole lot zombie kills, as the group tries to create a safe haven in The Prison. Most importantly, this premiere set the tone for this season, teasing at inner conflicts and the dangers to come. Also, there were enough shout-outs to the lore of the comic series to keep the hardcore fans happy, as well as enough of a different direction to keep things fresh. I'll likely post a full season review once the season comes to an end, but for now, I'll be tuning in every Sunday night for some disgusting zombie action, interesting character development and interactions, and the sinful delight of watching this season's Big Bad live up to his comic series reputation. Remember, we ARE the Walking Dead.

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