The Walking Dead/Season 1 (2010)
Shot-on-duty policeman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes from a coma to find himself in a post-apocalyptic world where the dead have arisen as flesh-eating zombies (because, as they say, ‘When there’s no room in Hell, the dead shall walk — ’ – oh wait, that’s from that other, far more brilliant trilogy of films from the late granddaddy of ghouls himself, but more on him – and those films — later), or ‘walkers’ as they’re called in this one (though oddly, not in the comic book the show is adapted from where they’re referred to as the usual ‘zombies’… wonder which genius exec was behind separating the word ‘zombie’… from a show about zombies?) and ultimately leads a small band of survivors as they struggle to find a new existence…
It was inevitable that I’d catch up with it, especially having read a bunch of the original The Walking Dead graphic novels during the initial mania (and with my 13-year-old daughter now suddenly eager to see it). For all the mass hysteria around it (wasn’t the show something like the highest rated show ever on television?), I was a little surprised to find that the opening 6-episode season only covered the first graphic novel (i.e., issues 1-6 of the original single comics). And, while ultimately I did find the show just interesting enough to decide to continue with it beyond this debut season (not that I have a choice, as my daughter is crazy over it and anytime she’s excited over genre stuff, I’ll play along – especially as it might provide a little window of opportunity to show her Romero’s zombie films!), I can’t say I’m all that enthusiastic about it.
To be fair, I also found the first graphic novel the least interesting of the series (of what I read anyway, I’m still collecting them after drifting off around volume 15 with thoughts of eventually getting back to it)… while the set-up works well enough (having Rick wake up in the hospital bed and slowly learn of the chaos), I started to find myself put off a bit by the comic’s constant chatter, with characters telling us of their emotional states and reinforcing their essential ‘human goodness’ (gee, we’re all alike down deep, aren’t we?), like some kind of emo-core version of Romero’s much harsher and nihilistic vision of the zombie apocalypse (and stripped away, of course, of much social or cultural criticism or relevance — no room for that in today’s corporate mainstream environment, though I’m sure if they could show a male zombie manspreadin’ to look like they’re hip to what the latest status quo faux liberal hot button identity politics outrage of the moment is, they’d be all in)…. and if I thought all that thematically on-point dialogue from original creator Robert Kirkman was a turn off, at least the comic has the distancing smoke screen of it being on paper to read, not heard aloud, because, wow, does the televised version reveal how truly awkward some of this stuff is, in which these poor actors actually have to deliver some of this trite and cloying dialogue.
Another issue I needed to hurdle, which perhaps is a problem familiar to most adaptions of written works (compounded by the fact that we get visual representations in the comic), was getting used to these performers playing the characters I had envisioned in my mind… and none of them quite matched up (to be fair, though as much as I felt artist Tony Moore’s sparse simple drawing style was good for the comic, I found the simple strokes didn’t always make a clear delineation in the characters beyond the specific facial and costume distinctions). And worse? About midway through the season, I realized, other than Norman Reedus’ aggressive black-sheep-of-the-group Daryl Dixon (perhaps not surprisingly a character who wasn’t in the comic, and ends up a pretty nice addition) and maybe Jeffrey DeMunn’s Dale (though I had to get used to him), I don’t think the show’s creators put together a particularly varied or interesting ensemble with the choices they had… it’s a bit of a too LA-friendly bland group, I’m afraid. They’re surface performers (for a fairly surface show, so it matches – hence, the mass audience appeal).
In a show that already pushes forward its cringe-worthy feel-good audience-friendly agenda on the value of ‘humanity’ (you know, those bipedal creatures with the big brains in the process of destroying the fucking planet and everything on it, including bombing millions of creatures into smithereens, like a sociopathic and malignant cancer no one can stop)… and by ‘humanity’ I mean in all its most underlying moralizing and conservative tenets (for instance, man, does this show love the traditional family unit, going so far as changing the reasons Rick’s model-skinny wife had an affair with Rick’s partner Shane from the comic, with the show making it clear Shane lied to her that Rick was dead, so it’s morally okay for her to have sex with someone else, unlike in the comic where at least she fucked him because, you know, if you and your child are gonna get eaten by ghouls, the hell with it, why not go out in a blaze of getting laid… and if your husband’s somewhere in coma, ah well, too bad on him… seems reasonable enough to me anyway…).
For a writer like Kirkman who works to stretch out every thought, idea and moment I guess in some attempt at creating resonance or maturity, show-runner Frank Darabont is the worst kinda match; he’s the type of filmmaker who already tends towards drawing out and fetishizing every cinematic emotion, with all those long lingering ‘important’ shots and swelling music, pushing things way beyond the breaking point, taking what in a brief glimpse might have us pondering significance and poignancy (or the quickness with which things happen), and instead giving us an awareness of constructed manipulation and (ultimately) surface emptiness (and, in my case, driving me to open contempt – don’t tell me what I’m supposed to feel here, man, just show me, I’ll do the deciding, thank you very much).
Yes I know, he directed The Shawshank Redemption, but just take a look at his maudlin and insanely pandering The Green Mile one more time… or even the ending of The Mist that everyone loves for its darkness, yet in which Darabont can’t stop broadcasting to us how fucking ballsy it all is. And, of course, he’s constantly confirming to the audience how essentially good they are and how meaningful their lives – and deaths — are (no wonder they love him).
One example (amongst a number) is Amy’s tragic death (the only real significant character death in the first season, a casualty number I can only hope will significantly increase in much more hardcore and graphically rendered ways in the upcoming seasons, which became one of the real strengths of the later comics), bitten by a walk – ah, the heck with it, zombie — with her desperately weeping sister Andrea huddled over her with a gun unwilling to immediately shoot her before the dead girl turns, is done just right in the comic. It’s played rapidly — a sharp pain in the middle of chaos. Andrea has no time to contend with it at the moment. Life and death go on in times of desperate survival. In the show, however, not only does the stretching out of the moment to absurd lengths seriously strain any rational explanation, it begins to pull apart at what little emotion has actually been captured.
The best actor turn in the entire season is unfortunately done by someone who isn’t gonna be sticking around beyond Season One — Andrew Rothenberg as the mechanic Jim, who suffers and faces his fate with a quiet dignity and sensitivity that provides a glimpse of what a complex performer in a deliberately underperforming style can bring to the show. Even my daughter pointed out his final scene as being the most effective in the first season… and that’s because it was provided by a good actor, with little of the overdone cinematic histrionics brought to you by Darabont and company.
The conclusion of Season One, with the band of brothers and sisters reaching a disease control center in the middle of Atlanta to realize there’s little hope to be found there, is something dreamed up in the show and not in the comic… and it’s fraught with all the same perils that came before… too many obviously written moments (‘Oh my god, patient 19 was… your wife!’), lots of goodness (Rick, oh Rick, how he struggles with his heroism) and deaths played out in completely emotionally untrue ways, with characters holding hands going out together. (One aside: when the lone scientist – another new addition and commendable character actor, Noah Emmerich — locked in the CDC center about to kill himself had watched the group arrive begging to be let in from the video camera, desperately hoping to believe someone was in there to help them, the real powerful statement would have been if he never opened the door, opting to end it all and leave them out there… and only us, the audience, would have known anyone was there at all… but this isn’t a show with that kinda bleakness … I mean, it’s not like the show is about the end of the world and how horribly people would act under those circumstances… oh, wait… actually, it is…).
I mean, come on, it’s a zombie apocalypse, not a feel good group session. Give me a break… or, better yet, give me a Romero, whose zombie films, like the equally nihilistically provocative The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974, bubbled forward from the rotting decay of a culture too busy obsessing over materialism and controlled by mass consumerism to realize the world-wide war and havoc they’re creating. Tell us what’s wrong and how and why we ended the world, Jack, not how good we’ll reveal ourselves to be in picking up the pieces (and, worse, all banding together to re-establish the nuclear, essentially white patriarchal order). I’d rather see zombies brought to us by an iconoclast like Bruce LaBruce (even if he’s lost a bit of the narrative in his own ‘liberal’ hipness at this point) rather than a conformist status quo warrior like Darabont… at least they’d all be queer (and less stuffy, that’s for sure – I mean, if you wanna get a sense of how lilywhite Kirkman’s perspective is, just look at the two main black characters he introduces in the comic – the first an ex-NFL football player and the next a convict serving life for murder – seems an awful lot like a vision cultivated between the television news and Blaxploitation films).
When The Walking Dead first started its run I remember a number of close film acquaintances practically wild-eyed with excitement over catching the pilot episode, proclaiming something about there being a shot in it that captured everything Romero had tried to achieve with his entire original “Living Dead” trilogy. Now that I’ve seen it myself, I have to wonder… what shot were they possibly thinking of? Yes, there is some well realized large-scale images of piles of dead bodies, and there’s the zombies stumbling about, having taken over a complete city block… and those are cool to look at, yes.
But let’s think back here:
A desperately hopeful mother coming down in the basement to come upon an abject scene of unremitting horror – with the family unit turned nightmarishly in upon itself — as her turned baby girl is eating her father, before the girl then stabs mom to death with a garden trowel. The lone survivor of the night siege on the farmhouse, a black man, waking in the morning sun to the conclusion of the film, only to look out the window and be unceremoniously shot in the head by some rednecks, with his corpse thrown casually by meat hooks onto a bonfire over the closing credits (reminding us how Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead implicitly and explicitly dealt with inherent racism, something bubbling up between humans, yes, even in a post-apocalyptic world, where The Walking Dead has Michael Rooker’s bad guy racist character conveniently cast out from the tribe – because, you know, that’s how you get rid of racism, by separating those bad people from us, easy peasy). Mindless zombies stumbling around a shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead, drawn, as one character muses, to the place that was important to them in their lives. Barbara torn away and eaten by her now dead brother Johnny, in a world where the family unit has proven, again and again, not as a haven for comfort, but as untrustworthy and rotten inside. The stupid dead, all messed up, wandering in the dark, creatures of perversity and ultimate abjection, a literal return of the repressed.
The Walking Dead has nowhere near as effective an underlying resonance with their zombie creations — no matter how much more ‘realistic’ they may be (saying that, there’s also way too many CGI blood squibs for my liking). What the creators of _ The Walking Dead_ fail to understand – and to those who claim any shot in The Walking Dead achieving anything near what Romero was after with his zombie trilogy — is that Romero’s zombies, and the grizzling body-munching they get into, are a means to an end. They’re not the end.
Nah. Romero did just fine with the images he created. There’s nothing lacking. It’s not about the number of zombies, or bodies, in a shot. It’s about the deep dark thematic well-spring the image of all those walking dead in his mind tapped into in a true artist like Romero. It’s the kind of thing not a single image or moment in The Walking Dead at least in Season One, comes close to achieving… or understands.