Monday, 6 December 2010

TV REVIEW: The Walking Dead Season 1

Being Racist, killing zombies. Its the hillbilly way.

Back when then this show was nothing but internet hysteria, I remember an interview with Show-runner Frank Darabont, where he talked about the zombie genre as something you almost had to be pre-disposed to in order to really enjoy. He called it the 'zombie gene'. Before beginning, I should say that I have the zombie gene. And emphatically so. Any movie or TV show that deals with zombies probably has me as a viewer until some bitter end. I'd rank George Romero as one of the best film-makers of all time, and Dawn Of the Dead probably within my top ten films. Like I said, zombie gene. But somehow I found The Walking Dead hard to love. I think it had moments that promised the show I want to see, but ultimately there's something missing, that makes most of the classic zombie movies so great ( You can IMDB it, as horror genres go the zombie movie has a mean CV.) There are many things I can say it might be. I'm tempted to say its lacking in nuance, and perhaps a little intelligence. But I think ultimately its inconsistency that's its undoing.

To put that it into context, there were 6 episodes in the first season, of which I loved two, liked two and disliked two. But there's been moments of quality in the episodes I've disliked, and moments that clank in the episodes I like. At times The Walking Dead feels so ragingly all over the map it feels like every scene is written by a different person, each of whom is trying to say something different with the material. But given that I believe in walking before you chastise I'll go through the positives first. The pilot episode 'Days Gone Bye' was an eloquent piece of zombie horror, with a distinct effort placed on it looking fucking fantastic. Which it did. That's one area where drawing from graphic novel source material works a treat, almost every frame looked like some terrifying painting. I think it lent the story being told in that episode a real transcendent quality too. Because much of what actually happens, happens in a less then original fashion. It had a terrific performance by Lennie James as Morgan, the man who along with his son, rescues our hero Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) from being all alone in a zombie world. The moment where James attempts to kill his long-zombified wife is a truly emphatic moment, and arguably suggested a quality the show did not possess. Particularly when James vanishes from the show after the first episode. And given the quality of characterization elsewhere on the show, he was sorely missed.

I liked how the show used some of its minor characters, not all of them may I add, particularly in episode 2 'Guts' where its just one weak stereotype after another, but in the back of the season some of the minor characters started to do much more interesting work then the principles. Notably Andrew Rothenberg as Jim, a character who begins as a glorified extra, and then quietly in the corner whilst our leads are off being melodramatic, he turned in what I found to be the most interesting performance of the series. Particularly in the fifth episode 'Wildfire', my favourite and probably the most coherent and impressive episode to date, he gives a performance that's subtle enough to make a couple of familiar and cliched zombie movie scenes into impactful moments. Credit too to Laurie Holden as Andrea, in a role that at first looked kind of disposable, but she had perhaps the series best moment involving her sister and some zombifying. It was a easy scene to overplay, but she impressed me. Finally Noah Emmerich, despite his scientist character being the most cynical finale prop-up you could imagine, rose above it to deliver an exceptional performance again lending the series some resonance it perhaps lacks too often.

It's to its credit that it holds back on the zombie attacks, and outside of the first episode, there's only one prominent attack in the six episode run, and I believe that to be a good decision, doling out the carnage on a drip-feed rather then blowing it all at once. It also meant that the attack at the end of 'Vatos' a truly hideous episode otherwise, has so much impact. But to the problems, of which there perhaps are more then there should be. Too much characterization has been done through cheap archetype, and not just supporting characters either. Our hero Rick Grimes is currently far too two dimensional, feeling very much like a comic book character then a human being. The hallmark of the great AMC drama's of late is a quintessential fascinating character at the core, and while I'm not suggesting the The Walking Dead can't have a good man at its centre, I'd like one that is good for a reason, that is empathetic with cause and not just because he's the hero and that's what the hero does. Its too simple for what this show wants to be. It doesn't help that Andrew Lincoln's performance isn't the most textured, concentrating a little too much on the accent to be entirely present. He's OK, but nothing more. And for the core of a show as inevitably expansive as this, that's a major problem.

But he's far from the worst problem. Jon Bernthal's performance as the wildly inconsistent character of Shane, someone who could potentially be the most interesting but is far too scattershot right now, isn't the best. And Prison Break's Sarah Wayne Callies as Rick's wife Lori, well. Its the standard of acting one would expect for a cast member of Prison Break. I joke, but for the series this is some serious shit. Those are its three core characters and not one has had a moment of a truly impressive nature. It means you're left with the story its telling then who its telling it about, and all three are sure to be anchors preventing the series entering more interesting waters. The show's supporting cast is a bit of a hit and miss brigade, with a few too many southern white male racists, Black characters who abbreviate their names to something- Dog and downtrodden wives. There's no indication that these people are anything more then mere zombie fodder, yet few have died. A couple have been saved from their inevitability of irrelevance, though. Norman Reedus' Daryl went from yet another hillbilly racist to being a character capable of more loyalty and rationality then one would expect.

Some of the writing has been less then stellar too, like I said, the episode ' Vatos' was a horrible mess before its last five minutes, and a whole pointless and painful subplot involving a Mexican gang that had fortified an old person's home, you know, to protect the old people because NO-ONE ELSE WOULD was lame, preachy and embarrassing, 'Guts' introduced way too many weak characters in a rush, and while not terrible, was a getting people in the right place episode. But it did have a weak bit, with super racist number one Michael Rooker, hanging out and being racist, but in a way was redeemed by an excellent scene in the following episode. Therien lies the problem with The Walking Dead. Stuff will get fixed, but why is so much broken in the first place? You have to allow for it being a first season, that its trying to find its voice etcetera, but there's too many chinks in the armour and too many moments of crassness and stupidity to entirely forgive, even when the moments of subtelty and raw strength come along. And to be clear, its not without those too. I think ' Wildfire' is the reason I still believe in this show, and believe it will be, if it isn't now, something worth paying attention to. That attention to character and detail, that taking a minute from the rush and fleshing out the community of the cast and showing that they care about each other and that each life lost, whether its important to us or not, matters to them.

The Walking Dead may be the quintessential mixed bag, but there's enough here to suggest a great second season. It will never be Breaking Bad or Mad Men good, I think its fairest to the show to let that one go now, but if it can add a couple of interesting characters, and plan out its narrative a little tighter, then there's something here. But I'm the wrong person to ask, because this could be the zombie gene talking.

Rating: 6/10

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