Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Death & THE WALKING DEAD

One of the dynamics of mainstream television is that audiences almost invariably demand a relatively stable cast of characters who are likeable and/or in some way sympathetic. Before THE WALKING DEAD had ever aired a single episode, I was curious how commercial television would adapt a property in which the central characters are sometimes quirky in ways that would be considered quite unsafe for a mainstream audience, are often driven to do some pretty terrible things, and tend to regularly die under pretty horrible circumstances. TWD is, in general, a story where a lot of really horrible things happen on a regular basis, things a middle American audience would find quite unpleasant. If one wants a series to be liked, all of this is considered very dangerous territory to explore. It would take a show with a lot of guts to risk alienating an audience by putting such material before it.

Alas, for a show that so often showcases guts, TWD proved to be utterly lacking in this more metaphorical species of innard. It's a subject I covered in my first article on the series, and one I've covered repeatedly in my subsequent work.

In bringing TWD to television, gone was the sheepish, reserved beauty Carol who became creepily attached to people, suggested a three-way marriage with Rick and Lori, and, unable to find the love she so craved, eventually committed suicide in a particularly grisly fashion. Gone was the 20-something Andrea's relationship with a Dale four decades her senior. Gone was the boyfriend-snatching Michonne, who often had conversations and even arguments with voices in her head. Gone was the mercilessly sadistic Governor, who fed the living to zombies then watched them devoured with a satisfied smirk and who sexually tortured Michonne for days.

The sanitization of the original material has been relentless. When the writers wanted to make their Big Theme for season 4 the question of whether the characters could come back from the awful things this zombified world had forced them to do to survive, they ran into the problem that, due to the sanitization of the material throughout TWD's run, none of the characters had ever been made to do anything particularly awful. So Carol was reinvented as a dedicated survivalist. Not as a new and hopefully interesting evolution of the character but merely to give her some thin rationale for, in the service of that Big Theme, committing two utterly senseless murders in the name of "survival."[1] Earlier this season, TWD adapted the comic's cannibal storyline "Fear the Hunters." This was a tale that showcased how hardcore the group had become. "They're fucking with the wrong people," said Rick, in a line tv TWD also sanitized. In the original story, Rick and co. turned the tables on the cannibals and dealt them some of the roughest imaginable justice, slowly torturing them to death in exactly the way the cannibals had tortured their victims. On tv, Rick and co. just capture the cannibals and kill them on the spot.

The area in which this attenuation of the original material reached its zenith is in tv TWD's treatment of the fates of its cast. Comic TWD has no mercy when it comes to its central characters; even your favorites can be and regularly are maimed and killed in horrible ways. Death strikes without warning. Boom! Someone who was alive a panel before is toast a panel later. The creators of tv TWD love to make the extravagant claim that on their show no one is safe, but the truth is that the brutal, unforgiving, often nihilistic landscape of the comic is a place to which they've never gone and never will. They talk the talk as a tease to those who don't know any better then hunker down (cower?) behind the safe conventional wisdom that a middle-American audience won't stand for that sort of thing. When it comes to casualties among its central cast, there are two general species, redshirted non-entities who are kept around in the background solely as cannon-fodder (Jaqui, Jimmy, Patricia, T-Dog, Axel, Oscar, etc.) and major characters who, before they're killed, have, over an extended period, been so relentlessly demonized that viewers are happy to see them go (Shane, Lori, Andrea, etc.). The death of Hershel last season was an exception to this, and one would like to take it as a sign of some little bit of progress toward a less safe TWD but the old pattern reasserted itself this year.

One way in which Hershel's death was unfortunately unexceptional is in the telegraphing of the event. In a display of rigid devotion to one of the most tired clichés of modern mass entertainment, all significant deaths on TWD are telegraphed from a mile away. When someone who has previously been just a supporting character is suddenly thrust into the spotlight of an episode and given lots to do, he's pretty much guaranteed to be bagged and tagged almost immediately. Amy, who, previously, had barely been a presence, suddenly has a lengthy, heartfelt conversation with her sister Andrea; by the end of the ep, she's been bitten by a zombie and killed. T-Dog, who, for the longest, had barely even been given any dialogue, suddenly comes to the fore to weigh in on the treatment of the former inmates at the prison; by the end, he's Zombie Chow. Hershel is suddenly made the star of an episode as he battles zombies and tries to heal the sick while locked in the prison; in his next full ep, he's decapitated. The same with Bob. The same with Sophia. The same into infinity. Supporting characters are by their very nature less central to the story, and redshirts tend to be nothing but a familiar face. Without some hook, the deaths of such characters can be meaningless, a thing about which no one has any reason to care, and that's a problem for a show like TWD that wants to pose as edgy and courageous on such matters, and, maybe more importantly, wants to use character deaths as a shock tactic to sell the show. Suddenly thrusting supporting characters to center-stage just before their deaths is one of the limp ways TWD has attempted to address this.[2]

That brings us to the upcoming midseason finale, and the fact that the writers have, in recent weeks, telegraphed the deaths of both Beth and Carol. With "Slabtown," Beth, an almost non-existent background character, was given her own storyline and made the star of the show for an entire ep. With "Consumed," Carol was thrust to the center of an episode and presented as a chracter who has run her course. Both are obvious targets by the series' usual m.o., and TWD message boards are filled with speculation about which will bite the dust--it's by far the single most popular topic now.

Here's a different kind of topic: Wouldn't it be great to have a TWD where that level of passionate discussion was stirred by the great twists a viewer couldn't see coming or the difficult issues the show raised or thoughts it provoked or by anything at all other than speculation as to which character would be killed next? A TWD concerned with telling a great story, instead of one so terrified of alienating its audience that it takes the safe road every time?

--j.

---

[1] As I've covered here into infinity, if it's one thing tv TWD despises above everything else, it's survivalist sentiment, which it consistently presents in contexts intended to make it look entirely inappropriate, cruel, inhuman and unnecessary. Part of the same sanitization process.

[2] Another, a particularly ludicrous tactic, was introduced by Glen Mazzara as head of the writing staff then as showrunner: posthumous characterization. Jaqui, a non-entity, was blown to bits with the CDC; a few eps later, in season 2, she's suddenly someone Lori considered such a good friend that Lori is spurred to painful existential musings at her memory. It's discovered that Sophia is dead; Glenn offers up ridiculous comments about how much she meant to them. T-Dog dies; Glenn is again given the assignment of telling how, after the zombie apocalypse began, T-Dog went around in a bus to check on old people from his church. Oscar is killed at Woodbury; Axel tells us what a great guy he was when they were serving time together.

Monday, November 24, 2014

WALKING DEAD Plugs Crossed

Arnold Blumberg is a professor at the University of Baltimore and the author (along with Andrew Hershberger) of "Zombiemania," which, though I've been told is quite good, I haven't yet read. A few days ago, I discovered he also does a regular podcast, "The Doctor of the Dead." It's here, here and, where I found it, here on Youtube. Making my way through the eps, I dropped a few comments on timeline problems with THE WALKING DEAD, which led Blumberg to give this blog a generous plug on his most recent installment. Blumberg and producer and co-host Scott Woodard are, to put it mildly, much bigger fans of TWD than I, but they're hardly uncritical of it. I like their show better than TWD. While it begins with TWD and can seem TWD-centric, it covers a wide range of zombie material, from Italian zombie flicks to zombie literature to Z NATION, covered every week alongside TWD. I discovered the podcast, in fact, while poking around for some Z NATION-related material--came across a very good installment in which Craig Engler, one of ZN's creators, was a guest. Blumberg uses the show to support indie zombie flicks, which sure as hell earns him a place in cinema heaven, but he and Woodard put on a good and interesting show in general, a celebration of the living dead that's sure to warm your innards (before devouring them). If zombies are your thing, check 'em out. They do this for free--if you can spare some, give 'em some love.

(They also do Dr. Who, but I don't, so Whovians will have to decide how well they cover that ground.)

While I'm doing plugs, I'll go ahead and throw in one for AfterBuzz, something else I discovered on the same foraging expedition. The web-based AfterBuzz gang seem to produce an extraordinary amount of material, primarily about many (many, many) and varied tv series, and I can't speak to quality of most of this work. My in with them has been their Z NATION coverage, and whatever else they do, they've managed, throughout this season, to snag as guests a large number of ZN's creators and cast. They even brought on the show's casting director (Nike Imoru). How often do you see that? I definitely approve.

TWD this week featured a fight wherein Daryl was being beaten down between two zombies that, left exposed to the weather, had sort of fused with the pavement of a parking lot. To overcome his foe, Daryl stuck his fingers in the eyes of one of the snapping rotters, ripped off its head, and used it to beat down his attacker. Given how easy zombie heads are shown to squish on TWD, the effectiveness of this tactic would seem rather questionable, but sometimes it's the thought that counts, and this moment was fucking cool.

Unfortunately, little else in the ep lived up to it. "Crossed" turned to the Atlanta hospital storyline, which is an original to the series and had, with "Slabtown," started with some promise, but like a lot of last week's installment (which was also focused on it), a lot of this one turned out to be yet another Mazzara-esque delaying action, padding out an underwritten story so that it won't conclude until the midseason break. Showing a complete contempt for anything resembling an appropriate pace, a ridiculous amount of the ep is spent on redundant and entirely gratuitous scenes featuring the group that had been heading to D.C. Also adding to the running-time was the introduction of a new subplot featuring Father Gabriel. The problem with anything having to do with the tv version of Father Gabriel is that he is, by a galactic margin, both the least interesting and the most annoying character ever introduced into the series. His rollout this season has been nothing short of a disaster. It's absolutely impossible to give one shit about anything that happens to him, and as he stands now, every second spent on him is a second that could have--and should have---been spent on something more interesting.

Aside from this, the ep featured some disjointed storytelling, more of TWD's patented teleporting characters--both dead and, this time, living--and a tremendous amount of time spent on setting up an intelligence-insulting cliché on which to end. The word "shopworn" doesn't even begin to cover it--if you haven't figured it out well before it happens, you'd probably be an exceptionally fine choice for a zombie extra on the show. I watched this scene unfold in disbelief. Sure it's TWD, but are they really going to go there? When they did, I realized that was the answer. Yeah, it's TWD.

--j.

A final thought: In a story that's becoming rather familiar, Z NATION once again proved to be the Little Engine That Could, offering another solid ep and once again utterly upstaging TWD.

Monday, November 17, 2014

WALKING DEAD Consumed By The Soap

Not a lot to say about tonight's TWD that I haven't said about innumerable eps of TWD already. The thing that has struck me most about tonight's storyline is the extent to which the plot is being driven entirely by an accumulation of absolutely ridiculous, galactic-scale coincidences. "Consumed" follows up on the end of "Strangers," wherein Carol and Daryl found themselves hot on the trail of the people who have taken Beth merely because, of all the roads in Georgia, the vehicle that took Beth came down theirs, and not only did they just happen to be standing there in the middle of the night to see it pass but it just so happened that Carol had just put an automobile in running order so they could pursue.

Tonight, Daryl and Carol were in Atlanta and toward the end of the ep meet up with the fellow who, back in "Slabtown," had befriended Beth and then escaped the hospital at which they were both being held. "Slabtown," of course, had ended with an apparently injured Carol turning up at the hospital, but rather than having the escapee explain the m.o. of the hospital group and have Daryl and Carol use this info to infiltrate it--a really obvious course of action--Carol, instead, just runs out into the street and, coincidentally, right in front of the vehicle of the group they're tracking, a group that, again coincidentally, happens to be made up of people from a hospital who recover injured people. And having hit and injured her with their car, they take her with them. So the next phase of this storyline will also be dependent upon this accumulation of absurd coincidences.

Awful.

That this was an entire ep built around Daryl and Carol meant it could have been used to better delineate and develop their often poorly defined relationship, but as so often happens with TWD, it's all just drowned in the soap, the dialogue mostly being standard-issue anti-naturalistic crap--talking about how they have to start over instead of actually starting over; Carol going on and on trying to justify herself instead of just being herself (a lot of her dialogue in this vein is like a thinly rewritten version of her script from last season's "Indifference"). An entirely wasted opportunity that gave the impression Carol was being set up, in typical TWD telegraph-it-from-a-mile-away fashion, to die. Perhaps that will prove to be a final galactic-scale coincidence and Carol will, instead, make it.

--j.


ADDENDUM (17 Nov., 2014) - I noted that Carol seemed to be reading "a thinly rewritten version of her script from last season's 'Indifference.'" Regular reader "The Joesen One"noted that Matthew Negrete, the co-writer-of-record on this ep (along with Corey Reed), was the writer of record on "Indifference." That I failed to realize this, even as I noted the cloning, means I've probably been writing about TWD way too long.

ADDENDUM (18 Nov., 2014) - To follow up on my WALKING DEAD vs. Z NATION article, ZN topped itself again this week, delivering one of its best eps. While TWD built yet another practically-nothing-happens episode around outrageous coincidences and reperforming a lousy script from last season, ZN offered up an hilarious tale in which our heroes have to stop a nuclear plant meltdown, full of funny references and great dialogue. ZN has a quarter of the budget of TWD but delivers a show so much better that everyone involved in TWD should be ashamed of themselves.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Zombie Tales

When it comes to a television series, a project will sink or swim based on how a pilot goes over. As a consequence, pilots are typically a place where creators try to put their best foot forward. When a series is approved, that pilot will almost always be the first ep aired, the one that will have a bigger built-in audience than anything that will come later, the one that will hook an audience or lead vierwers to black-book it. The pilots for THE WALKING DEAD and Z NATION, tv's ongoing zombie apocalypses, offer an interesting contrast. TWD's pilot was great; after 56 episodes over 5 seasons, it's still the best ep of TWD ever produced, and by a fairly substantial margin. Z NATION's pilot, on the other hand, was exceptionally weak. Of the first 9 eps of that series, it remains the worst of the run. TWD's pilot set viewing records and established what became the biggest show on cable. ZN's pilot, drawing a relatively small audience on SyFy, probably left many with a poor impression of the series and didn't inspire them to continue with it.

Too bad for them.

One could almost see ZN's pilot as a metatextual commentary. It started out looking way too much like standard-issue Asylum product, undercooked and underfunded yet trying to be way too big and taking itself way too seriously. Then in its last few minutes, Hammond, the order-barking prick of a soldier on an Ever So Important and Solemn Mission To Save Humanity, was eaten by a zombiefied baby, and it fell to the much more entertaining and personable b-team to carry out this essential task. Hammond isn't THE WALKING DEAD--his shout of "God, I hate moral dilemmas!" sets him apart, if only for a moment--but he is a personification of the utterly humorless, tight-assed, overblown way TWD approaches everything, and the passing of his mission, particularly in such an amusing way, is like a passing of a torch to a new approach to zombie apocalypses on television.

At the core of that new approach is humor, and subsequent episodes poured it on. The second installment easily topped the first, and the next topped it. The plotting and characterization began to improve and the scale of the production began to more closely match the available budget. The series continued topping itself and something interesting began to happen: Somewhere in the process, it managed to come to terms with what it was, stand upright and develop into a great, scrappy little horror show.

Though ZN is a very different critter, comparisons to TWD were inevitable (and further begged by the fact that it sometimes clips elements of TWD). In a cultural environment in which fans of such entertainments like to treat them as competitors and divide up into warring clans over the question of which is best, a necessary preface to any effort to weigh their respective merits is that there's plenty of room in the world for both shows, and no reason one must annihilate the other. TWD fanboys do themselves no more credit by mass-flooding ZN's listing on the Internet Movie Database with ratings of 1 in an effort to drive down the show's overall rankings than they do by complaining that many people on IMDb give TWD the rating of 1 it so richly deserves.[1] There's nothing wrong with having two zombie shows--diversity is a good thing--and no harm in liking just one or both or neither.

ZN's humor is its heavy right hook. Doc (the most excellent Russell Hodgkinson) is chucked down an airshaft by a crazed military commander angry that the amateur pharmacologist can't treat his zombie-bitten leg.[2] Doc ends up snared in a tangle of cables and tubes suspended over a long drop only inches away from the similiarly ensnared zombie of the previous doctor who couldn't treat the leg. Desperate and with no way to dispose of the creature, which is intently trying to eat him, Doc fires up a joint and starts blowing smoke its way, hoping to get the snapping ghoul second-hand stoned.

Definitely not a scenario one would see on TWD, a series from which the writers have so relentlessly drained any trace of humor that in a recent episode when they suddenly threw in a little joke about Glenn tripping over some boxes, it came off as utterly bizarre and out of place. Fans started threads.

The lack of humor in TWD is only one manifestation of its general lack of humanity. My own soap-box has been worn down to splinters by all the times I've mounted it to sermonize against treating TWD as soap melodrama, yet it persists in being a show in which people stand around and trade anti-naturalistic speeches about their humanity and whether they're losing it rather than just living their lives as they are and letting the audience figure it out; a show from which mundane conversation is banished; where there's no effort to conceptualize characters as real human beings and in which the characterizations are constantly being altered to suit the temporary needs of the plot. There must, it's true, be a certain gravity for the horror elements of any such story to work. Humor that endears one to the characters can be an important part of that. It makes one care about what happens to them. It's particularly conspicuous by its almost complete absence from TWD because, like ZN, TWD doesn't present a typical narrative wherein people are thrust into a horrifying situation, said situation works itself out then is resolved before the end-credits. What we see, instead, is the open-ended playing out of the day-to-day lives of the characters, day-to-day lives that, in the case of TWD, include virtually no humor and very little love or any other ordinary human sentiment.

How this works out in practice: When TWD's writers feel it's convenient to milk the point, the Greene family is shown to be very close-knit, but when Hershel, the patriarch, loses a leg in season 3, neither of his daughters make any effort to find the prison infirmary containing the medical supplies he'll require if he's to have any chance of living through the ordeal, nor do they demand action toward this end by anyone else. Instead, Maggie, serving up the melodrama, offers Hershel a teary-eyed goodbye! In season 4, Maggie, her boyfriend Glenn, and her sister Beth are separated after the fall of the prison, but while entire episodes are built around the efforts of Maggie and Glenn to find one another--lots of melodrama to milk there--neither of them make any effort to find Beth. Maggie even goes so far as to leave signs along a railroad track instructing Glenn to follow it to the end to find her but including nary a mention of Beth. In the current season, Beth has been kidnapped by an unknown person or group, but rather than staying in the area and making any effort to find her, Maggie and Glenn have just left with another group going to Washington D.C. (for metatextual reasons we're likely to get in the next ep). From any logical or human perspective, none of this makes any sense at all, but each is an example of the TWD writers' practice of making that series' characterizations subservient to the temporary needs of the plot, usually its need to generate melodrama. There are, as a consequence, no human beings on TWD, just a series of arbitrary characterizations that are, with some regularlity, arbitrarily changed. Strung together over an extended period, none of them represent a record of a life, with one part evolving into the next; they are, instead, just a disorganized and contradictory mishmash, illustrative only of the varying moods the writers wanted to invoke from week to week.[3]

This lack of humanity means the "characters" offer the conscientious viewer nothing interesting or relatable. They don't sound or feel or ever remotely act like real people (or the fantasies of real people), they're made breathtakingly stupid in the service of poorly constructed plots, we learn virtually nothing about them and there's neither humor nor anything else to endear them to the audience.[4]

On this score, ZN couldn't be more different. It features an increasingly vibrant cast of living, breathing characters, and it definitely wants you to know them.[5] That "increasingly" is a significant point. ZN's characterizations are doled out over the course of its various adventures. We get a teenage sniper who has dubbeed himself "10k" because, in the kind of mission a kid would give himself, he intends to kill 10,000 zombies. 10k was fairly young and inexperienced in the world when the zombie apocalypse hit, and we see the older characters explaining to him things like ROCKY and porn. We get flashbacks dealing with how he'd had to dispose of his own father when the fellow had been zombified. We see him become smitten, likely for the first time, a flash infatuation with a pretty, cross-eyed Asian girl who can shoot as well as he. And 10k is a very good shot--sharp shooting, sharp-eyed and plain sharp--always looking for potential danger, always trying to keep ahead of it (and usually succeeding). We learn about 10k, as with all the others, over time, by watching him do things, showing how he acts and reacts to different situations. ZN unerstands the first rule of screenwritng: "Show, Don't Tell."

That is, unfortunately, a rule most of TWD's writers never learned. Nothing on TWD is ever allowed to speak for itself. When, in season 4, the stilll-healthy Hershel, a physician, is intent on entering an isolated cell-block full of his sick comrades in an effort to treat them, it can't just be something he does because of the kind of person he is in light of the situation. Instead, everything must be brought to a halt in order for him to give a lengthy speech justifying his actions as a profound act of humanitarianism in a harsh world. That's how the series handles everything. As mentioned earlier, it features, as a recurring theme, the question of the characters' humanity and whether they can hold on to it in this savage, zombiefied world, but its creators don't handle the matter by writing stories showing situations that challenge their humanity, showing how they react to those situations and showing what effect it has. Rather, in pursuit of melodrama, the writers have the characters overtly state the question--"Am I losing my humanity?"--then talk about it. And talk about it. And talk about it. Never a serious, adult conversation, mind you, just overblown soap opera angst.

Far more interesting than all of TWD's many silly speeches about humanity is ZN's Murphy, a guy who is actually in the process of losing his. Murphy is ZN's resident mouthy asshole, always on hand to offer some obnoxious, inappropriate, self-centered comment. He'd been one of three imprisoned criminals who were "volunteered" to take part in an experiment aimed at creating a serum capable of overcoming the zombie virus. The other two died but Murphy made it, and now apparently immune, he may hold in his blood the key to defeating zombieism. But over time, the serum is changing him, making him more zombie-like. Initially terrified by the shuffling ghouls, a natural reaction to having been nearly eaten alive by a pack of them, he begins to view them with something more akin to sympathy. Eventually, he discovers they no longer try to attack him. As his physical appearance deteriorates, his worsening condition frightens him. He's not always in control of himself, his behavior becoming less human, more predatory, potentially even dangerous to the rest of the group. All of this conveyed, extraodinarily enough, without any pompous speeches (or, indeed, much commentary at all).

Storywise, ZN tends to embrace a lot of wilder, more creative ideas, even when it sometimes clips them from elsewhere. It's a crazy blender and you never quite know what will come out. Sometimes, whatever does works, other times not so much. Its most recent experiment was a bottle episode wherein one of the characters experiences a series of dreams (they take place on the same industrial set as most of episode 2) revolving around a repressed traumatic memory. A bit much, perhaps, for not much of a payoff. More interesting was an installment wherein Citizen Z, trapped at the North Pole, was visited by a Russian cosmonaut who crash-landed near his facility. Nothing of that scenario should be quite what it seems, and in the end, it wasn't. TWD, being an adaptation of an existing property, is at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to this sort of thing. Under current showrunner Scott Gimple, it's staying much closer to the comic on which it's based than it had before, but the book's best material has already been squandered. Though for much of its pre-Gimple run it departed rather radically from the book, its departures weren't in the direction of anything terribly creative--it remained basically just a soap that pillaged elements of the book to create a series that was far less interesting than the book (and that, in general, sucked).[6]

ZN is much better paced than TWD. While both shows employ a similar amount of raw plot, ZN resolves its individual chapters in a single episode, whereas TWD tends to drag out that same amount of plot to cover many. Sometimes, many, many, stretching tales so far beyond their natural lifespan that it would be comical if TWD allowed for any humor. By the end of its first 13-episode season, ZN will likely have covered as much ground as TWD has in its 56 to date. It would be nice to see ZN get into some longer tales. There's much to be said for well-executed multi-episode storytelling. There's much less to be said for how TWD has handled that format.

In most of its technical departments, on the other hand, TWD is definitely superior to ZN. With a few notable exceptions, TWD's cinematography tends to be flat and uninspired but it's unquestionably richer and prettier. ZN follows many contemporary b-pictures in employing a restricted color palette, which I think is a poor fit for the series; as I've noted here before, the tone of the series would favor a more vivid, expressionistic use of color. TWD features the make-up effects wizardry of Greg Nicotero and his team; even on a tv budget, it's hard to top that. ZN's production design is unquestionably cheap. TWD has better access to better locations, and gets better coverage of them.

Those are just about the only things it does better than ZN though, and those are merely a product of its larger budget. In my initial review of the first eps of ZN, I wrote that "its efforts at 'drama' remain fairly low-grade--nothing of any real seriousness is handled very well." Some of the other problems I identified then have remained, but the series has definitely overcome that one.[7] And I'm willing to let slide some of the things I'd normally consider shortcomings because, warts and all, ZN works. It isn't perfect, but with a reported budget of less than $700,000/ep, it's an enthusiastic little b-movie in multiple installments, and, understood as that, a series that, whatever else may be said of it, delivers the goods. TWD, with a budget floating around $3 million/ep, has been, for much of its run, essentially a daytime soap, the world's most expensive version of one of the world's lowest-grade entertainments, one that, preposterously, wanted more than anything to be taken seriously. Its current showrunner has a much more relaxed notion of TWD's place in the world and has significantly improved it, but he just can't seem to exorcise the old, bad habits of his predecessor, and TWD will never be great because of it. While ZN is a good show that is constantly improving itself, TWD is an uneven mess, with the good work choked by the bad and any investment a viewer makes in it is almost immediately met by a slap in the face.

I'm glad I didn't let ZN's pilot turn me off the series, as I'm sure happened with many. With it, I have a show in which I can invest my attention and not be constantly made to feel insulted. I wish I had a TWD like that.

--j

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[1] Hey, if I don't point out that's a joke somewhere, a lot of people will not get it.

[2] Said crazed commander played, in a great piece fo casting, by the most excellent Bill Mosely.

[3] I've dealt with this problem at often ridiculous lengths in my TWD articles over the years. "A Melodrama Problem" offers a good, compact treatment of the subject. It covers, among other things, the many contradictory, often awful versions of Rick Grimes TWD has thrown at its audience. The Z NATION gang, by contrast, is lead by Roberta Warren. As leaders go, you can't do much better than a deity, and Kellita Smith, who plays Roberta, is an absolute goddess of a woman.

[4] Most of these problems, introduced when, for season 2, TWD was converted into a soap melodrama during the regime of showrunner Glen Mazzara, have persisted long after Mazzara's departure. Subsequent showrunner Scott Gimple has introduced many radical reforms that significantly improved the series, but rather than eschewing the soap melodrama approach he tries to straddle the gaping chasm between it and proper character-driven drama. It isn't a line that can be straddled though, and TWD has been left a remarkably uneven mess by the effort.

[5] On the long list of things ZN does better than TWD, perhaps the most extraordinary is its characters. TWD has had 4 full seasons and counting to establish theirs, yet TWD's random, ever-shifting characterizations make it impossible for any reasonably intelligent viewer to even care if any of its characters live or die. ZN, by contrast, has only had 9 episodes, but a death among its central cast as it now stands would definitely be felt as a serious loss.

[6] The existence of the book actually makes this worse, because it shows the vastly superior template the series creators abandoned in order to churn out the muck they've so often delivered through TWD's run.

[7] A rather spectacular moment that jumps immediately to mind is a scene in ep. 7 ("Welcome To The Fu-Bar") wherein a somewhat sloshed Roberta has a moment of surreal serenity in a monologue with a zombie who, minutes earlier, had been her bartender. She'd just lost a man she'd silently loved for years--he was killed just when she'd started to express it to him--and pouring forth from her in this scene comes all the feelings she'd bottled up in her head for all the years she'd known him and had never gotten to say to him. Perversely, it comes out through a great deal of anger she has for his goving her hope and then dying. It's a brilliantly-written and executed emotional roller-coaster that lets you see into her soul--character drama done right, something entirely alien to the uninspired, anti-human soap melodrama over on TWD.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

50 Articles of THE WALKING DEAD & I

"Four Walls and a Roof," this week's aggressively mediocre, watered-down installment of THE WALKING DEAD, didn't inspire me to write anything about it. Except that. Rather, I thought I'd do something a little different (and probably a lot less interesting!). This is an anniversary of sorts: my 50th article about TWD. As good a time as any, I suppose, to devote a little space to my prolific relationship with this particular subject.

It's a relationship that's been the subject of a great deal of commentary over the years, from both friends and admirers and (mostly) detractors. The former often seem to think it a waste of my time, attention and whatever talent they judge me to have, while the latter dislike my criticism of the series and like to raise the caricature of some odd, obsessive fellow writing so much about a series he hates (that I also praise TWD when it warrants it never seems to figure in this criticism).[1]

I came to THE WALKING DEAD through the comics. A lifelong fan of horror and of zombie tales, I'd read the book for years before the series had appeared; back when it was fairly obscure. I'd been cautiously optimistic when it had been announced; interested to see what would become of the adaptation but skeptical of how faithful it could be given the restrictions that would be imposed upon it. Though the creators had promised it wouldn't necessarily follow the events of the comic, Frank Darabont's pilot film was almost slavish in its adaptation of the first few issues of the book and I was hooked. None of the subsequent episodes, which departed radically from the book, even came close to living up to that first ep, and they had other problems too, but they weren't bad and often had very good moments. A good series could grow from them. A good friend of mine, a fellow horror and zombie fan, fell in love with it. He didn't have AMC or, at the time, even a tv, and, having no other way of seeing it, he'd come over and watch it with me every week.

Unfortunately, it was during that first short season that events in my own life took a turn for the worse. I've alluded to it here, but haven't written much of it, and won't. The short version is that someone who had become very special to me--as special as anyone had ever been to me--very dramatically left me. The fallout from this nearly killed me. Almost 4 years later and in spite of some efforts to mend the mess, it continues to affect me every day. One of the things it took from me was my writing. I am a writer; born with it stamped on my DNA. I started doing it before most kids my age could even recognize all of their letters, and leading into this particular cataclysm my love was my muse and I'd been in a particularly prolific period.

After, I couldn't do anything. I progressively fell into a nightmarish hole in myself, and very soon, there was no question of writing. After a very long time, I began, little by little, to return to life, but the writing didn't return. It wouldn't and I couldn't make it--it was like it had been robbed out of me. For a writer, this was like being dead.

Eventually, I tried to make myself write some things, mostly on political subjects, a few on others. For the most part, I didn't like the results very much.[2]  It was some time shortly before the season 2 opener of TWD that I began to lurk on the Walking Dead board at the Internet Movie Database. I read posts there, learned some of the personalities, and as the season got underway I began occasionally posting short comments. Nothing major. Probably nothing terribly insightful. I wasn't pleased with the radical change in direction the series had undergone, but it was still hard to muster up enough interest to care about it or much of anything, really. Still, my friend was turning up to watch it with me and I watched it every week as its problems continued to grow. I started to write about it on the board more and more often, sometimes setting off heated debates.

It was during TWD's midseason break that year that I finally sat down and began to bang out a more comprehensive article dealing with my thoughts on the show to date. It was, to clip a cliche, like a dam had burst. For the first time in a very long time, the words flowed with ease. That first piece, "Pretty Much Walking Dead Already," became and to this day continues to be the longest article I've written on TWD or on any subject on this blog. And the article proved a hit. People flocked to it, complimented me on it, excoriated me for it--it proved a tremendous source of controversy and debate.

Unfortunately, my success with that article didn't translate into any sort of general return of my authorial mojo. It was over a month before I wrote anything else, and when I was able to write again, it was another article about TWD. Then another. Then another. I'd been a big fan of Lina Romay, and when she died right around this time, I gave her what felt like an entirely inadequate send-off here. Mostly, though, it was just TWD. For a long time, it was practically the only subject about which I could write with any skill (or with what I felt was skill). The articles emerged fairly easily. The depths to which the series had fallen were appalling, and the early articles, after the original, were mostly matter-of-fact laundry-lists of grievances (a straightforwardness that may have contributed to their popularity). They didn't have a lot of overt humor, which, given the subject, is a glaring omission (one that no doubt played into the series' fans caricatures of me), but I wasn't feeling particularly humorous at the time.

Humorless or not, the articles developed an insatiable audience, people who told me they enjoyed my articles far more than the show, people who said they only continued to watch it so they could read my reaction to it, fans of the series who despised me and delighted in pointing it out at every opportunity, chiding me for continually watching and repeatedly writing about something I hated. Points I raised were debated at lengths that seemed absurd,[3] and I jumped into the fray with vigor. I seemed to have tapped into a vein of growing dissatisfaction with the popular show, saying things a lot of people had been thinking but hadn't articulated. By writing what I thought, I became a chief exponent of and spokesman for their views, or was so perceived. I became notorious within the online TWD fan community.

Along the way, though, I'd lost the point of it, which isn't terribly surprising. Were it not for my pal wanting to see it and depending on me for his fix, I would have stopped watching TWD fairly early in the 2nd season and probably would have never written anything about it. Long before that second season had ended, I felt as if I'd said all I had to say about tv TWD. I even began to get the idea that I may have covered everything in my first article and that the subsequent ones were merely redundant appendices. I was repeating myself in a way that paralleled the way the show was so mind-numbingly repeating itself at the time. Noting the obvious, I began to do this intentionally, as a sort of private joke, and found some amusement in how often the series' fans would, short my own sense of the obvious, slam me for it. That some little bit of glee was no doubt some small part of why I stayed with it. As depressing a subject as it could be, I was happy to finally have my mind on something other than my own troubles. As I had also become essentially a captive audience because of my friend, I used the articles and the arguments to vent why I disliked the series, and there was a certain stubbornness to it. "If I have to watch this shit," I'd tell myself, "I'm damn well going to write about why its shit." More importantly, though, I was also clinging to TWD. It was the only thing I could write, my weekly proof that I hadn't entirely lost the most important part of me.

I was still stuck with watching the series--in addition to my friend, my parents had since taken to watching it and were likewise dependent upon me to provide it (I record it for them)--but I really didn't want to continue writing of TWD into its third season. There had been more personal tragedy between the seasons that threatened, for a time, to overwhelm me.[4] There wasn't any big epiphany that led me to continue; I mostly did so for the same reasons I'd continued through to the end of season 2. The third season was to concern itself with the story of the prison our heroes make their home, which was the high point of the comics, and I had a certain curiosity about how TWD's creators would handle it. I expected they'd so so badly (and said so, and was proven far more correct that I'd ever care to have been). I was still somewhat on the fence about continuing my articles until I saw the opener, "Seed." It's a regular practice for fanboys of various pop entertainment franchises to dub a "hater" any critic of their beloved Precious, a practice intended to dismiss a criticism as the product of the malevolent nature of the critic as a means of avoiding addressing it. Contrary to this epithet so frequently hurled my way, I've always held out some little glimmer of hope that TWD could right itself and become something worthy of the source material. Being stuck with watching it, I'd certainly prefer it did so. "Seed" fed into that. Not by being great or even particularly good, but by being something significantly more than just downright godawful. Having seen it, I determined to write of it, and though still assuming the worst for the season to come, I gave it a cautiously positive review.

It only took one more episode for TWD to destroy the good will I'd extended it. The season that followed wasn't just awful, it was tragic, in that it raped, pillaged and wasted the best story arc from the comic. In the course of it, I fell into a routine when it came to my articles. My mood had lightened a bit and I started to have a lot more fun with them and to branch out, covering the series' visual continuity errors, creating a map of TWD's Georgia, imagining a behind-the-scenes look at the TWD writers' room. The season was horrible, but at the end of it, Glen Mazzara, the showrunner who had driven TWD to ruin, was fired. Reportedly, he'd been so terminally underwriting the series--a complaint prominently featured here week after week--that production was repeatedly shut down for lack of material to shoot. I didn't sing "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" at that point, but I did think it offered a chance to significantly improve the show.[5] Scott Gimple, the fellow chosen to replace Mazzara, had been the writer of record for the only relatively good episode of season 3 ("Clear") and another that, though it featured an incredibly bad decision by the writers (the death of Merle), was significantly less than awful ("This Sorrowful Life"). I'd almost certainly be watching the next season, and I was curious to see what he could do with it.

Gimple significantly improved the show. His gang turned out the first great eps of TWD since the 1st season, several of them. I appreciated Gimple's efforts to refute and demean Mazzara's work, but I thought he took that much too far when he devoted multiple episodes to creating Woodbury v.2.0 and trying to prove he could pull off the end of season 3 better than Mazzara. Watching TWD also became a very frustrating exercise for me during season 4. When Mazzara was running the show, one simply expected every ep to be shit, and one was virtually never disappointed. When, under Gimple, there were suddenly good-to-great episodes appearing, one wanted this to continue, but rubbing shoulders with the keepers were also multiple episodes in which, utterly unnecessarily, the show fell back into the very bad habits of the Mazzara years, brainless and awful. This, it seems, is going to continue into the new season. A killer opening ep, followed by a shitty sequel, followed by a mediocre third installment. "Fear the Hunters," the comic tale adapted by the last two episodes, could, absent the material that was drawn from it and put to use in the previous season,[6] have been covered in a single episode. Instead, it was stretched to two, packed with filler and the brutal payoff watered down[7] until the point is entirely lost, then the whole thing was paved over with a string of clichés and Lifetime For Women demographics-servicing faux tenderness regarding Bob's imminent demise. Just a waste.

My articles for season 4 reflect both the unevenness of its eps and my changing perspective on the series. A shift in them I note is that I don't just catalog the inanities of the weaker installments but, instead, begin to try to diagnose, at greater length, the basic nature of the series' problems and to suggest ways it could be improved--treating it as something worthy of those sorts of considerations. Toward the end of the season, by contrast, the series began to wear on me and my articles sometimes became quite cursory. For at least one ep, I didn't even write one (and heard an earful from my readers for it). I don't like writing the kind of reviews one finds all over the internet where most of the text is consumed by a mere recap of the ep's events. If I'm going to write about an ep, I need to have something to say about it. The eps on which I skimped are a mixed bag of mediocre-with-good elements that didn't particularly inspire me. My short take on "The Grove" represented a judgment that it was a great tale I thought spoke for itself.

For a time, Gimple actually had me looking forward to the next week's ep. That's quite a feat and he managed it on multiple occasions. And then he managed to drub that out of me. After the last two eps of this new season, I'm not looking forward to any more TWD. I doubt I ever will again. I'm sure there will be some more good eps sprinkled throughout this season and through the series for however long it continues. I'll probably even write about it. It isn't something in which I can reliably invest any enthusiasm though. I don't understand why Gimple doesn't just kick free from Mazzara-ism entirely and allow TWD to soar but he won't. He's had every chance. For all his TWD's seeming criticism of it, he lets it continue to drag down the show and it's likely he always will, dooming TWD to remain no more than what it is now--a wildly uneven series that offers up an alternating mix of impressive episodes that raise one's expectations and eps of mindless Mazzara-ist garbage that relentlessly grinds down the same enthusiasm the former inspires. That's unfortunate but it is what it is, and though some of my readers have suggested it looks as if Gimple, based on some of his reforms, had been reading some of my criticism, changing it isn't really in my power.

I'm no longer clinging to the series as a subject; I came away from that slowly and over time, and last season removed any doubts that may have lingered. My writing hasn't entirely recovered from my personal traumas and maybe it never will, but it's better. Between the TWD seasons, I wrote a few articles here on various unrelated subjects about which I had much more enthusiasm. I didn't think they were bad. I was somewhat disappointed by the minimal reaction to them. Now, TWD is back and my readers want to see my analysis of it; still stuck with watching it, I'll probably keep writing about it, if for them alone.  I may be, s some insist, a moron for writing about it so much; people will just have to judge that for themselves. To aid them in those weighty considerations, I'll go ahead and confess a certain disappointment with myself in writing so much on a subject that is so often so unworthy of that much attention while giving short shrift or failing entirely to write about much better movies and series. For the record, though, I'm not some crazed obsessive when it come to TWD. I'm not a "hater." I'm not Paul Sheldon in "Misery," perpetually driven by commercial concerns to write of a subject I hate--I don't make a dime from my writing on the subject. And that's where things are with TWD and I.

Postscript: I should, in closing, offer a few words regarding my friend, the fellow who doesn't always like TWD but hasn't disliked it enough to stop watching it; the one whose desire to look at it has, in turn, kept me watching it. Given how little I've said about him here, I fear some readers could have been left with the impression that being forced to keep up with TWD on his behalf is, at best, some sort of resented chore and at worst, some hellish torture. It's neither. The friend in question is a good one and has been with me for many years now. He can watch TWD with me any day. I dedicate this article to him:

To Darren. A jolly good fellow.

--j.

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[1] I'm not sure why anyone thinks, caricature aside, that's a legitimate criticism anyway. On what planet are critics expected to write only about things they really like?

[2] The pieces in question were typically political commentary written in response to something I'd read somewhere and in retrospect some of them aren't bad but my real-time impression was that they more often came out quite poorly. They are, for me, very clinical, impersonal, matter-of-fact--at the time, I thought most of them rubbish, and maybe more importantly, they were on subjects I didn't enjoy.

[3] On the IMDb board, which was my main haunt, the fights would go on for thousands of posts; frequently, I, rather than TWD, seemed the #1 topic of discussion for the day.

[4] An ex of mine, a fine lady with whom I'd remained very close, killed herself that Summer.

[5] I wrote an evaluation of the Mazzara seasons for the IMDb board. Which was best? Well...

On one hand, S3 had one good episode ("Clear") and two eps that, while problematic at times, still managed to rise above the series' usual rock-bottom standard ("Seed" and "This Sorrowful Life"). This compares to no good episodes in S2. Every episode that year, without exception, was a complete waste of space. Purely on a scorecard, season 3 wins that way.

On the other hand, the IQ of the series, which plummeted in season 2, hit a new low in season 3--TWD S3 is a much dumber show than S2. "Sick" and "Killer Within" were basically full-episode extensions of Lori taking the car to fetch Rick and Glenn, and were a series low when it came to this. If you prize intelligence, you're going to despise both, but if you can appreciate one being a bit smarter than the other, S2 wins. If, on the flip-side, you actually prize abject idiocy and find it one of TWD's endearing traits, S3 is definitely for you.

On a third hand, the second half of S3 was like the first half of S2, in that nearly everything we were shown was simply filler. TWD, in both seasons, has been mostly filler, but those two "eras"--to the extent that they can be cleanly divided (important caveat)--featured the greatest amount of padding. The S2 filler era lasted 7 eps, while the S3 filler era lasted 8. At the same time, though, the padding in the S2 era was far more repetitious--the same scenes and conversations being repeated dozens of times with barely an altered word.

On a fourth hand, S2 is as dull as dishwater. If you prize any sense of pace, there's nothing for you there. S3 doesn't move any faster but it throws in lots and lots of action to confound bumpkins into mistaking it for superior. The special effects in S2 (and, particularly, S1) were excellent; in S3--probably as a consequence of that greater demand for action--a lot of them looked like the effects from a Troma flick. There are exceptions and still some great work here and there, but often you'll find better work in a Toxic Avenger movie.

And on and on. When it comes  to judging such things, lot of it just depends on what you prize. The bottom line about Mazzara TWD is that no matter how many hands you may have, comparing the seasons is like saying this pile here stinks a bit less than that pile over there--it may be true, but you don't want to step in either.

[6] The excellent episode "The Grove" was a significantly altered version of a subplot from"Fear the Hunters."

[7] As I've written here before, attenuating the material for a middle-American whitebred audience has been a problem for TWD from the beginning. In this case, the incredible brutality of the climax of "Fear the Hunters"--our heroes, appalled by the cannibals, spend all night torturing them to death in the same way the cannibals have tortured others to death--is, as always with tv TWD, eliminated. Heaven forbid middle America ever be exposed to brutality in a horror show about the end of the world coming at the hands of flesh-eating monsters. That doing this eliminates the entire point of the story no more occurred to the writers than the fact that cannibalism didn't make any sense in the first place in the the sanitized world they've created in the tv version wherein food is plentiful and never really much of a problem (in the comic, it's nearly always a problem).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pace and Consistency Strangers To THE WALKING DEAD

Series television is written by committee. An individual script will usually only have one writer's name on it, but the final filmed version of it will be the product of a large number of people, from the showrunner and the writer's room down to even the individual actors (in series that don't insist on overly rigid recitation of the written word). One of the things that has long puzzled me about THE WALKING DEAD is how Robert Kirkman, who is a talented writer I've read for many years, always ends up as the author of record on so many godawful episodes. If his name appears on a script, it's guaranteed to be a stinker, and tonight's installment, "Strangers," was his sixth turd in a row, a turd that, like the previous five, shows no trace of his influence, much less of his authorship. Not a single Kirmanesque moment, line of dialogue, anything. This simply isn't how Kirkman writes.[1] Are his scripts being dragged down by too much influence from others? Is he choking when it comes time to write a tv script? Is someone of lesser talent ghostwriting for him?[2] It's a mystery I've pondered for a few years now, one that's likely to remain a mystery for the foreseeable future. For our purposes here at the moment, it's enough to note that, tonight, TWD squandered the good will it had earned via its great season 5 opener with yet another Mazzara-esque filler episode.

Once again, we're back to the soap melodrama dialogue wherein no one has a normal conversation about a mundane subject; every exchange involves some preposterous, overblown speech about some Very Important Things that are mostly repetitions of things we're heard a million times already. Let's wallow in how Troubled a character is about something bad in their past by having them repeatedly tell us--regulation hangdog look in place--they Don't Want To Talk About It. The other 9,999 times clearly weren't enough, so let's have Rick give his 10,000th repetition of his speech to Carl about how he must be exceptionally careful in this zombified world. Let's have another speech from Abraham about how we must get Eugene to D.C. so we can save the world.

Other bad habits returned. Bob is suddenly given lots of dialogue, the home of which he's long dreamed, and a romance with Sasha. Longtime viewers of TWD know what that means; he's being set up for a gruesome fate. He isn't dead by the end of the ep, but only, one suspects, because this is a filler episode in which virtually nothing happens. He appears to have been bitten by a zombie on  mission to find food--something at which the episode only hinted[3]--and was then snatched by the remnants of the Terminusians. When they weren't killed, you just knew they'd be back, right? The subject of a Terminusian shish ka-Bob--yes, you may roll your eyes at that--he seems to have been designated by the creators to meet Dale's fate from the comics.[4] Meanwhile, Carol apparently decides to leave the group near the end; she treks to a broken-down car she and Daryl had encountered earlier, gets it running, and is just about to leave when Daryl stumbles upon her. Not satisfied with one such remarkable coincidence, the ep immediately throws us another--at that very moment, the car of whomever kidnapped Beth goes speeding up the road right in front of the car Carol just got running! She and Daryl jump in and take off in pursuit, but, again, this being a filler ep, whatever becomes of that will have to wait until next week.

The pace of the ep is wretched, little of any substance happens, it brings the momentum established by the previous ep to a standstill--overall, "Strangers" was a disappointing fallback to Mazzara-esque crap, an exercise that deepens the mystery of Robert Kirkman's substandard scripts but is otherwise a complete waste of an episode.

--j.

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[1] Kirkman's first ep, "Vatos," is very Kirkmanesque, a great script with lots of Kirkman touches and great moments, including the best ever last line of a TWD ep, but the big twist toward its end--the "gangsters" who turn out to be guarding a nursing home--was so bad, so ill-advised, and left such a bad taste in viewers' mouths that its merits tend to be ignored and it often ends up listed among the all-time worst TWD eps.

[2] Certainly a possible scenario. Though Kirkman has always described himself as intimately involved in the creative end of the show, he made numerous public comments in interviews during its 2nd and 3rd seasons that were wildly inaccurate and suggest he was only minimally aware of what was happening with it and was merely trying to fudge his way through questions regarding it to which he didn't know the answers.

[3] He's attacked by a zombie during one of TWD's patented ridiculous zombie setpieces. The group wants to collect food from the lower level of a building that is waist-deep in water. There's a hole in the floor above it; the flooded lower level is teeming with zombies. Instead of simply spearing the zombies from above, which could be done with no risk, the team descends to the lower level to battle the zombies in the waist-deep water. At one point, one of the creatures grabs Bob and drags him under. When he's rescued, he claims to be all right, but something is clearly bothering him, and later, after the group returns to home base--a church--he's shown standing outside alone crying, perhaps over being bittern, perhaps only to make viewers familiar with the comics think he was bitten.

[4] It wouldn't surprise me if Tara eventually ends up wanting to marry Glenn and Maggie either. As sometimes happened last year, Gimple likes to try to mine some of the material from the comics that Mazzara pissed away during his reign as showrunner.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ze State of Z NATION

Just watched the first three eps of Z NATION, the new SyFy zombie series. Given the perpetually duplicative complexion of television, I assumed that, in the wake of the remarkable ratings success of THE WALKING DEAD, everyone in the biz would soon be purloining its premise and delivering up a plethora of living dead-plagued landscapes populated by bands of ragged roustabouts just trying to survive. As TWD sank into the baleful depths of Mazzara dullardism, I even fantasized that someone would build a better zombie-trap, throw it against TWD, and bury that series, which I'd really come to hate, beneath its own premise. For whatever reason, this hasn't materialized, neither the trend nor the fantasy. A tv adaptation of ZOMBIELAND made it as far as a pilot film, but it apparently went over poorly and was dropped. Only this year--5 seasons into TWD--did SyFy partner with the Asylum to produce the next ongoing televised zombie apocalypse. I'm only a little late to that party, but last night I did finally get around to taking in the first three eps of its fruit, Z NATION.

Z NATION is a bit of a party. Karl Schaeffer, its showrunner, tells us that "every week, you’re going to see our zombies doing something different, that you haven’t seen zombies do before. Our goal was to put the fun back into zombies." A clearer focus on that goal would have certainly aided "Puppies & Kittens," the series pilot. It delivers some humor along the way, mostly toward the end, but overall, it takes itself way too seriously, and, combined with its other sins, almost led me to forgo the rest of the series. It indulges in one of my least favorite tropes of genre productions in having characters spout faux-"futuristic" language. Zombies are called "Zs," killing them is called "granting them mercy," dates are recorded as "A.Z." (After Zombies), there's militaristic techno-babble ("Delta-Xray-Delta, this is Northern Light. Operation Bite Mark, do you copy?"), and so on. In one of the early scenes, a group of people are throwing a going-away party for their sick grandmother, who is then given "mercy" via an "eight sacrament"--ritually murdered by one of our heroes. This is treated as a joyous event.[1] In my view, such tropes are the waste-products of feverish nerdish circle-jerking, and they only tend to alienate viewers from material that, set in a world only divorced from our own by three years, shouldn't be so alien to them. Following contemporary b-movie trends for better or worse, the cinematography favors the hand-held and a fairly restricted color palette. The latter is a huge mistake; while the pilot is often fairly dull, the tone adopted by the subsequent episodes would be much better served by a vibrant, even over-the-top expressionistic use of color. The production design is dirt-cheap, and it often combines with the scale of the piece to give the impression of simply trying to do too much with too little.

Much of this is emblematic of the work of the company that produced Z NATION. I'm an ordained minister in the Church of the B-Movie, but it's exceedingly rare that I've felt compelled to preach a sermon on behalf of a product of the Asylum. Over the years, I've slogged through more of its execrable filmography than I'd care to recall  The company's bread-and-butter is grinding out "mockbusters"--dirt-cheap knock-offs of whatever huge-budget blockbuster Hollywood is currently pimping. Hollywood makes TRANSFORMERS, the Asylum has TRANSMORPHERS; Hollywood remakes THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL; the Asylum counters with THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED. Hollywood offers THE HOBBIT: the Asylum gives us AGE OF THE HOBBITS.[2] The company makes its money by using such titles to separate credulous Redbox renters from their entertainment dollars by making them think they're getting the current upbudget Hollywood schlock.[3] One can admire their initiative. Admiring their schlock is much harder. A lot of schlock can be endearing; the Asylum's schlock one more typically finds oneself enduring. Their movies aren't so bad they're good; they're mostly just bad. There have, in my experience, been a few exceptions. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE'S SHERLOCK HOLMES--released to ape the Robert Downey Jr. SHERLOCK HOLMES--had a good b-movie take on Holmes, and was entertaining enough. It fell on its face only insofar as it, like so many other Asylum projects, simply tried to do too much with too little. SIX GUNS, the Asylum's rip on JONAH HEX, ended up being a better Jonah Hex movie than the one that bore the name. And, of course, the Asylum's biggest catch--and likely its biggest hit--was SHARKNADO. A riff on Roger Corman's weird critter movies for SyFy, the flick about a tornado full of sharks is schlock done right, and--no other way to put it--an absolute blast.[4] These bright spots are definitely the exception. That the Asylum was behind Z NATION is one of the reasons I was initially disinterested in the series.

I finally looked into it because I kept coming across internet chatter from the following it has developed, raves about it being a fun little show. The clincher was when a comrade from the Internet Movie Database boards threw some kind words its way and said she hoped I was going to be checking it out (thanks, Helen).

As I sank into the couch and started watching, a lot of the pilot fed my own initial prejudices. A lot of it looked and felt a lot like the Asylum. There was borrowing from THE WALKING DEAD. The central plot of the entire series, in fact, is a straight lift from the previous season of TWD: a "package"--a fellow with a potential cure for zombie-ism--must be delivered to a lab across a long, dangerous stretch of the zombiefied U.S. Initially, the "characters" barely qualify for the word. In the pilot, only Citizen Z (DJ Qualls) and, in particular, Doc (Russell Hodgkinson) bring any real life to the proceedings.[5] While most of the others were just presences, Harold Perrineau was terribly unlikeable as Hammond, the needlessly prickish, order-barking soldier assigned to escort the "package." Thankfully, he ends up as Zombie Chow before the end of that first episode, and the way ZN handles the events surrounding his demise is what made me, rather unimpressed up to that point, decide to give it another shot and continue to the next one. Our heroes find a cute baby in a wrecked vehicle, and suddenly the show finds its sense of humor. Holding the child at arms length as if horrified by it: "Whoa, it's a real live baby--I haven't seen one of these in years... What do I do?" The characters have just shot several zombies but when the baby cries, "Somebody better shut that kid up before he attracts Z's like flies." And another character agrees. There follows the usual argument over what they're going to do with an infant in a zombie apocalypse. Rather than reveling in the angst, TWD-style, though, Hammond dramatically declares "God, I hate moral dilemmas!" Which made me laugh. Shortly after, the proceedings are interrupted when the baby itself abruptly turns into a zombie. Not a helpless baby zombie. No, the hellish tyke gets up out of his carrier like a little gremlin and chases our heroes out of the building, angrily pounding at the door as they slam it in his face. The "moral dilemma" talk then shifts to how we can't possibly leave it running around like that--it would be inhumane. Hammond volunteers to go inside and kill it and, instead, ends up being eaten by it and another zombie. Z-Baby is too small to even have any teeth, but there he is, chewing big, meaty chunks out of Hammond.

As Z NATION continues beyond this initial outing, its efforts at "drama" remain fairly low-grade--nothing of any real seriousness is handled very well. It has little in the way of internal logic--zombies sprint or shuffle at a glacial place depending solely on the momentary needs of the plot; they're driven by a ravenous lust for flesh yet ignore live humans within arms reach in order to follow distant sounds. A lot of it doesn't make a lick of sense--Citizen Z is able to remotely tap into cameras, tvs, phones, radios everywhere in spite of their being no power; the other characters go into a large city like Philadelphia that's swarming with millions of zombies yet are able to walk around the open streets while talking, yelling and even shooting with minimal attempted molestation or even interest by the flesh-lusting corpses. But what ZN does deliver after that initial mixed bag of a pilot is a typically black sense of humor, which takes center stage and becomes its saving grace. This is a show wherein a guy driving a truck pulls over thinking he has a flat and it turns out he has a ground-up zombie stuck in the wheel-well. "Well, I guess that explains the pull to the left." Some of the laughs are as cheap as the production design, others more pricey, a lot of them may not even be intentional, but together they do work, and while they don't make Z NATION great and may not make it any more than disposable entertainment, they do make it a goofy, gory, fast-paced bite of fun. An amusing diversion I'm going to continue following for a while.

--j.

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[1] The soon-to-be-deceased is toasted while a chorus sings "Shall We Gather At The River," and it's possible the entire scenario was meant as a joke, but if it was, it falls utterly flat.

[2] The Asylum was sued over that one and lost.

[3] Exploitation flicks have always knocked off popular Hollywood product. The Asylum takes that practice to a whole 'nother level.

[4] A sequel was recently released; haven't seen it yet.

[5] Thankfully, this improves with the subsequent episodes. Doc finds a worthy foil in "10,000," a cocky young sniper, and Cassandra (Pisay Pao, one of the most beautiful women on television) begins to get some moments (both characters appear in the pilot but are given virtually nothing to do there).