Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Supergals & Bob Haney

Self-Promotion Dept. - I was a fan of the great American art of the comic book before I could even read the books myself (and I could read before most kids my age could even identify all of their letters). Frustrated by a string of setbacks with my movie projects--the story of my life--I've launched a pair of comic-related Facebook groups in the last few days.

Prolific and pulpy, unapologetically eccentric, wildly imaginative and, frequently, gloriously mad is the work of Bob Haney, writer of comic books. In a career that spanned over 50 years, Haney wrote an astonishing array of tales in nearly every genre, their quality ranging from madcap masterpieces to hacked-out-for-pay mush. He put in a very long run on "The Brave & The Bold," including the bulk of its particularly fine incarnation as a team-up-with-the-Batman book, when it was a key work in returning the Caped Crusader to his darker crime-fighter roots. He's a co-creator of the Teen Titans, Metamorpho the Element Man and many others. His work touched nearly every major DC Comics character. And he is spectacularly underappreciated for all of this. So I've set up "Haneyverse: The Brave & Bold Worlds of Bob Haney," something of an effort to give the Haney his due.

Last week, Marvel launched AGENT CARTER, their first female-led screen adaptation. In the midst of the current boom in comic book movies, I've frequently griped about the sparcity of superheroines who have made the leap from page to screen (including here), and parallel with the new show, I launched "Supergals: Heroines & Villainesses of Page & Screen." Not just those who go from page to screen, by any means. Besides just being a great, rich subject and a place people can use to rave about it, I have some more personal reasons for starting it--nieces, cousins, girls and women in general and others in particular.

If either interest you, come by and join in. The more the merrier.

--j.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Few Words on the First Season of Z NATION Version 2.0

The original version of this article probably wasn't the worst thing I've ever blogged here, but my impression of it wasn't a terribly favorable one. Z NATION deserved better, so I've re-excavated this particular trench and, digging a little deeper, perhaps I'll get to some quality, in situ observations, instead of something that belongs on the spoil heap.

--j. (13 Dec., 2014)


How do you end the first season of a series about an apocalypse?

If you're Z NATION, you do it by launching another apocalypse.

The curtain fell Friday on the freshman season of SyFy's end-of-the-world zombie tale. It ended not with any mere bang but on the verge of two very big ones that threaten to incinerate its entire cast--a great capper to a great finale to a great season.

ZN's trek, since its September debut, has been the tv-show equivalent of a ROCKY picture. It began life as the ultimate underdog. A product of both SyFy and the Asylum, neither noted for the particularly high quality of their original productions, it launched in the shadow of THE WALKING DEAD, tv's long-established zombie apocalypse, then at the absolute height of popularity. It was a budget affair--its entire 13-episode season cost about what AMC spends on every three eps of TWD. Yet with everything seemingly against it from its conception, ZN, after a slow warm-up out of the corner, started steadily slugging away, and creatively speaking, it has not only bested but thoroughly thrashed the ossified TWD week after week.[1] Budget-imposed rough edges and all, it has proven a far better series. That was the conclusion of my comparison of the two, banged out after 9 eps of ZN had aired; subsequent eps of both have only confirmed my verdict.

An amusing irony to be found in that particular match-up is that TWD is an adaptation of an actual comic but as a consequence of (among other things), relentlessly polishing up, dumbing down and mainstreaming the material, it bears almost no resemblance to a comic, whereas ZN, a production original to television, is very much like a comic book come to life, capturing the spirit of that glorious American medium in a way that's rare to see on the screen, even in this age of abundant comic-to-screen adaptations. It's both a prodigious generator and a voracious consumer of ideas, a "crazy blender," as I've called it, that has as its goal telling a good story, and recognizes, in the pursuit of that goal, few boundaries. It certainly takes a particular delight in knocking back a shot, drawing its machete and gleefully plunging into the heart of all of those places TWD fears to tred. While TWD is a flat, low-grade melodrama that aspires to be nothing more, ZN can do anything. As long as it can afford it.

ZN's creators have, in their public statements, stressed the show's use of humor, their idea of putting some fun back into zombies, and I've highlighted this element in my own comments. It's a show wherein you'll encounter ritalin-addicted zombies--they twitch and run very fast. The restrictions of television mean we don't get to actually see the zombies in the same ep who have been exposed to Viagra, but the reaction of the cast at the sight more than sells it. If an ep features an ill-fated aviatrix, she has to be named Amelia; if the same ep features a (non-animated) nuclear plant supervisor, he has to be named Homer. A zombie is killed with an electric egg-beater. Another has its brain blown out--the entire brain. When Murphy, a fellow under the influence of a serum that has been inducing a strange and frightening metamorphosis in him, actually sheds his skin, another of our heroes wants to save the leavings of the process because it would make a killer pair of boots. It's that kind of show. The humor is high and low, the one-liners often fast and furious.

I should say, however, that in recent weeks I've come to think the emphasis on this aspect of ZN risks doing it a serious injustice. The nexus of horror and black humor is something fans of the genre will understand (or at least should), but for the uninitiated, "funny" may be interpreted as lightweight or overly silly, inspiring those looking for something more substantial to take cover while it passes. A cliché to which sympathetic reviewers often carelessly gravitate is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Unsympathetic ones use this to knock it. Neither are correctly representing the series. ZN is funny, very funny, but it's a horror story, not a comedy, and it's not the brainless horror where the stupid, top-heavy lass fleeing the killer runs up the stairs instead of out the door; it's smartly written, densely plotted and full of interesting characters trying to make their way through a very ugly world. It does character drama in spades, and mirth doesn't trump matter--ZN frequently goes to incredibly dark places. Dark places in themselves, dark places through its humor and dark places contrasting humor is used to render even darker.

On perhaps the darkest journey is Murphy, the aforementioned skin-shedder. Locked up for mail fraud before the world fell apart, he was forcibly injected with an experimental serum aimed at defeating the zombie virus. As the others try to get him to California where, it's hoped, the serum can be reverse-engineered from his blood, he finds himself progressively taking on the physical appearance and even the predatory characteristics of a zombie. In one episode, a zombie is blown by a tornado through a window near him and coming face-to-face with it, he has a quiet and quite unexpected emotional reaction. What does he see in the creature's eyes? Pity for it? Sympathy? His fear of what he's becoming? There follow no long, inflated TWD-style monologues in which he lays out his feelings about what happened; viewers must decide for themselves.[2] Eventually, the zombies stop identifying him as a potential hot lunch, which makes for several creepy moments. When our heroes, too long without food or water, are forced to take shelter in a morgue while a massive zombie herd passes outside, Murphy goes out among the dead, discovers a woman and a young child holed up in a building and takes their food and water! The woman's husband had unwisely gone outside and been killed, and as Murphy leaves, he allows the now-zombified fellow back into his family's shelter, then sits around and shares his purloined bounty with his companions, smiling and basking in the warmth of their comradery as they praise his jolly-good-fellow-ness.[3] Murphy eventually learns his transformation is gifting him with various enhanced abilities, which, in turn, lead down another very dark hole, the origin of the zombie virus in monstrous government experiments. Essayed by Keith Allan in one of those rare, perfect matings of actor and role,[4] Murphy has proven to be one of ZN's crowning achievements, the most interesting character in zombie fiction in ages.

For all the praise I heap on it, ZNs hasn't been without flaws. In my initial assessment of its first three eps, I wrote of some:

"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."

ZN overcame a lot of its initial problems as it went along. Others recur.[5] While the series has come to do straight character drama quite well, it doesn't always hit the mark--in "Going Nuclear," the youthful 10k coming to see as a father figure a fellow he's only just met is rather forced and unconvincing. In "Murphy's Law," a plot-point is made about the characters running out of ammo then, minutes later, they have ammo again. Given the narrative, they could have had more ammo stashed in their truck (which was out of their reach when they ran out) but the issue is never addressed. Such bugs are a legitimate complaint.

Less so are others. "Going Nuclear," for example, features a notably less than spectacular effects shot of Mt. Rushmore, and for radiation suits the characters don hazmat suits with a hood and visor rather than a helmet, a set-up that would no more stop radiation than it would air. The head of the cannibal clan in "Philly Feast" isn't exactly a master thespian, and the same could be said of the cult leader in "Resurrection Z," though that performance loudly invokes the antics of various televangelists and the over-the-top delivery may have been an intentional choice. ZN is a low-budget series, and these sorts of things aren't really problems for seasoned b-movie vets, who quickly learn to look past budget-imposed limitations when the merits of a piece outweigh them, but they've proven a serious stumbling-block for some corners of mainstream viewership, where Hollywood slickness is prioritized and dodgy performances or questionable effects shots can immediately lead to an entire project being summarily dismissed as cheesy crap. It's an unfortunate reflex, but I don't really know what one does about it. Spread the gospel and hope those lost souls see the light.

My conclusion after my initial viewing of ZN's first few eps was that its humor was its saving grace, the thing that outweighed the flaws, but it's grown a lot of other graces since then. Its creativity, its wild, anarchistic spirit and anything-can-happen atmosphere, its darkness, its range, even its humanity. I covered most of what I thought made it such a blast in my second article on the show. That's what has held up this article for a few days--I wasn't quite sure what I could say about the series that I haven't already said. Here's the short-and-sweet of it: ZN's first season has offered a rare treat these last few months, the chance to see what could have been something between a creative abortion and a somewhat serviceable failure come, instead, to vivid, vicious life right before one's eyes and turn into a rockin', sockin' hell of an entertaining series that constantly tops itself. From a weak pilot that only really caught fire in its closing moments to a closing moment that threatened to burn eveything and left viewers begging for more, ZN is a triumph, a great addition to both zombie fiction and the larger body of horror fiction and a credit to everyone involved, at least to those who dole out attaboys for zombie and horror tales. Or for good television. I'm one who praises all of that. The wait for ZN season 2 will be a long one, no matter how short it may be.

--j.

---

[1] On a round-by-round basis, ZN couldn't take "No Sanctuary," TWD's season opener which aired the same week as ZN's also-good "Home Sweet Zombie" (ZN's pilot couldn't touch it either), but it has steamrolled over TWD in every other contest. Even when ZN threatened to throw a round with a less-than-stellar bottle episode ("Die, Zombie, Die... Again"), TWD blew it by offering up "Self-Help," an even more glass-jawed exercise. Season openers and finales are traditionally a thing to which tv creators bring their A-game, but "Coda," TWD's lackluster midseason finale, was easily topped by "Murphy's Law," ZN's offering that week, and was utterly decimated by "Doctor of the Dead," ZN's excellent season ender.

[2] Lasting only a few seconds, it's a great little piece of storytelling.

[3] Karl Schaefer, ZN's showrunner, has said that ep was originally going to end with a shot of zombie dad looming in the foreground while the litle girl, bright-faced and thrilled, runs up to him shouting "Daddy!" That's ZN for you.

[4] Rare but not even ZN's ony example--if ZN didn't have Russell Hodgkinson as Doc, it would have to invent him.

[5] Citizen Z's ability to remotely access nearly anything has continued to be absurd, and we can safely say experts in the various technologies aren't being regularly consulted by the writers. This is just an element of the series one must accept. Doing so has proven rather rewarding, but it doesn't offer a blank check to the writers either. Keep it in check, fellas.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Coda To Another Pointless WALKING DEAD Story

A few days ago, in the comments section of my article on THE WALKING DEAD's last installment, I offered some words on the trajectory of the series:  

"The season opener was one of the strongest eps of TWD ever produced, and its immediate sequel was to--as always with TWD--throw out the drag-weights, slam on the brakes, and bring it all to a virtual standstill. Take an episode worth of plot dealing with the cannibals, pile on the padding to stretch it to two eps, and so sanitize the ending that the entire point of the story is lost. Since then, it's been up and down, up and down. Every somewhat decent ep is immediately followed by a pointless waste of space. What you're seeing there--while TWD is at the absolute height of its popularity--is the coming end of TWD. It fell into this pattern in the last season, seems unlikely to ever pull out of it, and it's more wearisome than back during the Mazzara seasons, when it was just a bad show that drew a certain audience. Now, it draws a much broader audience and produces eps that encourage much greater involvement with it then it immediately slaps the face of anyone who extends to it any greater investment. That's the rotating pattern. It's a situation bound to produce frustration, and that will only grow as the boom-and-bust cycle continues and the better eps become less better and fewer in number. I wouldn't want to overstate that--it still has some seasons left in it--and things could always change, as they have so often with this series. That's its course at present." 

Couldn't help thinking about that while watching "Coda," tonight's stunningly lackluster mid-season finale. 

The ep opened promisingly enough. The cop who managed to escape our heroes at the end of last week's installment was running for his life, hands still bound behind his back. Rick, pursuing him in a car, tells him to stop. When he doesn't, Rick runs him down. The fellow, now terribly injured, wants to talk, talk, talk, the way characters will do on TWD, but Rick just shoots him. Tells him to shut up. 

That welcome ugliness aside, the ep was another major flop, which is a much bigger problem for a finale than for a regular ep. The storyline regarding the cops running the hospital in Atlanta--an original for the series, if the word isn't too abused by applying it here--started strongly with "Slabtown" then almost immediately degenerated into the usual TWD stewage, a string of episodes so densely packed with pointless padding that it's a marvel anyone trapped within them could even breath. Rather than actually using the time they had, the writers fought a delaying action aimed at extending yet another terminally unterwritten plot well past its natural expiration date, promising its viewers, while it drags and drags, that there will be a big payoff at the end. 

But even competently-managed suspense must eventually pay off. We don't get competently-managed suspense from TWD. And tonight, at the conclusion of the hospital storyline, we didn't get any payoff either. No twists or turns. No big set-pieces. The episode's climactic event--the death of Beth--was also its only substantive event, and it was telegraphed well in advance--a thing everyone who has paid any attention has seen coming for weeks.[1] The only question was how it would happen.[2] 

That's not a strong enough question to keep people coming back to TWD over the long term. Even if the series typically featured positively sterling writing rather than its polar opposite, you can only toy with and abuse audience expectations so much, and this isn't TWD's first offense when it comes to that. "Shocking" deaths aren't shocking if viewers can tell they're coming, and tragic deaths aren't tragic if viewers have been given no reason to care about the character doing the dying for their amusement. Building an otherwise lackluster series around such events simply isn't a formula that can succeed for very long.

--j. 

--- 

[1] Much of online TWD fandom has taken it has taken it as a given. Carol was also set up for death, but it would seem her growing popularity saved her for the moment. Her character will have to be assassinated before she's bumped off. 

[2] Like a light-switch being flipped, Maggie, who clearly doesn't understand the rules of the series, remembered she had a sister tonight just in time to give us a big, emotional breakdown scene, and I'm sure we'll hear more from her on the subject of Beth in the future--some of TWD's patented posthumous tell-don't-show "character development."


ADDENDUM (4 Dec., 2014) - The one attribute Beth was ever allowed was that she was the one who aggressively Chose Life. This was introduced during the godawful suicide subplot of "18 Miles Out" and reappared again in last season's "Still," which, warts and all, I really liked (maybe as much for its ideology as for its actual content). I've been listening to Arnold Blumberg's "Doctor of the Dead" podcasts lately (which are, by the way, great), and in his take on the ep, he sort of ran with that thought about Beth's characterization and noted that her death was strikingly out of character (to the extent, I would add, that anything can be said to be out of character for TWD's paper-thin redshirts--it was a violation of Beth's one character attribute). After all this time as the girl who Chose Life, she essentially committed bold suicide and in a remarkably stupid way and for no real reason, endangering, in the process, the lives of all of her friends who'd come to rescue her.

When you subtract Beth's death from "Coda," it really has nothing else to offer. The whole thing is meant to be built around a "shocking" death, except everyone who has ever paid any attention to TWD knew, weeks ago, that Beth was going to die. A background-noise character suddenly given not just a prominent role in an ep but her own ep, she was, by the established formula of TWD, walking dead from "Slabtown" forward. The writers could have thrown us a curveball by altering the formula. "Still" occurred during a period when the Gimple Gang had broken the characters into very small groups and was trying to give all of them some attention. The greater attention devoted to Beth in that ep was part of a new direction for TWD, Gimple's effort to build some characters rather than following the temporary-plot-dictating-the-characterizations approach that had become TWD's standard. Some habits die hard--while that spotlight didn't presage Beth's death, it did lead to her kidnapping and disappearance from the series for an extended period--but it can be seen as progress, even if merely a rather timid baby-step. Contrary to the rest of the series, none of the regular cast died in the season 4 ender either. Falling back on the old formula this season is a devolution, a retreat from that new direction. Rather than moving forward and trying to forge a TWD that draws attention for something besides its "shocking" character deaths, "Coda" is a regression. Maybe it's a surrender. As I said above, I think it's a sign of the coming end of TWD. For shock-tactics to work, they have to be shocking. If TWD is just going to be a show that depends on shock- tactics but is so timid and rigidly formulaic that its intended shocks are so entirely predictable, it isn't difficult to read its eventual end in its leavings, even if it's still a while in coming.

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.[2]

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 almost immediately and has continued.[3]

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.[4]

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] The cannibalistic behavior of the Terminusians is meant to mirror the behavior of the zombies, but their turning to cannibalism in the world of tv TWD didn't make any real sense--the sanitization of the series has meant the characters have never had any serious problem finding food and live in a world where it's relatively plentiful.

[3] Another odd pattern with TWD is that: as soon as a new black guy arrives, the old one is killed off. T-Dog yielded to Oscar who yielded to Tyreese. Bob arrived off camera between seasons and is the only substantial exception to this rule, but as soon as Gabriel was introduced, Bob was history. The fresh arrival of Noah as a potential regular should have Tyreese and Gabriel feeling rather nervous just now.

[4] 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, a character who, prior to the ep in which she disappeared, probably hadn't gotten 3 lines in the entire run, 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. It's always characters trying ot make an audience feel for the dead person by talk, talk, talking about them as a substitute for having made viewers care about them when they were alive.

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

---

[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 (and almost entirely absent from it since the tale of Morgan and his wife in its pilot).