Monday, March 23, 2015

When THE WALKING DEAD Try, It Works

Another week where I initially passed on writing about THE WALKING DEAD but I've decided to offer up some thoughts anyway.

"Try" was a big improvement over last week's installment. The Safe Zone settings and storylines continue to work. The cold opening wherein Deanna and her family sit around with long faces and listen to her now-dead son's CD is surreal--they're a tad on the elderly side for Nine Inch Nails, which isn't exactly nostalgia-invoking music for the just-departed--but that incredibly poor choice aside (the sequence would have worked best with no music at all), the rest of it works. Carol leaves a casserole at the door with a condolence letter; Deanna leaves the casserole outside and burns the condolence. Yikes!

There's friction in paradise. Deanna interrogated her dead son's cowardly and murderous sidekick whom Glenn inexplicably brought back to town after the weasel had murdered Noah. Weasel-boy makes up a story wherein he's the hero and the others just left poor Aiden to die. Deanna expresses skepticism of the weasel's account. Glenn, meanwhile, tells Rick what really happened. Did Glenn bother to tell Deanna? There's no indication of it. It's possible it could have happened off screen but TWD is a series that perpetually indulges in that most brainless of movie and tv tropes wherein the only reason a story is allowed to continue is because the people in it don't communicate to one another the basic information that would prevent it from doing so, and this is likely another example of it. For her doubts about weasel-boy's tale (which could just as easily be a consequence of her knowledge that her son was a real dumbass), our heroes seem the butt of most of her suspicion. She doesn't need a casserole left at her door; she needs the truth.

Rick, in his 8.0 villain mode, tells Glenn the Alexandrians don't know what they're doing. "...their rules? We don't answer to them." Glenn notes the obvious--"we are 'them,' Rick." Glenn's view is that they have to teach the Alexandrians; Rick is still planning his big takeover.

In a later conversation with Deanna, Rick raises the matter of Pete beating his wife and she reveals that she already knows about it. Rick's solution is to separate them. Deanna asks what he would do if Pete didn't accept that and Rick goes right for the nuclear option. "I kill him." Deanna doesn't have much use for that solution. Her own is to "exile him, if it comes to that," but she's known about the problem for a while and hasn't done anything and doesn't do anything and is skeptical of doing anything.

This is arbitrarily-imposed silliness. For that matter, it's moronic for Rick, given the situation, to have put this to Deanna in the first place. As happens so often on TWD, the story proceeds because the principals refuse to have an adult conversation. Obviously, the abuse is intolerable. Rick is the constable and Deeanna the leader of the town, which makes it their job to deal with the situation. So what do we do about it? The question is never addressed. If worse came to worse and Rick wants Pete dead--as he clearly does--Pete could have simply been made to disappear one night, never to be seen again.

Rick, in a very well-done sequence, confronts Jessie about the abuse then ultimately ends up in a fight with Pete. By the end of it, with Deanna and a few of the other townspeople standing around,[1] an entirely out-of-control Rick pulls his purloined gun and launches his coup attempt. "You want to live? You want this place to keep standing? Your way of living is done!" He rants and raves in similar "I am your king, bring me your gold" fashion until Michonne turns up and clocks him.

Deanna isn't looking very favorably on the idea of Rick staying in town and after that little stunt this is entirely understandable but it must be said that Deanna has been handled pretty poorly in these last few eps. She greeted our heroes, upon their entry into the Safe Zone, with a great deal of enthusiasm. Her darkening attitude toward them has appeared rapidly and with very little actual cause. Her ranting at Rick about how killing people was "uncivilized" would carry a lot more weight if the previous ep hadn't established it was the Alexandrians' policy to simply leave people behind when they get in a jam.

Other developments: Michonne and Rosita learn of Sasha's seemingly suicidal hunting of the dead outside the walls of the Safe Zone. Too much time is spent on this, a matter of very little consequence--it seems to be present solely to provide some gratuitous zombie-killing[2] (or set up Sasha for death). Carl and Enid have some fun frolicking in the zombie-infested forests. Most significantly, Daryl and Aaron, out in the bush, find signs of another group of humans, then find the corpse of a woman who was intentionally tied to a tree and left for the zombies.

This was a surprisingly well-directed ep, with several nice flourishes.[3] The director was Michael Satrazemis, who I didn't immediately recognize but it turns out he did "The Grove" last year, which was excellent, and "Slabtown" earlier this season. The writer of record for "Try" was Angela Kang. She remains a bit of an enigma. In her early work on the series, an ep bearing her name was guaranteed to earn a place at the bottom of the drearily deep TWD barrel. In season 4, she emerged as Kang the Conqueror and authored some of the best eps in the entire TWD canon. This season, it's been back down in the muck again with "Four Walls & A Roof" (co-authored with Corey Reed) and "Coda." This wasn't quite a return to the Conqueror but it was closer to it than to her other work.

Next week is the season ender. "Try" didn't provide much of a set up for it, which makes me think there's a bigger story behind AMC's recently announced expansion of the last ep to 90 minutes. In spite of significant warts, the Alexandria Safe Zone story has, overall, been a winner for TWD and "Try" is another relatively solid entry, if one that, frustratingly, continues to get tripped up in TWD's usual bag of bullshit problems. It would be nice if I could offer some non-attenuated praise for it but the series just doesn't earn that. Not yet.

--j.

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[1] The Safe Zone is supposed to be a large community, but perhaps because of budgetary concerns there are never more than a handful of people around.

[2] And I dislike that sort of thing. More than that, it's patronizing (from creators who have no grounds to patronize anyone) and offensive. When he took over as showrunner, Glen Mazzara interpreted the dissatisfaction with the dullness of the series at that time as stemming from a lack of action and opted to throw zombies at the problem rather than fixing it. The result was just a lot of zombie killing and action attempting to mask the fact that nothing was really happening. Scott Gimple, when he assumed the showrunner job, initially backed away from this but as with so many other bad habits, he eventually fell back into it. The lack of scenes of zombie-killing has never been TWD's problem.

[3] The fight between Rick and Pete was very well done and very realistic for a tv fight (though not necessarily "realistic" in Pete being able to more than hold his own). Some slow-mo running through the forest by Carl and Enid, a nice lingering shot of a zombie before a break, the gruesome discovery, by Daryl and Aaron, of the woman fed to zombies and so on.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Spend Mother Dick on THE WALKING DEAD

"Spend," tonight's WALKING DEAD, continued some of the better work from last week, and was somewhat hobbled by some of TWD's usual problems.

It kicked off with Noah suddenly being given some focus. He says he's in it (the Safe Zone) for the long haul, wants to be an architect and begins a journal to record all the things he's going to learn. Everyone knows what that means on TWD and, indeed, before the end he's zombie chow.[1]

Noah's death is an ugly affair, graphic, protracted and gruesome, and it didn't even win the title in any of those departments. That honor belonged to Aiden, who has proven himself to be a Grade-A Dumbass in virtually every scene in which he's appeared. Tonight, his dumbassery caught up to him and he became a gory feast for a gaggle of deads. Before his end though, he confessed that the people on his previous crew had died because, when trouble descended, he and his sidekick ran off and left them.

This isn't the only such revelation. Abraham is working on a construction crew building an extension of the Safe Zone's wall. A herd of zombies comes through the site, one of the workers on lookout ends up falling in the midst of them and the rest of the crew just back away, giving up the fallen woman for dead. It's subsequently revealed that the Alexandrians' have a general policy of leaving behind anyone who ends up in such a situation.[2] As usual, everything on TWD has to be ludicrously exaggerated, every point a hammer to the face, and showing that the Alexandrians have this policy is meant to emphasize in this way their cowardice, weakness and incompetence. To note the obvious, this isn't even remotely credible--if they were this dumb they never would have survived so long, much less thrived. On the other side of the coin, both Abraham and Glenn are suddenly given ESP powers they've never previously demonstrated--both have a moment of pause wherein they realize zombies are coming before the presence of the dead is apparent. Again, an over-the-top exaggeration intended to portray our heroes as being, in contrast to those worthless and horrible Alexandrians, uber-competent and indispensable. Deanna, who oversees the Safe Zone, is concerned about so many of Rick's gang being placed in leadership positions. The godawful Father Gabriel, who had overstayed his welcome on the series about 3 minutes after he was introduced, decides to turn up at her door and even further inflame her anxieties. He locked his own congregation out of his church and let them be killed (which suggests he'll fit in well with the Alexandrians) but he tells her the new arrivals are not good people, that they're dangerous and untrustworthy and that they've committed "unspeakable" acts (the worst one, I would suggest, was keeping Father Gabriel alive and with them). Her apparent concern about the new arrivals is hardly credible given the very poor light the ep casts on the Alexandrians, but what can you do? It's THE WALKING DEAD.

"Spend" was, for TWD, another pretty good ep, but this time around I can't help but feel that judgment emphasizes the gap between "pretty good" for TWD and pretty good.

--j.

---

[1] Noah finally breaks TWD's black-guy-in/black-guy-out cycle; now, it seems, the writers just want to reduce the number of black guys, period.

[2] Abraham, for his part, charges into the midst of the dead, rescues her and ends up the crew foreman as a consequence.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Forget THE WALKING DEAD

I wasn't going to write about "Forget," the most recent installment of THE WALKING DEAD, but a lot of commentary on the TWD message boards I sometimes haunt has inspired me to offer a few thoughts on it.

The last three eps, which have introduced the tv version of the Alexandria Safe Zone storyline from the comics, have brought about a major shift in the focus of the series. If one ignores the fact that this storyline is being built around one of TWD's patented radical and arbitrary shifts in Rick, its central character, it has worked rather well so far. Overall, "Forget" was easily the best episode of TWD since the present season's opener.

A brief tackle of the Rick shift: As I've so often noted, TWD's soap melodrama model means, among other things, that characterizations are dictated almost entirely by temporary plot considerations, which makes any charge that someone on TWD is acting "out of character" a tricky one to make in all but the most general way. In stark contrast to competently written character drama, none of TWD's principals are, at any stage of the creative process, conceptualized as real human beings. How they're written at any given moment--their personalities, motivations, etc.--is dependent upon who they have to be in order to get on screen whatever the writers want to put on the screen at that moment, and the former shifts with the latter. The newest version of Rick is the 8th major incarnation [see Appendix below], a Rick that is, to the extent that anyone on TWD can be said to be, way out of character; Rick as a sinister quasi-villain.

The overlapping B-plot mini-tales within the Safe Zone, which have been pleasingly dense, have focused heavily on the difficulties faced by Rick's group, a hardened band of traumatized survivors of some of the uglier aspects of the zombie apocalypse, in adjusting to life within a mini-civilization wherein, throughout the crisis, the world has pretty much gone on just as it was before. They're scarred fish out of water in a place that looks just like the everyday world viewers take for granted but that seems to them an alien paradise.

Rick has brought trouble to paradise. I've often written about how TWD demonizes overt survivalist sentiment. Reflecting the perceived mores of its middle American audience, it's essentially conservative in its point of view. "Stay the course" is, in a thousand variations, what the characters say in mindnumbingly repetitive fashion. "If we just stay the course, we'll make it through all of this." And anyone who, heaven forbid, tries, instead, to adapt by adopting an overtly survivalistic outlook is demonized. That theme is at the core of the current A-plot. In "The Distance," Rick was suddenly reinvented as a paranoid, dangerously stupid thug whose jaw-droppingly dumb decisions--born of those nasty survivalist concerns--nearly get everyone killed. At the beginning of "Remember," this new version of Rick was interviewed by Deanna, the congresswoman who oversees the Safe Zone. Of the world outside, he tells her, "People out there are always looking for an angle, looking to play on your weakness. They measure you by what they can take from you, by how they can use you to live." In typically ham-handed TWD style, this turned out to be Rick warning her about himself--that opening scene is bookended by the final moment of the ep wherein Rick says "We’ll make it work. And if they can’t make it, then we’ll just take this place." At the beginning of the next and most recent ep, he, Carol and Daryl are plotting to steal a cache of guns from the Alexandrians for the purpose of militarily taking over the Safe Zone "if necessary." All the while, the would-be coup-sters are quite full of themselves, talking about how "lucky" the Alexandrians have been to have survived so far and how "lucky" they are that Rick's group has turned up, a degree of hubris as extreme as it is dangerous.

It's been somewhat depressing [1] to watch the internet discussions of these developments and see so many reflexively adopt the viewpoint of the plotters, parroting their scripted rationalizations and angrily insisting Rick and co. are merely being "cautious" and looking out for the best interests of the community. Would-be dictators always think they know what's best for their community, and one of the things nearly all of them share is that they never actually do. The Alexandrians have done just fine for two years; the group under Rick's leadership certainly can't say the same. Rick perceives the Alexandrians as "soft." Deanna tells him she wants them there specifically because of their experience on the outside. The last two eps have exposed both significant potential weaknesses in the security of the Safe Zone and the inexperience of its population. Our regulars have pointed out a few problems and made some suggestions for correcting them but they're certainly not sounding any alarm bells or suggesting any major overhaul of anything. Instead of working with the population, Rick is conspiring to take over, to make himself the Governor.

The survivalist conspirators have been made to look pretty bad. Aside from their plot, Rick has also developed a crush on a married woman. Nearly kissed her in a room full of people. After everything he went through with his own wife and Shane, Rick sees the lady walking the streets of the Safe Zone with her husband and at the sight of the other man reaches back and fingers the purloined pistol he's stashed in his waistband in the small of his back. When his co-conspirator Carol is stealing the weapons, her activity is observed by a child and she proceeds to offer a long, sadistic monologue about how, if the boy stays quiet about what he's seen, she'll make him some cookies, but if he should tell anyone she'll kidnap him and tie him to a tree outside the walls so zombies will slowly tear him to pieces and eat him alive. It's a situation that could, in better hands, have been treated with a blackly humorous twinkle; on TWD, from which humor is banished, it's played entirely straight, Carol, who lost her daughter, who taught the children the use of weapons and who needlessly murdered people to protect them, is suddenly terrorizing a child.

In the course of the ep, Aaron, who brought our heroes to the Safe Zone, gets chummy with Daryl and offers him a job as a recruiter for the community. Aaron wants him because, as he explains, Daryl is a guy who can tell the good people from the bad. Daryl, to his credit, proves him right--when the conspirators next meet, he refuses to take any of the weapons Carol has stolen.[2]

Unlike most of TWD, all of this makes for some relatively good television, even if that judgment is dependent upon "Forget"-ing the series prior to the last 3 eps. As noted earlier, the plotters have a significant segment of online fandom endorsing their "reasoning," a segment that, it seems to me, is bound to be disappointed by whatever is to come.[3] To have future episodes eventually side with them would break all precedent but it would also be quite interesting and utterly deplorable. And quite interesting in the way it is so utterly deplorable. So, very unlikely.

--j.

---

[1] Though not surprising--while TWD's writers were demonizing survivalist platitudes by turning Shane into a deplorable villain and having him mouth them, there emerged a significant contingent of pro-Shane viewers, sympathetic to those survival concerns regardless of their source.

[2] Showrunner Scott Gimple has always liked Michonne and never liked Rick; Michonne has been presented as a voice of reason, someone who is ready to give the Safe Zone a chance, someone who would be horrified by the activities of the plotters.

[3] I probably am as well. I have no confidence in these writers' abilities to handle in a compelling manner anything of any real complexity.


APPENDIX: The Eight Ricks

[Note: This is adapted from an earlier article, upon which I've freely expanded]

In the first five seasons of TWD to date, there have been eight major versions of Rick. Though there are some overlapping elements at times, all of these are essentially independent of one another, radical changes of direction that are suddenly and arbitrarily imposed at some point, none of them organically growing out of the earlier versions.

In season 1, we get Rick 1.0, a sheriff's deputy thrust into an extraordinary situation who, in spite of some shortcomings, manages to demonstrate significant leadership skills; he's smart, assertive, tough, brave, and, when need be, a real hardass. This is the Rick who walked into certain death in "Vatos" because he knew death was better than giving up those guns and leaving his man behind.

In season 2 though, this original completely disappears and is suddenly replaced by the pathetic Rick 2.0, who is overly emotional, indecisive, weak-willed, and just plain dumb--almost the polar opposite of 1.0 in every way and no leader at all. This is the Rick who can't get off the pot on the matter of Randall, who herds dangerous zombies right through the camp where everyone sleeps in service of the delusions of an unreasonable old man.

By the end of the season, he's still remarkably dumb, but he's shed a lot of the other unappealing attributes the writers had arbitrarily imposed on him. He's Rick 3.0, the Ricktator, the automaton whose word is law and who doesn't really care what anyone else has to say about anything. If the Ricktator was smart, he'd realize that making himself a Ricktator wasn't, and looking over the leadership of Rick 2.0, he'd have to conclude it had been one big fuck-up and that he was definitely not the guy who needed absolute power.

The Ricktator emotionally abandons his wife--in more than 8 months of living in close quarters, we're told he barely even spoke to her. Then, when she dies, Rick 4.0 appears, Crazy Rick, a version who is so upset about this development--the death of this woman he'd so entirely abandoned--that he instantly turns into the bad television version of foaming-at-the-mouth, way-over-the-top-of-the-top Stark Raving Mad, to the point that he's even having conversations with imaginary voices and chasing around the ghost of his wife. And as abject and out-of-control as his lunacy is shown to be, it's still made to turn on and off at the writers' convenience.

Toward the end of that season, right out of nowhere, that pathetic 2.0 version of Rick suddenly returns. This could be seen as either a 5.0 model or a 2.1 (I prefer the former--easier to keep straight). This is the supine Rick who sits through that pointless meeting with GINO then is going to turn over one of his own to the madman to slowly torture to death, even as he admits it won't help anything. He gives a speech at the end of the season and relinquishes his throne.

The next to appear was Rick 6.0, Farmer Rick the Pacifist, a fellow who is trying to get away from it all and live a quiet, easygoing life. Surrounded by a world of flesh-eating ghouls, he'd put away both his own gun and that of his son, infantilizing the boy in the name of imposing some idealized notion of childhood. Dangerously stupid but in different ways from the other dumb versions. This is the Rick who, when called to the fence by GINO, limply declines at first, asserting there's a council that manages things now. When he does slink down to confront his foe, steely determination and matter-of-factly laying down the law would have won the day, but instead he weeps and begs like some pathetic weakling and the prison is lost.

Rick 7.0 appears at the end of that same season, when Rick throws himself into a melee and tears out a guy's throat with his teeth. This is hardcore Rick, who has realized it's a harsh world and has finally gotten in touch with his inner Mean. When they screw with him, they don't know who they're screwing with. Hard but pragmatic, he plots to violently free Beth from the hospital but is still smart enough to listen to a more pacific solution if it will work. When Michonne suggests they should go to D.C. on the assumption that there must be other survivors there in shelters, places in which they could build a life, he recognizes the wisdom in this and leads everyone forward.[*]

And that last is the big turning point. 7.0 led them toward D.C. on that assumption and then when the possibility of a shelter presented itself, he was not only uninterested, he was initially violently opposed to even looking into it. From pretty much the moment he punched Aaron, he's suddenly 8.0, the paranoid and dangerously stupid thug Rick described above, who, among other things, began conspiring to steal the Alexandrians' guns in order to eventually take over the Safe Zone, totally dumping on the trust of the people there absent any real motive and toward no conceivable positive end. Entirely arbitrary characterizations pulled straight out of the writers' asses.

---

[*] He's also willing to indulge idealism to the point of impracticality--he takes the group on the 400-mile trip into Virginia to return Noah to his home, even though he doesn't really believe it will still be there, because that was a Beth's wish.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Big, Fat Disappointment: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

Took me a while but I finally saw A DAME TO KILL FOR. Loved SIN CITY (2005). Really wanted to see this one. Bad word of mouth made me shelve it for a bit--didn't want my heart broken--but some mechanical troubles last night left me with some time on my hand--my computer has a condition--so I popped it in and gave it a once-over.

SIN CITY cost forty-million bucks and made a nice pile of green for an R-rated pic. Creators Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller managed to spend $25 million more on this one and couldn't even make back their budget.  A DAME TO KILL FOR is mostly empty and uninspired--not worth killing for at all and trying to thrill on autopilot on her last call after a long night. The pieces are all there--tough guys, beautiful dames, grifters, grafters, mugs, pugs, thugs, gore, cynicism and darkness--but it's all just style without much of the fun. Few sparks. Nothing holding it all together. The extra dough (for a lot shorter show) seems to have bought a lot more computer graphics than the original had but little else. The near-decade of technological advances between them sure as hell isn't apparent--everything looks way cheaper than it did before. Mickey Rourke's Franken-Marv makeup is slapped-on and crude this time around and not in any good way. Jessica Alba is still playing what's supposed to be the hottest number in town as a stripper who makes it a point to never strip. There are no less than three assaults on the heavily armed compounds of rich assholes, two featuring Marv and two as the climactic setpieces of two of the film's three longer stories. The graphics are on overload, to the point of becoming quite overbearing. Badly CGI'd cars go up CGI'd winding roads over and over again. Bodies and parts of them fly through the ether. While the violence in the original was gleefully profuse and over-the-top, it always had a point; here, it's even more over the top but the glee is most definitely gone, and a lot of it--maybe even most--is just gratuitous. There for its own sake. And even with all its blood and thunder, A DAME TO KILL FOR manages to be pretty damn dull. Not boring, just mostly uninteresting. Quite a trick.

Eva Green one-sheet
banned by the MPAA.
It ain't all bad though. A lot of what I've just been bitching about gets in the way of what are, at heart, some pretty good stories. "Just Another Saturday Night" is a throwaway piece that doesn't really go anywhere, and "Nancy's Last Dance" is pretty forgettable--more like a highlight reel of a bunch of stuff we've already seen--but "The Long, Bad Night," about a gambler who earns immortality by showing up the most powerful man in Basin City, is a keeper, and the title story "A Dame To Kill For" is definitely the highlight. Its pacing often sucks--the style fucking up the substance--and all the other shit weighs it down but it has a killer cast--as does the entire picture--and most importantly, it has Eva Green. Manute, her maniacal, superhuman manservant, describes her character (Ava) as a goddess who enslaves men to her will. Robert Rodriguez reportedly wanted Angelina Jolie to play the part and she was the obvious model for the comic original but for whatever reason that didn't work out, which is just as well. When it comes to goddesses who could enslave men to her will, Eva Green will do just fine. Gotta' fess up, I'm a big fan, and of all the Sin City comic tales, "A Dame To Kill For" is probably my favorite. The screen version doesn't live up to it and yeah, that's disappointing after how well the first film's adaptations were handled, but it's far from terrible.

For that matter, the movie isn't really terrible. A lot of critics burned it all to hell like it was something personal with them. Maybe with some of them it was--they didn't like the first one and it was great and made a pile of dough anyway, so they doubled down on this one. Can't say it doesn't earn some abuse. It should have been a lot better. As it is, it's, Eva excepted, depressingly middling. An overpriced monument to the declining powers of its creators. Not a complete failure but no getting around it, it was the Big Fat Disappointment.

--j.

Monday, February 23, 2015

THE WALKING DEAD Covers Little Distance 2.0

Not much to say about tonight's TWD. "The Distance" is a title that would pretty much fit any of the last few eps, but not for the reasons TWD's creators would probably care to admit.

Only two eps ago, Rick had agreed with Michonne that the group should go to D.C., on the grounds that it was a reasonable assumption there must be people there in some sort of safe area. On this, the entire future of the group was staked and a long journey undertaken. Tonight, the opportunity to find such a safe area presented itself and Rick did one of those astonishing 180-degree flips TWD's soap melodrama format often imposes on its characters. As usual, the writers chose to demonize overt survivalist sentiment; Rick's caution about trusting the stranger who has landed in their midst promising sanctuary is taken to a cartoonish extreme, leaving him looking like a vicious and completely unreasonable jerk desperately looking for some excuse not to go to the sanctuary.[1] Aaron, the stranger in question, tells our heroes how to get to the Safe Zone and Rick insists on taking a different route. Aaron warns him that this proposed alternate direction is extremely unsafe and Rick not only insists on taking it anyway but insists on doing so at night![2] I'd like to be able to praise the sequence that followed, wherein the group, following Rick's lead, takes to vehicles and ends up plowing right into a zombie herd. Some fun, over-the-top gore and violence of the sort one rarely gets from TWD. But it's all just there to hit that anti-survivalist theme again. Rick's hypercaution nearly got them all killed.[2]

Insert my standard complaint here about every bit of plot progression on TWD being made dependent upon characters doing mind-numbingly stupid things. This was one of the worst Rick examples since he decided to hand over Michonne to GINO. Add to it the team Rick dispatches after Aaron tells him his partner is waiting up the road with a pair of vehicles. Rick doesn't believe this and doesn't even want to check it out! Daryl or Michonne could have quietly slipped through the forest and checked out the situation. Michonne even volunteers to do so. Instead, Rick sends a large, heavily armed party whose ninja-like investigative technique was to walk abreast of one another right up the road in broad daylight. Glenn, running that particular operation, tells the others to shoot anyone who comes at them! Aaron is supposed to be a recruiter who "auditions" new people for the Safe Zone, a job that requires building trust with strangers, but when he tells hyper-paranoid Rick he has applesauce for baby Judith and Rick insists he eat a bite of it first to prove it isn't drugged or poisoned, he goes through an elaborate song-and-dance to try to get out of eating it (he does eventually eat it but the entire incident, which mostly seems aimed at eating up screentime, certainly doesn't speak to his skills as a recruiter). Later, instead of a stealth recon of the route Aaron proposes (and that Rick doesn't trust), Rick has everyone mount up and, in the dark, drive into a place Aaron said isn't safe (which he also doesn't have checked in advance), because, he says, they can use the cover of night if there is some sort of ambush ahead. In the dark, where any bushwackers ahead can see their headlights coming long before they get there but they can't see any bushwackers that may be ahead.

After some zombie combat--in the dark, up the road that wasn't safe--the group escapes and spends the rest of the ep traveling to the Safe Zone, weathering an automotive breakdown written in solely to fill out the running time and arriving at its gates just in time for the closing credits to roll. "The Distance" is a title that would adequately cover the last several installments of the series. Like them, it's yet another ep in which almost nothing of any substance actually happens and most of the running-time is taken up with filler.[3] This particular problem isn't as bad now as it was under Mazzara, to be sure, but the last three eps have been so packed with padding they could survive a reentry from space.

--j.

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[1] In the pre-credit sequence, Rick slugs the stranger--totally unprovoked and against a fellow who had already been disarmed and restrained by the others.

[2] Consistent with showrunner Scott Gimple's apparent biases regarding the characters, Rick was being a dick tonight, while Michonne was the voice of reason.

[3] A complaint that has recently started rearing its head again among TWD internet fans is the assertion that AMC is starting to pack a lot more ads into the episodes. On one board this week, a poster insisted to me that AMC was running so many ads that TWD's running time without them was down to about half an hour! TWD, of course, runs 42-43 minutes a week sans ads, just as it always has. This complaint always starts turning up when the series starts piling on so much padding. Because so little is actually happening on screen between them, the commercial breaks begin to seem overbearing.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

He Talked About the Deer: The Talking Dead of THE WALKING DEAD

In my depressingly extensive writings about THE WALKING DEAD over the years, I've been quite critical of, well, just about everything at one time or another. It's not a special show. I've always trained most of my fire on the writing, which is certainly the source from which most of its problems have arisen. Horrendously uneven pacing, poor or non-existent character motivations, plot-driven characterizations that change with the wind, plot progression being made dependent upon the characters being idiots, a timeline that would require time-travel to make any sense, a persistent focus on ridiculous trivialities at the expense of what should, in a given situation, be the primary concern and the soap melodrama model which dictates most of this.

Another element of the writing I've vigorously raked over the coals--the one to which I've decided to give some extra attention here--is what's passed off as dialogue. Simply put, it's terrible. Characters interact with one another via a sort of brutally anti-naturalistic speechifying, the sorts of things you'll never hear coming out of an actual person's mouth, expressing sentiment that's meant to be profound but is, instead, absolutely preposterous.[1] The first rule of screenwriting is "Show, Don't Tell," and as I've often noted, it's a rule to which TWD's writers were either never exposed or to which they're overtly hostile. TWD doesn't, for example, convey its theme of people trying to hold on to their humanity in the face of adversity by showing them doing so; it conveys this, instead, by having them tell you they're trying to hold on to their humanity in the face of adversity. No event of any significance on TWD is ever allowed to speak for itself. Instead, the series is jam-packed with exposition, with characters constantly bringing everything to a halt in order to rehash events we've already seen, even to other characters who are fully aware of everything they're saying, and telling us what this-and-that is really "about." Scripts are packed with adolescent philosophizing, trying, on the one hand, to convey the darkness of the TWD world by morbid pronouncements (instead of just showing it as a dark place), while, on the other, offering a constant diet of talk about the need to keep going, to keep hope alive and to survive (rather than just showing the characters doing so). The series is ideologically committed to abject humorlessness in all things and its dialogue reflects this--if one gets a laugh (and sometimes, one does), it's entirely unintentional. No cliche is held in reserve--dumb anecdotism, in particular, abounds ("Y'know, I remember back when I was a kid and..."). Dumb language abounds. Dumb abounds.

The immediate spur for my taking up this matter is a phenomenon I've recently observed in various discussions of TWD wherein even some of the series' least critical fans are beginning to complain about the dialogue, offering their impression that the quality of it has, of late, declined. They differ on when this started, but they all have the idea it's relatively recent. What makes this interesting is that, in reality, absolutely nothing about TWD's dialogue has changed--it's exactly as it has been for years. I've interpreted this recent outbreak of discontent as an indication that the series' longstanding shortcomings are finally starting to weigh on its viewers. Take that for what it's worth, alongside my own acknowledgement that this has been exactly what I've been predicting would happen. Confirmation bias can be a powerful thing. Still, I think I may have been on to something here.

Last season, I wrote of an example of TWD's dialogue:

"To pull out a representative moment, when Hershel, who had so far managed to avoid exposure to the mysterious illness plaguing the prison, decides to break quarantine and go tend to those stricken by it, his daughter and others object... [TWD]  handled it by bringing everything to a halt and having Hershel give a grand anti-naturalistic speech justifying his actions as a profound act of humanitarianism in a harsh and unforgiving world. If a hummed version of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' had been added to the soundtrack behind it, it wouldn't have seemed at all out of place."

This is Hershel's speech from the episode in question (s04e03), offered to Rick and Maggie:

"There's so many times we haven't been able to do anything to change what was happening-- what was happening to us. We wished we could but we couldn't. This time, I can. I know I can. So I have to... Listen, damn it! You step outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. And nowadays you breathe, and you risk your life. Every moment now you don't have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you're risking it for. Now I can make these people feel better and hang on a little bit longer. I can save lives. That's reason enough to risk mine. And you know that."

And that last line is exactly the point. Hershel's little speech isn't telling Maggie or Rick anything they don't already know (and know well), and they both know him too, and know he's not going to be dissuaded from trying to help. The only point of it is the passion of it--the melodrama--and, maybe just as important, the screentime it consumes. Having Hershel say these things is ridiculous.

Consider this exchange from "Them," this week's ep. When the prison fell, siblings Maggie and Beth were separated, and for an extended period Maggie seemed to be entirely indifferent to the fate of her sister then was suddenly devastated when learning Beth had died, the kind of arbitrary characterizations for which TWD is infamous. Here's Maggie expressing her, well, something to Glenn:

Maggie: I never thought she was alive. I just didn't. After Daddy, I don't know if I couldn't. And after what Daryl said, I hoped she was out there alive. And then finding out that she was and then she wasn't in the same day... Seeing her like that, it made it feel like none of it was ever really there. Before... this was just the dark part and I don't know if I want to fight it anymore.

Glenn: You do. You do. And maybe it's a curse nowadays but I don't think so. We fought to be here and we have to keep fighting.

Uh... yeah. How about this astute observation from Bob (from s04e04):

"Everybody makes it, till they don't."

Or Carol, who, in the midst of a mission to rescue Beth from her captors (s05e06), helpfully declares

"I don't think we get to save people anymore."

Daryl, in the same ep, is equally reflective:

"The reason I said we get to start over is because we gotta'."

And here's the two of them together, working on a Deep Thought:

Carol: Who I was with him [Ed], she got burned away. And I was happy about that. I mean, not happy, but... And at the prison I got to be who I always thought I should be, thought I should've been, and then she got burned away. Everything now just consumes you.

Daryl: Well, hey, we ain't ashes.

Indeed. Here's Tyreese (from s04e09) taking a great deal of time to rehash events we've already seen:

"I wanted to die for what I lost. Who I had lost. I stepped out into a crowd of those things just trying to... take it all out on them until they took me. Put them all in front of me so I didn't see anything. But I just kept going. And then later, I was there for Judith with she needed me. I saved her. I brought her back to her dad. And that wouldn't have happened if I had just give up, if I hadn't chosen to live. Noah, this isn't the end."

He got the same duty back in "Isolation" (s04e03), recounting something he'd just done and that we'd just seen him do:

"I came to see Karen and I saw the blood on the floor. Then I smelled them. Somebody dragged them out here and set them on fire. They killed them and set them on fire!"

In "Nebraska" (s02e08), Hershel goes all dark and emo, rehashing what we'd seen in the previous ep:

"I didn't want to believe you. You told me there was no cure, that these people were dead, not sick. I chose not to believe that. But when Shane shot Lou in the chest and she just kept coming, that's when I knew what an ass I'd been, that Annette had been dead long ago and I was feeding a rotten corpse! That's when I knew there was no hope. And when that little girl came out of the barn, the look on your face-- I knew you knew it too."

Bob in the 4th ep of season 4 rehashing what we'd seen in the first ep of season 4:

"The run to the Big Spot, I did it for me... I did it so I could get me a bottle. Of anything. I picked it up, I held it in my hand, but I put it down. I put it down so hard it took the whole damn shelf with it. That's what brought on the walkers and that's what got Zack killed."

When Carl was shot, Lori (in "Save the Last One," s02e03) advanced the notion that it may be better if Carl just dies and she and Rick proceed to discuss it. What great parents, eh? In a moment that became legendary for its unintentional hilarity, Rick ineptly tries to be profound, mostly by rehashing, at length, the events surrounding the shooting:

"Before it happened, we were standing there in the woods and this deer just crossed right in front of us. I swear, it just planted itself there and looked Carl right in the eye. And I looked at Carl looking at that deer, and that deer looking right back at Carl. And that moment just... slipped away. It slipped away. That's what he was talking about when he woke up, not about getting shot or what happened at the church. He talked about something beautiful, something living. There's still a life for us, a place maybe like this. It isn't all death out there. It can't be. We just have to be strong enough, after everything we've seen, to still believe that. Why is it better for Carl to live even in this world? He talked about the deer, Lori. He talked... about... the deer."

In "The Suicide King" (s03e09), Andrea, in Woodbury, offered another moment that became infamous. Faced with a terrified mob on the verge of a riot, she jumped in among the people and offered this terribly unstirring Cliff's Notes version of a speech of which even the longer version would have been pretty shitty:

"Every one of us has suffered. We don't even have funerals anymore because the death never stops. We're never gonna be the same. Ever. So what do we do? We dig deep and we find the strength to carry on. We work together and we rebuild. Not just the fences, the gates, the community, but ourselves. Our hearts, our minds. And years from now, when they write about this plague in the history books, they will write about Woodbury. Yeah, they will. Woodbury. We persevered."

At the end of it, everyone was smiling and slapping one another on the back, all thoughts of violent rebellion quelled.

Yes, that really happened.

My own choice for the most hilarious line ever uttered on TWD--unintentionally hilarious, as with anything funny that ever happens on the show--was offered in deadly earnest by Hershel in reply to Rick (s02e13):

Rick: You're a man of God! Have some faith!

Hershel: I can't profess to understand God's plan, but Christ promised a resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something... a little different in mind.

Maggie telling Hershel what it's really all about (s02e07):

"Things aren't what you think they are. They aren't. Don't do this. Ok, it's not about me and Glenn. It's not about me and you. It's about you. It's about who you are, who you're gonna' be."

Rick telling Hershel what's it's really all about (s02e08):

"You know what the truth is? Nothing has changed. Death is death. It's always been there, whether it's from a heart attack, cancer or a walker. What's the difference? You didn't think it was hopeless before, did you? Now there are people back at home trying to hang on. They need us, even if it's just to give them a reason to go on, even if we don't believe it ourselves. You know what? This-- this isn't about what we believe anymore. It's about them."

Maggie telling Beth what it ain't about and explaining to her something the younger sibling obviously doesn't know (s02e10):

"This isn't just about you. We all lost mom."

Bob on people (s03e04):

"People nowadays are dominoes. What they did [referring to a pair of suicides], maybe it's about not having to watch them fall."

Carol from the same ep:

"It's not about what you say. It's about facing reality. It always comes for us and over and over again. We face it so that we can live."

Good to know, eh? Shane's tender poetry to Lori on their relationship (s02e09):

"What we had, it was real... It was you and it was me and Carl and it was real."

Dale spinning an end-of-the-world Melodrama Queen's epic over the proposed killing of Randall (s02e11):

"...don't you see? If we do this, the people that we were-- the world that we knew is dead. And this new world is ugly. It's... harsh. It's-- it's survival of the fittest."

Tell me if you've ever heard this one before. Lori to Beth (s02e10):

"You have Maggie and your father, Patricia and Jimmy. And you've gotta stay strong for them. I wish I could promise you it would be all right in the end. I can't, but we can make now all right. And we have to."

Another jawdropping moment of unintentional hilarity: Bob and Sasha had fallen in love and when Bob died Sasha simply couldn't bring herself to pike him before he reanimated (she let big brother Tyreese take care of it). In "Coda" (s05e08), Tyreese recounts to her how, earlier, he could have killed one of the cannibalistic Terminusians who had tried to kill he and baby Judith but just couldn't bring himself to finish off the fellow (who later returned with the other cannibals to try to kill our heroes). And after rehashing all of that, this is what Tyreese says to Sasha about these two events (and her reply):

Tyreese: I remember when we were kids and you used to follow me around, copying every little thing I did. What happened to both of us, maybe it's because we're still the same. Just like we were back then. And maybe that's good.

Sasha: You're still the same. And that is good. I don't think I can be. Not anymore. Not anymore.

No, I didn't make that up. And bad anecdotism is a persistent cliche indulged by TWD. From "Indifference" (s04e04):

Rick: Every Sunday [Lori would] make us these pancakes that were just... godawful. Clumps of flour that weren't mixed in right. Thing was, she knew it was bad.

Carol: Why'd she keep at it?

Rick: Well, she wanted us to be the kind of family that ate pancakes on Sunday.

Hmmm... Here's Rick wasting one of the most iconic lines of the comic in this week's "Them" (s05e10):

Rick: When I was a kid, I asked my grandpa once if he ever killed any Germans in the war. He wouldn't answer. He said that was grown-up stuff, so I asked if the Germans ever tried to kill him. But he got real quiet. He said he was dead the minute he stepped into enemy territory. Every day he woke up and told himself, 'Rest in peace. Now get up and go to war.' And then after a few years of pretending he was dead, he made it out alive. That's the the trick of it, I think. We do what we need to do and then we get to live. But no matter what we find in DC, I know we'll be okay. Because this is how we survive. We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead.

Daryl: We ain't them.

One could go on all day--TWD's dialogue is as bad as every other element of its dreadful writing. All but the most incidental exchanges are handled in the same way. Contrary to the recent impressions of some of TWD's fans, there's abosolutely nothing new about this, and many of the examples I've culled aren't even close to the worst. Hopefully, though, they have afforded you, gentle reader, some amusement, and collectively, they've made my overall critique of the series--such as it is--more complete.

--j.

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[1] Anti-naturalistic dialogue is unfortunately a chronic problem with genre productions, for often understandable if not necessarily forgivable reasons. When it's necessary to explain how one must rejigger a polymorphic induction array to emit 10-power alpha-waves in order to prevent the implosion of time-space, it's difficult to make this seem like normal conversation. TWD doesn't have this excuse; it's about ordinary people just trying to survive. It goes the soap melodrama route by choice.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Lookit Them WALKING DEAD

"Them," tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD, is one of those TWD eps that could be outright great if the writers would just allow it. Very much a minimalist excursion into some of the hard damn times brought on by a world gone dead. The reason minimalism works so well with this series is because it allows its strengths--the better elements of its production design--to come to the fore and, perhaps more importantly, minimizes its major weaknesses--nearly anything that comes out of a characters' mouths. You could see the potential throughout "Them," but the writers kept spoiling it.

As the tale opens, the characters find themselves traveling the backroads of an odd version of Virginia that looks a lot like Georgia and that's suffering the kind of devastating drought one might find in some far-off Southwestern state but never in Virginia or Georgia. Though there's lush foliage all around that seems none the worse for wear, the dry spell seems to have dried up every possible water source and is rapidly doing the same to our heroes, who, bereft of transportation, have taken to walking the roads. One could, if one was so inclined, look at this as a bit of a metatextual joke--in five seasons of TWD, I don't think it has so much as rained--but it isn't really a very funny one.

And there's no place for humor on TWD anyway. The script is mostly the usual cliche-ridden anti-naturalistic faux-profound soap-opera angsting and exposition. TWD's writers haven't any real talent for dialogue but won't allow the actors to show you what their characters are feeling--they make the characters tell you about it. And tell you about it. And tell you about it. Among this, though, were some lines that actually worked, or sort of worked. "Then you won't"--Sasha's pronounced judgment on Noah's questioning whether he will "make it." It's a pitty the drought couldn't prevent this sort of thing from mostly being drowned beneath the same old same ol'. There's a good moment where Maggie is inspecting a car on the side of the road and finds a zombie in the trunk, a frail, sad-looking former woman who had obviously been kidnapped, tied up and left to die there by whoever took her. Maggie initially closes the trunk, not wanting to deal with the sight, but as the creature bumps around, she ops to kill it before leaving but can't get the trunk open again. It's a nice little bit of writing, with very little dialogue. In another moment, Eugene suggests he doesn't think their situation could get any worse and on cue a pack of wild dogs charge out of the forest intent on chowing down on everyone. Yeah, I know. Sasha is quicker on the draw--shoots them down and our heroes cook them and eat them. A perfect opportunity for some jokes, which are, in fact, positively begged by the situation, but TWD's writers fear the series would shatter into a million pieces if they ever allow it to smile about anything, so rather than joking about eating dog it's presented as yet another terribly somber moment. Oh, just look how far our heroes have fallen! This after Daryl was already shown eating a redworm.

Early in the ep, there's a spectacular shot of the worn-out, asses-dragging band wandering up the road in the heat of the day followed by a growing gaggle of slow-shuffling zombies they're too hot and tired to bother killing. That one shot is the highlight of the episode and one of the best shots that has ever appeared on TWD, a series that isn't really noted for the daring of its cinematography. It tells the story of "Them" far better than any of the godawful dialogue with which the writers tell the story.

It's also a source of some really glaring continuity errors. Earlier in the show, Rick is apparently discussing the following dead with Daryl, telling him we'll deal with them when we get to high ground or some other area where we'll have the advantage. The problem: in the shots in which they're having this discussion, the road behind them stretches entirely out of sight in the distance and there isn't a single zombie on it anywhere. The dialogue is completely inexplicable except in retrospect.[See Update below] In the marvelous composition that shortly follows, the dead are present and are shuffling fairly close behind our heroes. A moment later, Sasha and Michonne, bringing up the rear of the living, are talking and the dead are suddenly far behind. Much further away than they were only seconds earlier.

The moment when, after all that heat and toil, it begins to rain is overplayed where a more reserved reaction would have been more powerful. The characters begin to pull out receptacles with which to catch the downpour then, their desperate need for drinking water seeming to have been forgotten, immediately decide instead to take shelter in a nearby barn. More garbage dialogue follows; the series utterly wastes the "we are the walking dead" line from the comic.[1] There's one more inspired beat, a spectacular moment when a collection of zombies try to break into the barn (Seeking shelter from the storm? No zombienadoes on TWD!). Very well edited but a scene without an ending.

The next morning, everything is sunny and peaceful and a new character appears at the barn, bringing, he tells us, good news. A traveling Jehovah's Witness who has been lost in the styx throughout the zombie apocalypse? Only the next ep will tell. This one was a disappointing waste of an ep that, unlike a lot of TWD these days, had a lot of potential.

--j.

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[1] In the comic, the "we are the walking dead" line was an explosive moment that expressed an ugly truth the characters had been unable or unwilling to recognize. The creators of the show are unwilling to recognize it as well; they made it into a punchline to yet another stupid anecdote that effectively reversed its meaning, turning it from a bleak, hard truth to a part of a story about hope--another how-we're-gonna-make-it-through-this lecture. Horrible, horrible writing.


UPDATE (16 Feb., 2015) - Good ol' Spectre, over on the IMDb's WALKING DEAD board, has pointed out to me that there is, in fact, a visible zombie in the background when Rick is talking to Daryl. I went back and looked at it again and I think he's right. When Daryl and Rick look back and begin talking about the zombies, there is what appears to be at least one of them in the road in the far, far distance. On my significantly-less-than-HD tv, it's almost impossible to distinguish, even when I zoom in on it. Watching it in real time, I hadn't seen it at all.