A remarkable thing happened on THE WALKING DEAD last night. "Seed," the series' 3rd-season opener, aired, which should, itself, seem pretty incredible after the complete creative train-wreck that was season 2, but the ratings for that unfortunate mess were high, and that isn't the remarkable thing in question. The remarkable thing that happened on TWD last night is that, for the first time since 2010, the series offered an episode that not only wasn't outright awful in every respect but was, on balance, actually pretty good.
TWD is, to quote the comic legend, "a continuing story of survival horror." In my long initial review of the television version, I wrote about how, during the series' brief first season, its writers focused on survival concerns, but often de-emphasized the horror elements of the project, likely in an effort to "mainstream" it. When season 2 came along, with a new writing team, the survival concerns mostly went out the window as well, as the series was rebuilt on a daytime soap model, the quality of the writing plummeted, and the zombie apocalypse--the central premise of the project--was mostly shunted aside and treated as something that got in the way of recycled soap melodrama "plots." When the end of the world was allowed to be a factor in the proceedings, it was written as badly as everything else.
At the time, I noted that "in the
comic, when the characters are out on the road, they're short of
everything, starving, stinking, at the mercy of the elements, of
zombies, of other humans, and are rarely far from devastating harm.
There was little sense of this in the series, and the atmosphere of
desperation it produced was almost entirely absent." In a footnote to this, I wrote that "oddly enough, the CDC plotline [from season 1], which was pretty dumb, was one of the
only times the series briefly featured the sense of desperation that
hovers over the characters in every issue of the comic when they're out
in the open. With the exception of that one story (which mostly just
paid it lip-service), the series does very little to convey this."
The first thing TWD's writers got right with tonight's episode was to inject a taste of that sense of desperation.
Caveat: it would be wrong to overstate the extent of this. After the creators ham-handedly rushed the series into winter at the end of last season (in a way that made a typical TWD hash out of the timeline), one would think they had a winter storyline in mind. That would be a good choice--it's much harder to survive a winter, particularly without a safe haven--but tonight, they decided to skip the colder seasons entirely, and pick up several months later in warm weather again. It's poor storytelling, and the characters' months on the road don't seem to have taken, on them, anything like the toll it should have, which is particularly true in the case of Rick (who is still functioning at the fevered intensity he'd achieved by the end of last season, and, absurdly, still hasn't talked to his wife about what happened with Shane). It would be easy to overstate the degree of that Sense of Desperation present in "Seed," but after last season, it's hard to regard any little bit as anything other than a massive improvement. The characters, last night, were cruddy, grim, allegedly low on ammo, and contemplating canned dog-food for dinner. That's a start.
Another thing the writers got right is just to shut up. The series has suffered from a combination of varying degrees of writers who can't write dialogue and actors who can't perform it. Most "conversations" last season were of that insanely stilted breed of soap melodrama speechifying, directed toward subjects that, given what should have been the characters' circumstances, were absolutely ludicrous as a focus. The world had ended, and they were spending their time arguing about Rick's worthiness as a father and Lori's theory that women should be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Tonight, showrunner Glen Mazzara (who wrote the ep) seemed to find a solution: long passages of visual storytelling in which no one says anything. "Seed" features a very sparse script. Much of the dialogue that does exist is devoted to the task at hand: surviving the zombe apocalypse. Even the silence of the characters serves that end; they're trying not to attract the dead. The soapy rubbish that had consumed season 2 was kept to a minimum, and treated as an aside.
Here's where I see the potential problem going forward. Mazzara responded to the loud complaints about last year's deadly dull first 7 episodes by essentially saying he was going to throw zombies at the problem. And that's exactly what he did. As the last 6 eps demonstrated, though, this can make the series less dull, but it doesn't really deal with its underlying problem, which is the very poor quality of its writing. "Seed," while toning down the soap, throws in a shit-load of zombies, and it seems likely that this is just another version of throwing some zombies at the problem. That's not something the creators can do every week. The sparse, to-the-point dialogue probably won't continue--the more likely scenario (since there hasn't been any sort of shake-up behind the scenes) is that TWD soon slips back into the inanity that ruled season 2. When, earlier this year, it was announced the series would be adapting the prison arc from the comic, it sounded like a terrible idea. Not just because it would almost inevitably become another example of a great storyline the series would travesty but because the prison was another safe haven. That faint hint of Sense of Desperation I found so refreshing in "Seed" is probably going to disappear rather quickly, and TWD, safe behind prison walls, will go back to wallowing in piss-poor melodrama.
"Seed," though far from perfect, is, overall, a good episode, one that provides some little hint of what TWD could have been in more talented hands. Will the crop that springs from it be a bumper one of roughly realized potential, or will it just come up more poison oak?
 It's also the case that "Seed" doesn't steer clear of reliance on Idiot Plot Syndrome to move certain parts of the story along. The characters know zombies sometimes lie motionless--while they were cleaning up the yard, one of the creatures who had fallen down after being shot even started moving again as they walked by it--yet when they go inside the bowels of the prison, they're walking over the corpses that litter the place without a care in the world for this. They take Hershel, the one fellow they have with any medical training and a guy who is really too old to be putting in too much action in the first place, right into combat in a dark labyrinth filled with dead people.
UPDATE (20 Oct., 2012) - A sub-gripe: When last TWD aired, I complained about how survival concerns, which should have been the primary preoccupation of a group of people in a zombie apocalypse, were almost entirely shunted aside throughout the 2nd season, and one of the items I noted was the group's failure to employ melee weapons against zombies, sticking, instead, with guns, which make a lot of noise and run out of ammo. In "Seed," when Rick suggests they have to clean the prison yard "hand-to-hand," it's treated as a remarkable suggestion, which means that, in 7-8 further months on the road and dealing with the zombie menace, they still haven't figured out the utility of blades, clubs, axes, etc.
This, to enlarge the focus again, is part of a larger dramatic problem with the ep, which is that, with the exception of a few lines, the (sparse) script for "Seed" could
have taken place the day after the last episode, or a few days after. Besides the poor storytelling involved in skipping the winter, skipping so much time also leaves a dramatic black hole, because, while Hershel has grown some chin-whiskers, Carl's voice is breaking, and Lori appears as if she's about to pop, none of
the personalities, or relationships, or the dynamic within the group
seem to have evolved an inch in all that time. Seven-to-eight months have passed, and
they're right where they were when we left them. Even the moments between Andrea and Michonne seem as if they're happening the day after "Beside the Dying Fire."
Indeed, even the one week seemed to strain the production. The episode
was full of guns spouting CGI muzzle-flashes while visibly not
cycling, and Greg Nicotero's ordinarily solid, often fantastic zombie
make-ups were frequently weak to outright awful ("Seed" featured his
single worst "hero" zombie design, in an indoor creature that loses its head to a sword).
[cross-posted to my comics blog]