Sunday, March 25, 2012

Betrayed By Kevin Smith?

Lebeau, from Le Blog (a most excellent place to visit, btw), has decided he's been "Betrayed By Kevin Smith," and he's penned a brief jaunt through Smith's career that outlines his disappointment that the filmmaker, whom he once regarded as "a voice for my generation," has "failed to live up to those expectations."

It's a good article and I'm with Lebeau on a lot of it. I, too, initially had high expectations for the Kevin. Mine maybe weren't as high as Lebeau's but I definitely thought Smith would go a lot further than he has. Smith hasn't lived up to his potential and his work has been terribly uneven.

Lebeau has decided CLERKS "wasn’t great. But you could see the potential for greatness." I disagree. CLERKS is a great movie. Anyone who has ever been trapped in those sorts of shitty jobs at some point in life can relate to it and, of course, that's most of us. That's why the film will withstand the test of time. It's Kevin's best movie.

Lebeau says MALLRATS "was basically Clerks in color" and that's a point at which I part company with his assessment. There are certainly patches of what made CLERKS work in the movie--there are patches of that in most of Smith's movies--but for the most part, MALLRATS is a very different rodent and it was pounced upon in its day as such a disappointment because a lot of the people Smith had impressed with his first film just don't care for that particular critter. Smith is enamored of a goofy, way-over-the-top, slapstick kind of humor and he pulled that out of the closet rather forcefully in MALLRATS. It's amusing enough but it's silly and juvenile, and while I'm not necessarily one to drop the hammer on something for being silly and juvenile, it is far removed--and a big step down--from his approach to CLERKS, which was much smarter. It's a kind of humor that wears quite thin over time.

More importantly, it's a kind that conflicts--and usually conflicts rather badly--with what Kevin does best. When he's at the top of his form and firing on all cylinders, Smith's films come from life. The humor in them is so funny in large part because it does as well. When it comes to generating laughs, his best certainly isn't things like Silent Bob in Batman gear sailing over a mall and crashing into a dressing room while Jay shouts mock Gumpisms from below. His best is things like Randall and Dante discussing the kind of customers who get on their nerves. It's funny because it's real and anyone who has ever worked such jobs--again, most of us--immediately recognizes it and finds the frustration relatable.

These are two distinct and pretty much incompatible species of humor. The former clashes with the latter and, more importantly, undermines it, because it undermines its context, which is a world to which we relate because the people in it and their interactions seem and feel very real.[1] It's as if we're watching 12 ANGRY MEN and everyone suddenly breaks into a dance number. It instantly takes the viewer out of the movie at hand and into a different one, one that, while maybe entertaining in the abstract, is completely out of character for the one we were just watching. Or, to use a Smith example, just look at CLERKS 2.

It's no coincidence that CLERKS and CHASING AMY, the two Smith films that are almost entirely free of the goofy slapstick stuff, are the ones regarded by pretty much everyone as Kevin's absolute best. Forcefully underscoring the fundamentally different approach Smith was using with CLERKS is the original ending in which the hapless Dante, having gone through this hilarious, exhausting day in which he wasn't even supposed to be there, is confronted by an armed robber and shot to death.[2] Hard to imagine Kevin even contemplating an ending like that for JAY & SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK, right?

Lebau says CLERKS 2 is "pretty much exactly what you would expect a Clerks sequel to be like" but he's only partly right. Kevin keeps it real and plays to his strengths through some of CLERKS 2 but, again, he repeatedly undermines himself with the goofiness. It's not a bad movie but to the extent that it succeeds, it does so in spite of dance numbers and donkey shows.[3]

I'm with Lebeau on most of the rest of what he has to say. Smith's worst, most worthless films are the two he made when trying to go "mainstream." The goofier humor that works against him comes from being undisciplined and overly indulgent (a malady he shares with Quentin Tarantino). I don't think he needs a new approach; I just think he needs to go back to what works. That doesn't mean making the same movies over and over again. It just means he needs to reign in the excess and develop material that once again plays to his strengths. I don't feel "betrayed" by Kevin Smith but I know he has a lot better in him and as a fan, I'd like to see him get at it.[4]

--j.

---

[1] This is reflective of the current crisis in genre comedy in general. The goofy, low-grade stuff reigns, while the more thoughtful (and, for the most part, vastly superior) humor-from-life movies have nearly disappeared. Smith, poor boy, embodies the conflict in a single filmmaker.

[2] Indie-film guru John Pierson convinced Smith to cut the scene. A big mistake, in my view.

[3] Smith's evolution of his Silent Bob character tracks with what I've been saying here. Bob is originally a laid-back, perpetually poker-faced enigma, an observer of events who may hang around with a ranting idiot all day but by the end manages to offer up some words of wisdom on what we've just witnessed, words that indicate there's a great deal more behind that silence than would be indicated by the company he perpetually keeps. Usually, they're the only words of wisdom anyone has to offer. And that's all he has to say. This is Bob in CLERKS and CHASING AMY. The very different Bob we see in the other movies is very animated, in on all the action and is just as much a clown as his sidekick. Decadent Bob!

[4] Smith announced, last year, he was retiring from directing. I suppose only time will tell if that keeps.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It's WALKING DEAD Time

One of TWD's infinity of problems is the absolute refusal by its writers to employ a coherent timeline. This is one of the most basic elements of competent narrative construction (when creating a standard linear narrative is the point), but time and time again this matter of time is chucked in the dustbin. Over the run of the series this has resulted in a string of massive plot-holes, wild contradictions, and long stretches of time that simply disappear without explanation, many of them catalogued on this blog.

It isn't really a surprise that a show as poorly written as TWD would have this problem--it's modeled on the soaps and has all of the soaps' other problems--but I have been surprised, in the weeks I've written on it of late, by how many of its viewers fail to take much notice of it. For example, I'm forever running into discussions of how much time has passed in the course of the series. Some people argue it has been many months and are amazed when the actual timeline is presented to them. Some even become hostile and try the Fox News technique of insisting the established timeline is some sort of "opinion" or "theory" of mine.[see Appendix]

As of the end of this week's episode, three weeks and two days have passed since Rick emerged from his coma in the pilot. We've been with the characters every day since, with only two exceptions; a day that passed between the first and second season--established in the timeline by Rick's broadcast to Morgan at the beginning of season 2--and a week that passed between "Triggerfinger" and "18 Miles Out"--established by Hershel's prediction in the former that it would be a week before Randall would be up and about and the conversation at the beginning of the latter between Rick and Shane wherein they say they've waited a week to take Randall out to dump him.

There's a timeline over at the Walking Dead Wiki that does a pretty good job of documenting the period since Rick awakened. For this period, it's spot on but other than this period, it's pretty worthless, as it descends into fan-wankery in an effort to harmonize the hopelessly contradictory elements of the series' timeline.

The timeline for the zombie apocalypse itself is all over the board. The series established that the entire event, however long it took, occurred entirely while Rick was comatose. He knew nothing of it when he awakened.

So how long was he comatose? It has never been definitively stated but there are some facts that point the way. Rick was shot at some point in the spring or summer. Warm, short-sleeved weather. Upon awakening, he didn't appear to have lost any weight, he was still able to walk and perform skills requiring a great degree of physical coordination (he rode a bicycle home), and he still had an open wound that had to be kept covered, all of which argues (and, in the case of the wound, insists) his total hospital stay would have been less than 2 weeks. TWD Executive Producer Robert Kirkman has suggested it was 3 or 4 weeks (in the comic, it was 4 weeks).[see update 1b below]

The still-open wound can't be made to square with that--flesh knits. Even allowing for 4 weeks though, the rest of the zombie timeline can't be reconciled.

The day after Rick awakens, Morgan tells him the zombie situation had gotten really bad a month earlier, when the utilities went out. Already, this pushes the beginning of the zombie apocalypse backward in time beyond Rick's stay in the hospital, as it meant the zombie problem had been going on for some time before that month.[see update 2 below] Three days later, Jenner at the CDC records a video log stating it had been 6 1/2 months since zombie-ism appeared, which pushes it back even further and is, for Rick, completely impossible--if he'd been in a coma that long his wound would have been merely a scar, he would be covered with sores, physically wasted away (big time weight-loss that would leave him not much more than a scar himself), and he wouldn't even be able to get out of bed.[see update 1a below]

When Rick was shot, Carl was still in school. This is established by a flashback (in season 2, ep. 2) of Shane bringing Lori the bad news while she waits for Carl to get out of class. If this was before school had recessed for summer break that year, it would have been late May or earlier. Call it the end of May to grant the series the widest latitude, add a month to that for Rick's stay in the hospital and you're up to late June at the latest. It's been three weeks and two days from there to the end of "Beside the Dying Fire," which means it should, at present, be the end of July on the show, a time when temperatures in Georgia are in excess of 90 degrees and winter is but a far-off dream.

For the last few episodes though, the weather has been depicted as getting colder, the characters have been discussing the coming of winter and they've taken to wearing jackets. No way to make that work.

There is an alternate possibility but it doesn't work, either. It begins with the notion that Rick was shot in late summer. School starts back at the beginning of September. If Rick was shot then and we do the same math, it would be late October as of the end of this week's episode. That would square with the jackets and cooler weather. Unfortunately, the rest of the series has obviously taken place in the Summer, not the Fall. Lush green foliage, bright sunshine, sweat, Hershel tending his garden (or talking about it). Back in the first season, when Jim went batty and started digging holes, Dale said it was over 100 degrees and was concerned Jim was going to keel over from heat-stroke. That ain't October.[see update 2 below]

What does it all mean? Well, the conclusion, which is both obvious and inescapable, isn't a novel one for this blog; it's yet another example of the lack of care that goes into grinding out TWD.

--j.

...

UPDATE 1 (21 March, 2012) -- Eagle-eyed Lebeau, from the most excellent Le Blog, brought to my attention an interview with TWD executive producer Robert Kirkman in which some pertinent timeline details are discussed. The relevant portion pretty much confirms what I've written:

Q: There was talk of winter coming down the pike. How much time has gone by now in the series?

Kirkman: I’d say we opened up in maybe June or so in the first season and the first season took place over a matter of days. Uh, you know, we are, uh, looming into maybe our third or fourth or fifth month…

Q: You can just say, "I don’t know." There’s no shame in that.

Kirkman: Winter is coming! Other than that, I don’t know.

To be fair, Kirkman seems to merely be cashing a paycheck with the series, and in his public statements often seems only minimally aware of what's happening with it, but he is officially listed as an executive producer, he's allegedly present during writers' discussions, and to the extent that he can be said to be an insider this speaks for itself.

...

UPDATE 1a (27 March, 2012) -- Last week, TWD showrunner Glen Mazzara and Kirkman appeared on AMC's Talking Dead, a promotional show for TWD, and, during the bonus segment of the show, were asked a question about the timeline with regard to the zombie apocalypse:

Q - How much time do we think has passed at this point?... Like just since the catastrophe, like, since the apocalypse turned? Like how much time do we think?

Mazzara - (mutters, looks over at Kirkman, is clearly unsure) We think it's, like, three to four months, right? Isn't that what we've said? (looks at Kirkman for confirmation) It's no more than 4 months.

Mazzara also took part in a Twitter Q&A last week in which he fielded fan questions, and had this to say:

"...let's keep in mind that from the time of the Pilot to the end of Season 2, we think it's only been about four months."

Again, the ambiguity ("three to four months", "we think", etc.), indicating the lack of a real timeline (and the lack of concern with one), and we get a new number--4 months--that can't be made to square with anything we've been shown. Three weeks and two days have passed since Rick awakened. Four months would mean he would have had to be in a coma for over 3 months, which is impossible, for the reasons already stated. Mazzara, as writer, had Jenner say, back in season 1, that zombie-ism first started 6 1/2 months earlier. Adding to that the time since means it's been, by the Jenner timeline, 7 months and a week since the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. That puts the new "four months" claim short by more than 3 months.

...

UPDATE 1b (6 April, 2012) -- A few days ago (2 April), TWD showrunner Glen Mazzara took to his Twitter account and stuck his foot in the timeline matter yet again.

Q - How long was Rick in a coma?

Mazzara - 3-4 weeks.

That lines up with the timeframe previously offered by TWD executive producer Robert Kirkman, and while it's a bit longer coma period than is necessarily consistent with what we were shown, it is much closer to the mark than the much longer coma periods suggested by much of the rest of the series, by Mazzara himself, and by many online fans who have tried to harmonize the wildly contradictory information the series has doled out over time.

Unfortunately, this wasn't all Mazzara said on the subject that day:

Q - How much time is covered from Rick coming out of the coma, to them leaving the farm? Approximately?

Mazzara - 3 months?

Mazzara offering this with a question-mark again demonstrates the lack of any real timeline. Three months would, when combined with Mazzara's take on Rick's coma time, be consistent with Mazzara's suggestion that everything we've seen has happened in a period of about 4 months.

Unfortunately, it isn't consistent with anything else.

As I outlined above, the Rick timeline, from the day he awakened forward, is rock-solid. From that day to the end of season 2, we've been with Rick every day except one between the seasons and a week during which Randall healed. In that time, three weeks and 2 days have passed. There's no room for any ambiguity on that point.

It would perhaps be helpful if the creators of TWD stopped blowing smoke up everyone's ass on this matter.

...

UPDATE 2 (22 March, 2012) -- "Deanshore," a reader on the "Walking Dead" board at the Internet Movie Database has pointed out that I'd gotten Morgan's comments wrong. I remembered them as I relayed them, but what he actually said was "[The] gas line's been down for maybe a month." Earlier in the pilot, he'd been describing how the situation had become dangerous as the zombie problem had progressed, and I may have juxtaposed those two scenes in my head, but I'm really just guessing--I don't really know how I made a hash of it. Chalk it up to the danger inherent in working from memory.

It's a relatively minor point and doesn't really alter the underlying criticism I'd offered--everything else still implies Rick's coma time was less than 2 weeks and even if one unreasonably extends that to a month as I allow above, Morgan's comment still implies the zombie problem had been going on for longer than that--but I'm a stickler for getting things right and I definitely didn't, here.

Without, perhaps, realizing it, "Deanshore" also pointed out another potential flaw, one that impacts my calculations regarding the time of year it should be on TWD. In one of my timeline scenarios, I posited the notion that Rick was shot after Carl's summer break from school had ended, and I assumed the traditional post-Labor Day return to classes. Kentucky public schools, however, have, in recent years, followed other school districts around the U.S. in starting their school-year in early August.[See the update on this point right below this one] Assuming Rick was shot just as the school-year opened, adding the rest of his timeline to that puts us in very late September to very early October, as of the TWD season finale. 100+-degree temperatures in September are extremely rare in the Atlanta area, but they do sometimes happen. If we allow that it's an unusually extreme hot-year, this calculation could sort of account for the Summer weather we've seen throughout this season, but it still can't account for the colder weather the writers have been indicating in the most recent episodes. In the season finale, Carl steps outside during the daytime, has his hands jammed in the pockets of his jacket, is visibly shivering, and exclaims "I'm freezing!" (TWD's writers can never resist a cliché). Different people handle weather differently, of course, but that's a rather extreme reaction for a time of year when, in the area, daytime temps are normally in the mid-to-late 70s. And if it's been an extreme hot-year--necessary to account for what we'd seen earlier--temps would be even higher.

All of this belabors this matter much more than TWD's creators ever did. As detailed in Update 1 above, TWD Executive Producer Robert Kirkman put the starting-point for all of this at "maybe June or so," which would put the series, at present, at some time around August or so. He was caught flat-footed in that interview, and it was clear he'd given no thought to it, or been involved in any discussion of it. To the extent that Kirkman is an insider (and see my earlier caveat on this), it's pretty clear that no more thought went into this than went into the rest of the series' timeline.

UPDATE (17 Oct., 2012) - Based on the pilot's remarkable fidelity to the comics, I had assumed Rick worked in Kentucky (just as in the comics), but FloridaSunshine, a poster on the IMDb's "Walking Dead" board, was able to freeze-frame and magnify a creased patch on the uniform of one of the police extras seen in the pilot, and it says "King County, Georgia." This was the (fictional) county in which Rick and Shane worked, so they were, on the series, from Georgia, rather than Kentucky. Georgia, at the time, also started its school-year in early August.

UPDATE (5 April, 2013) - Something I should have added, if only to be absurdly completist, is the info on Lori's pregnancy--yet another hole in the timeline. This is something I detailed, back when the matter was current, over on the IMDb's "Walking Dead" board, and I was reminded of it today. In "Cherokee Rose," Lori has Glenn acquire a pregnancy test for her from a drugstore, she uses it, and it comes back positive. Godawful baby-daddy melodrama ensues. At the time Lori used this test, it had only been 8 days since her first post-coma sex with Rick and 9-10 days, at the absolute most, since her first sex with Shane, which, of course, makes her positive from an over-the-counter urine pregnancy test impossible (despite inflated manufacturer's claims to the contrary, such a test will only yield reliable results after more than 2 weeks).

---

APPENDIX:
Those who think the timeline is longer than it actually is often come to that conclusion because they try to apply to the question the logic the writers failed to apply. In arguing for a longer timeline, it's often mentioned that it's impossible for Carl to have recovered from his horrendous gunshot wound in only a little over two days. That's true, of course, but on TWD, that's exactly how much time it took for him to recover. Since I run into this so often, I thought I'd put together a little appendix documenting the timeline with regard to Carl's recovery.

In the season opener, Carl is shot, on the second day of the search for Sophia; in episode 2, Rick takes him to Hershel, they need med supplies, they dispatch Shane and Otis to the school; Shane returns with supplies, Hershel operates--all of this happens in a matter of a few hours, and takes us to the end of episode 3.

Episode 4 begins the next morning, as the rest of the group comes to Hershel's farm. They immediately inquire about what exactly happened with Carl (who first wakes up from surgery, his fever having finally broken); Rick fills them in on the details of what happened, and they hold a little memorial to Otis in the yard; Maggie pulls out a county survey map, and they start the search for Sophia again--when Hershel asks how long she's been missing, Rick tells him this is the third day. Hershel vetoes Rick's participation in a search, because he's still too weak from giving blood to Carl. On the search, Daryl finds the old house, where it looks as if someone small has slept; Maggie and Glenn go to drug store, get pregnancy test, Lori uses it that night. That takes us to the end of episode 4.

Episode 5 begins the next morning. Lori is still brooding over pregnancy test. Carol offers to cook dinner for everyone that night. When they roll out the map for the day's search, the first item on the agenda is to follow up on Daryl's discovery of the old house. Shane announces he's going to begin firearms instruction the next day. In the course of the Sophia search, Daryl finds Sophia's doll; Andrea shoots him. At Carol's dinner, Glenn and Maggie pass notes, scheduling the hayloft rendezvous, when Glenn discovers zombies in the barn. That takes us to the end of episode 5.

Episode 6 begins the next morning, and Carl is up and around as if nothing had ever happened--feeding chickens. Glenn and Maggie have their first extended conversation about keeping the barn-zombies secret. Andrea apologizes to Daryl for shooting him the day before. When they roll out the map, the first item of the Sophia search is to follow up on Daryl's finding the doll. This is the day Shane begins target practice for the group--in ep. 5, he'd said it was starting the next day.

Carl was hit by a round from a big-caliber game rifle hard enough that it broke into six pieces, and was so near death Hershel was prepared to operate on him without the necessary equipment (a surgery he wouldn't have survived), yet he fully recovered in a little over 2 days, and suffered no further ill-effects.


[Cross-posted to my comic blog]

Monday, March 19, 2012

Beside The Dying Fire, THE WALKING DEAD Leaves Viewers Cold

When it comes to television, series season debuts and enders typically draw a much bigger audience than the regular season episodes and the knowledge that many more eyes are upon them during these crucial installments inspire those who toil in the business to bring their A game to them. Can't exactly say it's a surprise but the big, much-hyped season finale of THE WALKING DEAD tonight turned out to be a big bust, its creators' A game distinctly third string. "Beside the Dying Fire" was painfully awful, an embarrassing compendium of everything that has been so very wrong about the series this season.

The pre-credit sequence shows a zombie herd forming over an extended period, marching along, growing as it goes and finally, as it reaches the fence around the Greene farm, it's roughly the size of Napoleon's army. The horde leans against the fence until it collapses and the dastardly ghouls are on the property.

This happened at some point during the day, the day we were shown in last week's episode and that fact, introduced only a few seconds in, already makes the episode extremely problematic. As I've documented at some length here, TWD's writers have proven themselves abjectly incapable of crafting a story featuring a series of events that happen in a set timeline. One has to look to daytime soaps (their model for this season) to find a worse example of allegedly professional episodic television that so openly and blatantly disregards this most basic element of competent narrative construction. Last week, I wrote:

"Hershel's farm has, throughout the season, seemed to feature some sort of magical zombie repellent. Even as two groups of our heroes prowled the forests on the property in different places and for an extended period in search of Randall, they didn't encounter a single zombie except that of Randall himself (reanimated after Shane killed him). But as the shot that dusts zombie Shane rings out, the forests on the farm are suddenly absolutely thick with walkers, perhaps having freshly teleported to the scene, and they all immediately begin to converge on the source of the gun-shot, setting up a big showdown with the dead just in time for the season finale."

With the pre-credit sequence tonight, it's established that a herd of hundreds of walkers was on that property during all that searching. They converged on the farm tonight from every direction, appearing everywhere.

That timeline problem ran smack-dab into another one tonight. We don't know exactly how long the search for Randall continued but it was still daylight when it started and dark at the end. The longer it's said to continue though, the more thorough it becomes and the more ludicrous it is that none of the searchers encountered any zombies. If, on the other hand, it didn't continue for very long after dark, tonight's installment introduced a new problem. The farm is completely overrun. We follow every minute of the action; by the end of it, our heroes are forced to take to their vehicles and flee. They drive all night (in different directions) and at some point the next day, they all end up back at the traffic snarl they encountered at the beginning of this season. The traffic snarl that was established in the second episode as being only 2 miles from the farm.[*] They drove like bats out of hell all night and came to a place that, even at a slow speed, was about two minutes away. How long was that night? There's no answer that doesn't amount to an insult to every viewer of TWD and it's an insult this series offers on a regular basis.

The overrunning of the farm highlighted how bad the writing has been. TWD is supposed to be an ongoing tale of survival horror but for much of this season the writers have, instead--and stop me, if you've heard this one from me before--wallowed in retread soap storylines, while the zombie apocalypse has been relegated to a very distant concern indeed. In "18 Miles Out," Rick suggested they should start using their knives rather than guns to kill zombies. Logically, the group should have been using melee weapons all along, just as in the comics. Such weapons are quiet, effective and never run out of ammo, but Rick's suggestion with regard to knives was the first--and only--time the matter had even been raised in conversation, a full 10 episodes into the 2nd season of the series.[1] Heaven forbid the characters should ever be made to spend any time on dull things like surviving their situation--it would take away from the running-time spent wallowing in love triangle melodrama, baby-daddy melodrama and so on. And why should they be concerned about it anyway when they seem to have a magic zombie-repelling farm and the Ammo Fairy to keep them in bullets?[2] They don't have to worry their little heads about such things until or unless the writers decide to take a break from questioning Rick's worthiness as a father or Lori's essays on how women should stay barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Tonight it became an issue. A full-scale zombie invasion of the farm caught them totally unprepared. They had no warning system, no Plan A, no back-up plan, no escape route, no rendezvous point and the only reason the walkers had been on the property undetected in the first place was that they weren't making a practice of patrolling the grounds. In the course of the episode, one of the vehicles ran out of gas; they didn't have any extra (in the previous episode, they'd let the RV sit for so long it wouldn't start). The scenario served to highlight how very far the writing this season has departed from what should be its primary focus.

Without a plan, they initially decided to jump in their vehicles, kill as many zombies as they can then try to lure the rest of the herd away from the farm. A fight against such overwhelming numbers is nothing but a waste of what should be precious ammo so why not skip that and just try to lure them away in the first place? For that matter, all our heroes really had to do was just drive away for a few hours and wait until the herd passed but that would preclude a big, loud Last Stand battle over the farm for the season ender, so, as usual, all of the characters, to serve a metatextual need, get stupid. There was a lot of driving and yelling and shooting and assorted mayhem. To make this possible, the creators of the series took away the increased abilities they've been granting the dead of late, making them once again a slow-shuffling Romeroesque horde, as zombies should be. Jimmy and Patricia, the designated red-shirt non-characters, became Zombie Chow.[3] In the end, everyone fled.[4]

While nearly everything else about TWD remains mired in the poor house of creative bankruptcy, the cinematography at least continues to improve. There were two particularly impressive shots tonight of zombies framed by the barn as it went up in flames (after Rick set it on fire), another visual indicator of the remarkable potential this series had if it had been in more competent hands.

The main action over, the episode devolved into the usual wretched melodrama.

It wouldn't be TWD without mind-numbing repetition, so the different groups that have fled each have a variation on exactly the same cliché'd conversation. Did anyone else make it out? Do we go back for them? Do we leave them? Lots of over-the-top agonizing, determination to find loved ones, long faces.

Hershel, Rick, and Carl flee together and, stopping at the traffic snarl the next day, Hershel is ready to write off the others and tells Rick he should take Carl and leave. Rick snaps at him "You're a man of God--have some faith." With a straight face and in total earnest, Hershel replies:

"Christ promised a resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something... a little different in mind."

...which probably topples "he talked about the deer" as the best unintentionally hilarious line of this badly-written season.

So the writers could stage a Big Emotional Reunion scene, all of the scattered characters independently decide to go to the traffic snarl and after having them apparently drive all night at high speeds in different directions, the writers decide not to belabor their plight by writing a credible scenario and have them all just coincidentally turn up there at the same time.

The writers' traditional contempt for women kicks in. As usual, Lori gets the worst of it. Rick tells Lori what happened with Shane; how Shane killed Randall in order to lure him away, how Shane planned to kill him and how he ultimately had to kill Shane. Lori seems horrified then poised to throw up then her countenance becomes one of pure, merciless hatred and if looks could kill, Rick would have been one paid-for son of a bitch in that moment. This is her reaction a few episodes after she, herself, told Rick to kill Shane. Rick would have probably been much better off killing her.[5] Rick reveals to the group that, back at the CDC, Jenner told him everyone was infected with the zombie virus and will reanimate when they die. There follows a lot of contrived bitching and moaning about the fact that Rick never shared this information. The info doesn't change anything at all, of course, but how terrible of Rick to keep this from them! All of the women then suggest to their respective cliques that this means they should get the hell away from the others.

The characters prove they haven't learned a thing from what just happened[6] and set up camp in the open forest.[7] They hear a sound near them and almost panic but instead of checking it out, Rick seems to come unhinged and, waving his gun at everyone, makes a nasty "I am your king; bring me your gold" speech, ending by declaring to all present that, if they're staying, this "isn't a democracy anymore." Just call him Il Duce. Charming.

On IMDb's TWD message board this morning, I made a prediction:

"Tonight, the farm will be overrun and this will be greeted with great enthusiasm, merely because everyone--even the show's defenders, who pretend otherwise--is sick to death of it. The farm isn't really the problem, to be sure, but it is something people have come to strongly associate with the shortcomings that have comprised this very bad season. Because of this, if it's wiped out tonight--no matter how badly it may be done--I imagine everyone will cheer."

That remains to be seen, of course, but I'm guessing I've gotten it right and I'm also guessing that enthusiasm may make many more forgiving of this bad, bad episode.

I remain unconvinced.

--j

---

[*] UPDATE (23 Nov., 2012) - One of my obsessively nitpicking detractors on the IMDb's "Walking Dead" board challenged this some months ago. The distance isn't, in fact, as precisely established as what I'd written, there. When, in "Bloodletting," Maggie, on horseback, rides out to the larger group intent on fetching Lori, she gives directions about how to get to the farm from the traffic snarl. "Backtrack to Fairborn Road. Two miles down is our farm." While my detractor sought merely to muddy the waters regarding the traffic snarl being close to the farm as a means of accusing me of inaccuracy, it's clear the traffic snarl is, in fact, quite close to the farm. Carl was shot somewhere in the immediate area and when, earlier in the same episode, Rick is running to the farm with him, the portly Otis, who can't keep up, says the farm is half a mile in a particular direction. Upon coming to the farm, the larger group then spends the next several episodes mounting their search for Sophia from the farm. So while it wasn't strictly accurate to say the snarl was 2 miles from the farm, the snarl is clearly in the immediate vicinity of the farm and there's no basis for any case for it being any real distance from it and particularly not any case that it could be far enough to even remotely account for all those hours of driving. ADDENDUM (17 Jan., 2013) -- Carl, in this very episode, describes the farm as "a mile away" from the traffic snarl.

Yes, it's a silly nitpick and not really worth even addressing but my TWD articles have become fodder for such nitpicking and contrary to what said nitpickers suggest, I do like to keep things accurate, here.

[1] And Rick's suggestion that they use knives was stupid anyway. It's hard to jam a knife into a human head, particularly the head of a creature that is trying to bite you. Better weapons include hatchets, hammers, bats, spears and so on. Even swords would be preferable to a pocket knife.

[2] Tonight, the Ammo Fairy visited Hershel while he tried to make his last stand in front of his house--he stood his ground and heroically blasted away at the encroaching dead with his shotgun, repeatedly popping off several times the gun's capacity before ever reloading. Infinite ammo weapons have long been a common feature of movies and television, but this one was particularly blatant and emblematic of the carelessness that goes into the making of TWD. The sequence was very badly  staged and edited in general. Hershel blasted advancing walkers over and over again yet they would be closer to him in earlier shots than they were in later ones and the zombies he'd already dropped would disappear from the later shots as well (he should have been waist-deep in them toward the end but when the action cut back to him at one point there were none on the ground until he started shooting again).

[3] Jimmy's end was particularly poorly handled--he drove the RV to the barn where Rick and Carl were trapped on the second level, they jumped on the roof and instead of just driving on as soon as his passengers were on board, he comes to a dead stop, gets out of his seat for no possible reason and is attacked and consumed by a gaggle of zombies that get in.

[4] And the idea of returning to the farm after the walkers leave is never discussed. They simply abandon all the supplies they left there and head on up the road.

[5] Even with Shane dead, ludicrously contrived Shane melodrama continues. Brack.

[6] Just as they failed to learn anything from the horrendous attack on their camp in the first season--even after that, they had the same minimal concern with safety and survival measures throughout this season.

[7] Another contrived drama. One of the vehicles ran out of gas and, of course, they were totally unprepared and carrying no extra. When it's suggested that some break off from the group and go fetch some, Rick vetoes the idea on the grounds that they shouldn't split up. Makes sense. The obvious solution is that everyone jump in the remaining vehicles--there's plenty of room--and go for gas together but because the writers want the characters to camp in the open that night and feel uneasy about it, this is never suggested.


[Cross-posted to my comics blog]

Sunday, March 11, 2012

WALKING DEAD Gives Viewers "Better Angels" Instead of Better Writers

Another week, and another episode of THE WALKING DEAD has shambled by. "Better Angels," this week's installment, is noteworthy for the fact that it finally puts an end to the Rick/Lori/Shane love triangle melodrama that has been a lead weight around the neck of the lead weight that is much of the rest of the show this season, and brings an end to the Randall matter on which the show has been speared for over 3 episodes now, without any progress. It's a ham-handed mop-up operation, and, like the episodes that preceded it, another showcase for inept (and gutless) writing.

Characterizations are, as usual, radically altered to serve the momentary needs of the plot.

"Triggerfinger" ended with Lori pulling a Lady MacBeth, trying to convince Rick that Shane was not only dangerous but so dangerous he should be killed. Now, only a few episodes later, Lori offers a big, emotional, astonishingly abject apology to Shane for everything she's put him through--the kind of apology she's never offered to her dutiful clown of a husband.

For much of this season, Shane has been written as a cartoon villain, but, other than being villainous, the writing of the character has been wildly inconsistent. He wants to leave the group, then he wants to stay. He cares nothing about the larger group, then he's persistently plotting a coup and trying to take it over. He cruelly screams at Carol about her daughter being dead, saying they're risking their lives to find this dead girl, then, in the next episode, is given a tender moment with Carol. In "18 Miles Out," he had proven, once again, to be dangerously unstable, to the point of trying to murder Rick with a large wrench. Then, in the next episode, he was quite stable and even reasonable, making a deal with Dale, his arch-foe, over allowing Dale to make the case for sparing Randall from death. In "Better Angels," he falls back to full-on psycho mode, and plots Rick's death.

In my original review of TWD, I wrote that the story is "set in a bleak, unforgiving, relentlessly dangerous world that, on a regular basis, forces tough decisions on its characters, the kind that could utterly alienate a mainstream television audience." This, I argued, made TWD a tough sell for tv treatment. The writers of the series, this season, certainly agreed, and Shane has been their way around this. Whenever a problem has arisen this season that doesn't have an easy answer, Shane has been given the duty of dealing with it. As the designated cartoon villain, he can do so, and spare the rest of the group from having to make any tough--and potentially audience-alienating--calls. When it came time to discuss whether it was a good idea to continue to risk the rest of the group in a search for Sophia, who was, by that point, almost certainly dead, it was a matter worthy of serious discussion, but, being a hard discussion, the writers put the advocacy for abandoning the search in their villains' mouth, rather than giving it an honest hearing. When the delusional Hershel was insisting the dead must be treated as if merely ill, and Rick, going along with this, was herding dangerous walkers right through the camp, the villain dealt with the problem, solving, in the process, the long-running mystery of Sophia. For over three episodes, the series has been at a dead stop--and not in any good way--over the question of what to do with Randall, another difficult situation for which there are no easy answers. This week, the villain takes Randall into the woods and kills him, solving the problem while conveniently keeping the blood off everyone else's hands.

Under the pretense that Randall has clocked him and escaped,[1] Shane leads Rick in a "search" for the escaped prisoner that circles through the forest, ending up, eventually, in an open pasture he intends to make Rick's grave. There's some uncharacteristically good cinematography in this scene--a big, full moon over an open field.[2] Rick turns the tables on his would-be killer, and finally puts an end to the matter of Shane. Andrew Lincoln, essaying Rick, handles the scene pretty badly, but, given TWD's penchant for wallowing in every cliché imaginable, it was actually somewhat refreshing when Rick, as the life of his soon-to-be-former best friend ebbs away, resists the urge to crack the sky with a full-throated cry of "NOOOOOO!!!" But he only barely resists it. He wobbles about, goes through the standard body language, offers an incoherent cry, and one can see that "NOOOOOO!!!" start to form on his lips, but he holds it in check, and for TWD, that's a major accomplishment.

It's somewhat undermined by what happens next, of course--two moments without a cliché would probably be a bit much to expect.

For no real reason at all, the writers make Carl appear on the scene. Totally unsupervised, and, with a potentially dangerous prisoner on the loose, Carl is wandering through a pasture in the middle of the night, only a day after Dale was torn to pieces by a zombie while doing exactly the same thing.[2a] Carl is there because, in the comic, he's the one who killed Shane, and the writers of the series wanted to offer a tip of the hat to that, without regard for whether it made any sense at all. Carl, coming across Rick kneeling over Shane, whips out a gun and appears to draw down on Rick. Rick rises up and pleads with him, while he continues to take careful aim. The thing at which he's actually aiming is the now-zombified Shane, who has risen from the ground and is creeping up behind Rick. It's a scene everyone has seen a million times. So it can play out without spoiling the fun, everyone gets stupid. Carl holds the pose while Rick, assuming himself to be the target, pathetically pleads (one thing Lincoln's Rick is adept at doing), and Carl never bothers to tell his father what's actually happening, or issue a warning about the approaching zombie, until he pulls the trigger. Rick, for his part, seems to have gone temporarily deaf, and is oblivious to the loud, angry growling of the zombie that is practically on top of him.

Others, however, are not so hard of hearing. Hershel's farm has, throughout the season, seemed to feature some sort of magical zombie repellent. Even as two groups of our heroes prowled the forests on the property in different places and for an extended period in search of Randall, they didn't encounter a single zombie, except that of Randall himself (reanimated after Shane killed him). But as the shot that dusts zombie Shane rings out, the forests on the farm are suddenly absolutely thick with walkers, perhaps having freshly teleported to the scene,[3] and they all immediately begin to converge on the source of the gun-shot, setting up a big showdown with the dead, just in time for the season finale.

And that's about it. The Randall melodrama is finished. The love triangle melodrama with Shane is finished. And TWD still needs better writers, not "Better Angels."

--j.

---

[1] The idea of Randall, a wounded, scrawny, insignificant creature, successfully decking the brutish Shane is hilarious, at best.

[2] Given the milieu, this was probably borrowed from the conclusion of George Romero's SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, though it isn't original to that film.

[2a] UPDATE (13 March, 2012) -- I've gotten some criticism for my own criticism of Carl's appearance in this scene. Earlier, Carl had been shown back at the farm-house, scanning the night with binoculars, seeing nothing. That he was looking for Rick and Shane has been mistaken by some as a reason for his going out to meet them. Other than the metatextual desire to pay homage to Shane's death scene from the comic, though, Carl has absolutely no reason to be there, and lots of very good reasons not to be stomping around in the night. Like most of what happens on TWD, the scene is dependent on his being an idiot. Something else worth mentioning is that Rick and Shane step out into the open pasture in sight of the house, but they're far too distant from it for Carl, without the benefit of teleportation, to cover the ground between in the available time.

[3] Teleportation being an apparent zombie power on TWD. In at least two other instances this season, zombies have displayed the ability. One teleported inside the pharmacy, back in the first part of the season, so it could attack Maggie. Another teleported behind Dale. This week, it seems to have been a mass teleportation, filling the forests on the farm.


[Cross-posted to my comic blog]

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Forget it, Jake, it's THE WALKING DEAD

Writing ongoing articles about an ongoing series is a new thing for this blog, and, given the experience, I sort of doubt it will continue, beyond however many articles THE WALKING DEAD can still pull out of me. The series just isn't good. It isn't just plagued by a raft of problems. It is a raft of problems. There isn't much else to it. And it doesn't even display any variety in the ways in which it chooses to be problematic. Rather, it has exactly the same problems, week after week, which means writing about it begins to seem as if one is writing the same article week after week.

While this week's tepid tome, which answers to the name "Judge, Jury, Executioner," is mostly just more of the same, it is the case that it and the last few episodes have offered one difference worthy of note. Or maybe I'm just exaggerating it to "worthy" status in a desperate effort to find something different to note. TWD is supposed to be, as the comic legend reads, "a continuing story of survival horror." In the first season, the series' plots all flowed from survival concerns. This was mostly cast aside this season in favor of a crushing load of generic soap "storylines," set in a world that was far too safe.[1] The series continues to bear the heavy burden of this fundamentally wrongheaded shift, but in the last few weeks, the writers have at least turned an eye back toward the survival concerns that are supposed to be at the core of the enterprise. A step in the right direction, certainly.

It shouldn't be overstated, though--it's a very small step.

This week's installment continued the writers' efforts to create and have their characters deal with a moral dilemma surrounding Randall, the youthful marauder rescued from fence impalement. What's to be done with him? Keeping him a prisoner doesn't seem practical, and the fear is that, if allowed to live, he will slip away, hook up with the group of armed hostiles of which he was a part before,[2] and bring death and destruction down on the farm. It's a quandary from which competent writers could squeeze some healthy drama.[3]

Unfortunately, this is TWD. In my original critique of the series, I wrote:

"Of all the many changes the writers made to TWD in bringing it to television, the one that has always seemed, to me, the biggest departure from the comic is the tone the writers imported from the soaps. In their treatment of the characters and their interactions, the writers mercilessly jettison any hint of subtlety, complexity, or maturity in favor of extreme, jacked-up melodrama, with everyone nearly going glassy-eyed from being so perpetually wide-eyed and overwrought."

This approach means, among other things, that, no one on TWD can have a normal conversation, a conversation about a mundane subject, or, perhaps most importantly, an intelligent, adult conversation about anything. Everything has to be sensationalistic, and it's all handled through a kind of brainless speechifying; in place of competent dialogue, characters stand around and make grand, overwrought, and aggressively anti-naturalistic speeches to one another. The subjects of these speeches are always treated as if they're of absolutely critical importance, even if they're just petty relationship issues that seems completely absurd in the larger context of the characters' situation. Because everything is handled in this way, the matter of whether it's a good thing if Maggie loves Glenn is treated with exactly the same tone and as if it has exactly the same gravity as a debate over taking the life of a human being, which was the subject of this week's installment. And the speeches, in both cases, are equally inane. A serious treatment of a serious subject is rendered impossible.

That was the "Judge, Jury, Executioner" that was. Nearly everyone is intent on destroying Randall, while Dale runs around trying to be the voice of conscience and learns no one is interested in having one. On a question of such importance, the characters display a creepily fascistic deference to Rick's authority; even his wife, who gives him hell over nearly everything, backs him on this point (though, reflecting TWD's view of the moral courage of women, not necessarily allowing that killing Randall is the "right thing" to do). Dale pleads with the assembled group. No one wants to hear it. At the last minute, Andrea comes around and sides with Dale, but though it runs directly contrary to everything she's had to say on the subject so far, she doesn't offer any reason why she changed her mind. She just suddenly says they should find another way to deal with Randall. And that's all. TWD, this season, wallows in every conceivable cliché like a pig in slop, and without any elaboration on her change of heart, Andrea's switch seems to have been thrown in for no other purpose than indulging that cliché moment of a last-minute conversion.

The wallowing didn't end on that, either. The verdict on Randall is death, and they drag him to the barn, put him on his knees, and prepare to put his lights out for good, but, as Rick is about to drop the hammer on the pathetically pleading fellow (and risk alienating his television audience), his son Carl appears at the door to watch the festivities. He urges on his dear ol' dad, and Rick, seeing himself reflected in the boy, just can't bring himself to do it. After all the pleading about silly things like morality and conscience, Randall is finally spared by a worn-out movie cliché.

Earlier, Dale, hopped up on righteous indignation, declared that if the group was going to kill Randall, he wasn't interested in being a part of it, which probably reflects actor Jeffrey DeMunn's reported unhappiness over continuing with the series after the firing of previous showrunner Frank Darabont, with whom he has had a longtime collaboration.

Both DeMunn and Dale seemed to have the same wish, and this week, it came true.

Dale, walking across an open pasture, comes across a disemboweled cow. He turns in the direction from which he just came and finds himself suddenly facing a zombie, it having either apparently parachuted in behind him after he passed, or magically teleported to the spot. This was a zombie we'd seen earlier in the episode, stuck in ankle-deep mud. The creature had been so weak, at that point, it had been unable to pull itself free from this shallow mud, even when frenzied by the sight of a tasty dinner in the form of Carl standing right in front of him, but when it pounces on Dale,[4] it has the strength of a super-villain, and, with bare, rotting hands, rips open Dale's belly.[5] Others, alerted by the commotion, arrive and deal with the creature, but poor Dale is beyond saving, and, in the last moment of the episode, Daryl puts him down.

This loss is a serious one. Dale has gotten a lot of hatred this season from some of the noisier-than-thoughtful TWD fans, because the writers continued to have him getting into everyone's business while removing the reason the character does this (he's supposed to be trying to head off problems that could endanger the group, but the group hasn't been in any real danger all season). His death means the show has lost one of the very few likeable characters it had left.

As for the rest of the episode, it's the same story as last week. There's no plot. And for all the grandiloquent huffing and puffing the viewer endures, nothing moved. The dilemma at the end is the same as the dilemma at the beginning. A few weeks ago, with "Triggerfinger," I wrote about how the writers set up a cliffhanger, with Rick and the others debating whether they should kill Randall or try to save him from that fence on which he was stuck. Rick ripped him free, and focus abruptly switched away from the action and back to the farm for more re-re-retreading of already-well-worn soap scenes, which, I noted, brought the entire episode to a screeching halt. In a real sense, TWD has remained at a halt from that point. It's like the traffic snarl that brought things to a stop at the beginning of this season. Three episodes in, and the show is still speared on that fence. We've just burned through another hour. Another episode toward meeting AMC's order for this year. But that's about it.

What are the writers doing with TWD?

As little as possible.

--j.

---

[1] It's a sign of how divorced from the zombie apocalypse the show has gotten that Carl is basically able to run around completely unsupervised, without anyone thinking anything of it. This week, he climbs into the barn with what could be a dangerous prisoner, swipes a gun (for the second time), wanders through the forest alone. No one seems to be watching him at all.

[2] Randall had been at the farm for more than a week, but, consistent with the brilliant writing displayed on TWD throughout this season, they hadn't even bothered to interrogate him about that group, an armed contingent of unknown size and demonstrably hostile intent camped out somewhere in the immediate area. This episode, they have Daryl beat on him and cut on him and learn from him that there are about 30 unfriendlies in this other group.

[3] Though, for metatextual reasons, the end was never in doubt. Randall is a very young fellow who whimpers and pleads, professes no allegiance to the group that left him for dead, and is as cooperative as he can be; Shane, the designated villain, may have been allowed to kill him in some underhanded way, but the writers aren't going to allow the entire group to assume responsibility for such a heinous act, and they certainly aren't going to allow their hero Rick to pull the trigger, because either scenario would risk alienating the mass audience.

[4] And to pounce on Dale, it abandoned a huge meal, in the cow, which it had already downed, violating the established TWD rules for zombies (they don't leave a meal in hand). A lot of the zombies' abilities--their speed, in particular--have always been written based on momentary plot needs, but in the last two episodes, they seem almost like an entirely different species.

[5] UPDATE (7 March, 2012) -- After I posted this to the IMDb's WALKING DEAD board, "madman mundt" suggested I was being unfair to TWD in criticizing this, because, as he correctly notes, zombies, in zombie flicks, always have the ability to tear people to pieces. I can certainly accept the criticism that I may be being unfair on that point. The reason such things are forgiven--or, more usually, are never even an issue--in the better zombie flicks is because those films' merits far outweigh them; with TWD, there isn't much to counter them. The zombie in this episode had been shown to be incredibly weak, it apparently possessed powers of teleportation, and then, it pries a fellow apart. And its all happening in the midst of a ridiculous episode of a ridiculous series.


[Cross-posted to my comic blog]