Monday, October 29, 2012

The First Walk With THE WALKING DEAD's Governor A Snipe Hunt

In a way, THE WALKING DEAD has it pretty easy these days, when it comes to critical evaluations. Insofar as viewer expectations are concerned, the breathtaking idiocy and awfulness that, in season 2, became its standard succeeded in setting the bar so low that anything that isn't just as breathtakingly awful and idiotic can't help but seem a significant improvement.

Such is the case with this week's installment, "Walk With Me," which takes a break from the main group of characters and follows, instead, Andrea and Michonne as they encounter the barricaded town of Woodbury and its secretly villainous Governor. The ep will, I imagine, take a few hits for its glacial pace. I've never been particularly bothered by this aspect of the TWD that devolved last season, except when it's just being used to eat up screen-time. There was some of that tonight--it's maybe a 28-minute plot being stretched to cover a 42-minute episode, but that's actually pretty good by TWD standards. More significantly, the ep dispenses with the most extreme elements of soap melodrama, even more so than did the 3rd season debut. The creators clearly still view the series through that lens, and while that remains the case, TWD will never be mistaken for a high-quality production by anyone qualified to render the judgment, but dialing back the soap to any noticeable extent will always feel like a big step up--its absence doesn't even have to be filled with anything particularly interesting.

And in this case, it isn't. This particular storyline and its central antagonist are both drawn from the TWD comic, but, as with much of what the series takes from its source material, noting this unfairly sleights the book. The comic is, among other things, an open-ended study of how the end of the world affects those who survive it. Our heroes struggle to hold on to the important parts of their humanity in a world were such things feel, increasingly, like burdensome baggage. As one would expect, those they encounter tend to be deeply damaged in various ways. When it comes to adapting this, the series got off on a very wrong foot right out of the gate, when, in season 1, the street hoodlums in "Vatos"--the first survivors they'd encountered--turned out to be kindly young fellows guarding a nursing-home full of old people. The rest of that particular episode is one of the best-written of the series, and one of the only ones that feels like the comic, but the note that particular twist struck was so fundamentally wrong that the ep is often regarded as one of the worst of the first season (and the series itself). The Governor is the comic's greatest villain, a sadistic maniac who learned it's good to be the king. Upon the end of the world, he devolved into barbarism most excessive, an example of how far people can fall, and a contrast with our heroes. The series, perpetually aimed at a milquetoast, white-bred, middle-class, middle America audience, has always soft-pedaled (or eliminated) the horror elements of the book, and its creators certainly have no intention of ever offering any glimpses into an abyss as black as that. David Morrissey would be as miscast playing anything resembling the comic Governor as was John Wayne playing Genghis Khan. In "Walk With Me," he does his best impression of Liam Neeson playing an American southerner, as he goes through the paces of the kinder, gentler, English-er Governor-In-Name-Only the series' writers have concocted--a standard b-movie villain part with no thematic point, and, in fact, nothing to distinguish it from any other b-movie villain part. GINO is the benevolent ruler in public, while being villainous outside the sight of the general population of Woodbury.

Andrea takes another beating at the hands of TWD's notoriously misogynistic writers, almost immediately falling for GINO's corny public-face bullshit and seeming to fall, to some extent, for him, as well. It's up to Michonne to be skeptical of GINO and his little paradise, but instead of writing her as wisely so, she's being written only as an Angry Black Woman caricature, pissed off, cynical and disapproving of everything without apparent reason--her part leaves the viewer with the impression she'd react exactly the same way to anyone. Shorn of her sword, she wields at the world her one facial expression: a perpetually sour look. As a character, she doesn't yet exist, and rather than developing her and using her (and Andrea) as our eyes into the world of Woodbury, the writers leave her at the caricature, and break off to follow the Governor and his henchmen for long stretches. Her relationship with Andrea is yet another casualty of the creators' decision to skip so much time between season 2 and 3. She and Andrea have been together and surviving the zombie badlands for more than 8 months, but are written as basically strangers, with no rapport and no apparent understanding of or trust in one another. When, last season, Andrea was written as in thrall to Shane, another homicidal maniac, Dale tried to warn her; he genuinely cared for her and was trying to look out for her, and she was contemptuous of him for it, and treated him as if she could barely tolerate him. Now, she's under the spell of yet another homicidal maniac, and, again, the pattern repeats; she's giving grief to the woman who saved her and has looked out for her for more than 8 months, merely because that woman is not immediately willing to jump on GINO's bandwagon (or his bones).

Michael Rooker returned, tonight, as Merle, Daryl's scumbag brother. He's with the Woodbury gang now, having survived the self-amputation of his hand, and I'd be lying if I said he wasn't a sight for my own rather sore eyes. Merle has proven very popular among the TWD fan-base, but one suspects its really Rooker who is the draw in the equation. That's certainly the case with me. I was a Rooker fan for a long time before TWD came along. But it's also true (and rather unexpected) that, watching him tonight (and his scenes are easily the highlight of this ep), his character feels like a reminder of a time when the show wasn't the godawful mess it later became, a time when it still had all the potential in the world.

Beyond Rooker, "Walk With Me" is pretty uninteresting. It wasn't, however, actively godawful. It's unfortunate that this, alone, can make it better than most of the rest of the series.

--j.

---

NOTE: This ep was also astonishingly poorly directed. Andrea and Michonne, near the beginning, were able to "hide" from GINO and his men, though in plain sight of them, behind a pathetically thin bush or two--Michonne was even able to stand up, openly, and behead her two pet zombies with her sword (who were also standing in the open) without anyone seeing (the zombies had drawn attention by becoming riled up by the sight of GINO and his men, which is in direct contradiction to what GINO's "scientist" says later in the ep--that zombies like them who have had their means to attack people removed lose the desire to attack them). Later, GINO and a handful of his men are able to creep up on and massacre a National Guard unit that outnumbered them and was waiting in a more-or-less open area in zombie country, apparently without having a single look-out posted. There was no firefight, as directed--the Guardsmen just stood around and let themselves be killed by a force they outnumbered.


[Cross-posted to my comics blog]

Monday, October 22, 2012

On THE WALKING DEAD, Shit Happens

A good title for tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD would have been "Shit Happens." The creators of the series chose, instead, one that warned their terminally mainstream audience of what was to come: "Sick." Though one fellow was injured in "Sick," no one was actually sick. Rather, the sickness in question had to do with the decision, by the creators, to import, into their mainstream tale, some of the nastiness routinely found in the comics they're allegedly adapting.

It was a welcome addition. The world of TWD should be a dark, brutal, unforgiving one, and the television version, chasing that middle-American-milquetoast audience, has been marked by a distinct lack of ugliness for far too long. Our hero Rick, in particular, seems to have regrown the testicular tissue arbitrarily razored away from him by the abysmal writing of season 2. Tonight, he had some steel in his spine when he dealt with the antics of a way-over-the-top-of-the-top villain briefly thrown his way. In this case, it was a prison inmate overly fond of pointing guns in people's faces at the least provocation, even when they had weapons trained on him. It's the sort of thing bad filmmakers have, in recent years, mistaken for an intimidating posture, the sort of thing that, in the real world, would pretty much guarantee a continuing lifespan of about 30 more seconds. This clown lasted more than 30 seconds, but, with Iron Rick on the job, not much more than as many minutes--Rick even fed the pistol-waving prick's sissy-boy sidekick to a crowd of zombies after the hard-charging henchman fled right into their midst.

Some good shit. Rick, it should be said, seemed a little more upset than he should have been about this, but that would be a small complaint, indeed, if it had been the only crack in the episode.

Unfortunately, the rest of the episode cracked open and unleashed some shit that was significantly less than good, and significantly closer to the object of the metaphor.

Last week, "Seed" planted some little hope that TWD was about to become something like TWD, rather than wasting its time as the world's most expensive, worst written daytime soap at night. This week, the show mostly collapsed right back into the very bad habits of season 2. In the closing moments of "Seed," a zombie chomped a chunk from Hershel's leg, and Rick, in an effort to short-circuit the zombie infection, grabbed an axe and chopped off the afflicted limb. Hershel spent "Sick" in bed, hovering between life and death as a bad Lifetime soap melodrama played out around him. Lots of time spent on long faces and pointless, redundant, clich├ę-ridden speeches about the old boy's fate.

Very, very bad shit.

Idiot Plot Syndrome--one of the absolute worst elements of TWD season 2--was back in full force, as well. With Hershel having suffered this horrible injury, any viewer with more than a few functioning brain-cells could be forgiven for thinking the group's immediate concern would be toward locating the prison's infirmary and acquiring things like bandages, antibiotics, painkillers--the things the stricken vet needs so he doesn't die. Those were more brain-cells than the writers employed when assembling "Sick," though, because while the characters speak of the critical need to find the infirmary, they don't do anything toward that end. They've just encountered a group of men who had been incarcerated in the prison, and who would presumably know exactly where to go, but our heroes don't even ask them about it. They choose, instead, to spend their time helping clear a new cell-block, so these fellows can have a place to sleep--an adventure in zombie-killing that could just as easily have been written as necessary to get to the infirmary. It's left to young Carl to slip off on his own--off camera--and find the supplies they need.[1] For his troubles, he's publicly shat upon by his wretched mother, whose own contribution to Hershel's health, up to that point, had amounted to hovering over him and looking Very Concerned (perhaps realizing how this looked, the writers added in, as an apparent afterthought, a moment wherein Hershel stopped breathing, and Lori resuscitated him).

And that's the shit that happened with "Sick"--after a promising start to the season, an ep that, overall, would be best sent to a waste-treatment facility.

--j.

---
[1] It would be virtually impossible to overstate the idiocy of this complete lack of concern for finding the infirmary. The group wasted half of season 2 in the search for a red-shirt non-entity of absolutely no consequence, whereas Hershel, being a medical professional who has shown wizard-like powers in both the healing of the injured and of the conjuring of ammunition, is one of their most important human assets, yet not even his own daughters make any effort to find the infirmary nor demand any action from anyone else to that end. They just stand around with long faces, reciting the clich├ęs of the Lifetime soap melodrama they're playing out. Maggie, rather than doing anything to help her father live, tells him it's all right for him to die.

UPDATE (23 Oct., 2012) - BMF125, a poster on the IMDb's "Walking Dead" board, reminds me of a massive continuity error I meant to mention but forgot when doing my write-up. In "Seed," the group prowled through a corridor that was absolutely crawling with zombies, and had to duck into the cafeteria with a whole horde of them on their trail. It was difficult to hold the doors closed from all the creatures outside. As "Sick" begins, they open that door seconds later, story-time, and there's only one zombie there. Then, they drag Hershel out into the corridor and back to the section of the prison they'd already secured, again failing to run into the zombie horde. They leave the door between the allegedly zombie-infested section and the secured section open so the prisoners they found in the cafeteria can follow. Add a vanishing zombie horde to TWD's many, many problems.

[cross-posted to my comics blog]

Monday, October 15, 2012

THE WALKING DEAD Plants A Curious Seed

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.[1]

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.[2] 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?

I'm curious.

--j.

---

[1] 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."

[2] 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]