Tuesday, October 28, 2014

50 Articles of THE WALKING DEAD & I

"Four Walls and a Roof," this week's aggressively mediocre, watered-down installment of THE WALKING DEAD, didn't inspire me to write anything about it. Except that. Rather, I thought I'd do something a little different (and probably a lot less interesting!). This is an anniversary of sorts: my 50th article about TWD. As good a time as any, I suppose, to devote a little space to my prolific relationship with this particular subject.

It's a relationship that's been the subject of a great deal of commentary over the years, from both friends and admirers and (mostly) detractors. The former often seem to think it a waste of my time, attention and whatever talent they judge me to have, while the latter dislike my criticism of the series and like to raise the caricature of some odd, obsessive fellow writing so much about a series he hates (that I also praise TWD when it warrants it never seems to figure in this criticism).[1]

I came to THE WALKING DEAD through the comics. A lifelong fan of horror and of zombie tales, I'd read the book for years before the series had appeared; back when it was fairly obscure. I'd been cautiously optimistic about the series when it had been announced; interested to see what would become of the adaptation but skeptical of how faithful it could be given the restrictions that would be imposed upon it. Though the creators had promised it wouldn't necessarily follow the events of the comic, Frank Darabont's pilot film was almost slavish in its adaptation of the first few issues of the book and I was hooked. None of the subsequent episodes, which departed radically from the book, even came close to living up to that first ep and they had other problems too, but they weren't bad and often had very good moments. A good series could grow from them. A good friend of mine, a fellow horror and zombie fan, fell in love with it. He didn't have AMC or, at the time, even a tv, and having no other way of seeing it, he'd come over and watch it with me every week.

Unfortunately, it was during that first short season that events in my own life took a turn for the worse. I've alluded to it here but haven't written much on it (and won't). The short version is that someone who had become very special to me very dramatically left me. The fallout from this nearly killed me and that isn't hyperbole. Almost 4 years later and in spite of some efforts to mend the mess, it continues to affect me every day. One of the things it took from me was my writing. I am a writer; born with it stamped on my DNA. I started doing it before most kids my age could even recognize all of their letters and leading into this particular cataclysm, my love was my muse and I'd been in a particularly prolific period.

After, I couldn't do anything. I progressively fell into a rather nightmarish hole in myself and very soon, there was no question of writing. After a very long time, I began, little by little, to return to life but the writing didn't. It wouldn't and I couldn't make it--it was like it had been robbed out of me. For a writer, this was like being dead.

Eventually, I tried to make myself write some things, mostly on political subjects, a few on others. For the most part, I didn't like the results very much.[2]  It was some time shortly before the season 2 opener of TWD that I began to lurk on the Walking Dead board at the Internet Movie Database. I read posts there, learned some of the personalities and as the season got underway, I began occasionally posting short comments. Nothing major. Probably nothing terribly insightful. I wasn't pleased with the radical change in direction the series had undergone but it was still hard to muster up enough interest to care about it or much of anything, really. Still, my friend was turning up to watch it with me and I watched it every week as its problems continued to grow. I started to write about it on the board more and more often, sometimes setting off heated debates.

It was during TWD's midseason break that year that I finally sat down and began to bang out a more comprehensive article dealing with my thoughts on the show to date. It was, to clip a cliche, like a dam had burst. For the first time in a very long time, the words flowed with ease. That first piece, "Pretty Much Walking Dead Already," became and to this day continues to be the longest article I've written on TWD or on any subject on this blog. And the article proved a hit. People flocked to it, complimented me on it, excoriated me for it--it proved a tremendous source of controversy and debate.

Unfortunately, my success with that article didn't translate into any sort of general return of my authorial mojo. It was over a month before I wrote anything else and when I was able to write again, it was another article about TWD. Then another. Then another. I'd been a big fan of Lina Romay, and when she died right around this time, I gave her what felt like an entirely inadequate send-off here. Mostly, though, it was just TWD. For a long time, it was practically the only subject about which I could write with any skill (or with what I felt was skill). The articles emerged fairly easily. The depths to which the series had fallen were appalling and the early articles after the original were mostly matter-of-fact laundry-lists of grievances (a straightforwardness that may have contributed to their popularity). They didn't have a lot of overt humor, which, given the subject, is probably a glaring omission (one that no doubt played into the series' fans caricatures of me) but I wasn't feeling particularly humorous at the time.

The articles developed an insatiable audience, people who told me they enjoyed my articles far more than the show, people who said they only continued to watch it so they could read my reaction to it, fans of the series who despised me and delighted in pointing it out at every opportunity, chiding me for continually watching and repeatedly writing about something I hated. Points I raised were debated at lengths that seemed absurd,[3] and I jumped into the fray with vigor. I seemed to have tapped into a vein of growing dissatisfaction with the popular show, saying things a lot of people had been thinking but hadn't articulated. By writing what I thought, I became a chief exponent of and spokesman for their views, or was so perceived. I became notorious within the online TWD fan community.

Along the way, though, I'd lost the point of it, which isn't terribly surprising. Were it not for my pal wanting to see it and depending on me for his fix, I would have stopped watching TWD fairly early in the 2nd season and probably would have never written anything about it. Long before that second season had ended, I felt as if I'd said all I had to say about tv TWD. I even began to get the idea that I may have covered everything in my first article and that the subsequent ones were merely redundant appendices. I was repeating myself in a way that paralleled the way the show was so mind-numbingly repeating itself at the time. Noting the obvious, I began to do this intentionally, as a sort of private joke, and found some amusement in how often the series' fans would, short my own sense of the obvious, slam me for it. That some little bit of glee was no doubt some small part of why I stayed with it. As depressing a subject as it could be, I was happy to finally have my mind on something other than my own troubles. As I had also become essentially a captive audience because of my friend, I used the articles and the arguments to vent why I disliked the series and there was a certain stubbornness to it. "If I have to watch this shit," I'd tell myself, "I'm damn well going to write about why its shit." More importantly, though, I was also clinging to TWD. It was the only thing I could write, my weekly proof that I hadn't entirely lost the most important part of me.

I was still stuck with watching the series--in addition to my friend, my parents had since taken to watching it and were likewise dependent upon me to provide it (I record it for them)--but I really didn't want to continue writing of TWD into its third season. There had been more personal tragedy between the seasons that threatened, for a time, to overwhelm me.[4] There wasn't any big epiphany that led me to continue; I mostly did so for the same reasons I'd continued through to the end of season 2. The third season was to concern itself with the story of the prison our heroes make their home, which was the high point of the comics, and I had a certain curiosity about how TWD's creators would handle it. I expected they'd so so badly (and said so, and was proven far more correct that I'd ever care to have been). I was still somewhat on the fence about continuing my articles until I saw the opener, "Seed." It's a regular practice for fanboys of various pop entertainment franchises to dub a "hater" any critic of their beloved Precious, a practice intended to dismiss a criticism as the product of the malevolent nature of the critic in order to avoid addressing it. Contrary to this epithet so frequently hurled my way, I've always held out some little glimmer of hope that TWD could right itself and become something worthy of the source material. Being stuck with watching it, I'd certainly prefer it did so. "Seed" fed into that. Not by being great or even particularly good but by being something significantly more than just downright godawful. Having seen it, I determined to write of it, and though still assuming the worst for the season to come, I gave it a cautiously positive review.

It only took one more episode for TWD to destroy the good will I'd extended it. The season that followed wasn't just awful, it was tragic, in that it raped, pillaged and wasted the best story arc from the comic, which was also one of the great tales in all of zombie fiction. In the course of it, I fell into a routine when it came to my articles. My mood had lightened a bit and I started to have a lot more fun with them and to branch out, covering the series' visual continuity errors, creating a map of TWD's Georgia, imagining a behind-the-scenes look at the TWD writers' room. The season was horrible but at the end of it, Glen Mazzara, the showrunner who had driven TWD to ruin, was fired. Reportedly, he'd been so terminally underwriting the series--a complaint prominently featured here week after week--that production had to be repeatedly shut down for lack of material to shoot. I didn't sing "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" at that point but I did think it offered a chance to significantly improve the show.[5] Scott Gimple, the fellow chosen to replace Mazzara, had been the writer of record for the only relatively good episode of season 3 ("Clear") and another that, though it featured an incredibly bad decision by the writers (the death of Merle), was significantly less than awful ("This Sorrowful Life"). I'd almost certainly be watching the next season and I was curious to see what he could do with it.

Gimple significantly improved the show. His gang turned out the first great eps of TWD since the 1st season, several of them. I appreciated Gimple's efforts to refute and demean Mazzara's work but I thought he took that much too far when he devoted multiple episodes to creating Woodbury v.2.0 and trying to prove he could pull off the end of season 3 better than Mazzara. Watching TWD also became a very frustrating exercise for me during season 4. When Mazzara was running the show, one simply expected every ep to be shit and one was virtually never disappointed. When, under Gimple, there were suddenly good-to-great episodes appearing, one wanted this to continue but rubbing shoulders with the keepers were also multiple eps in which, utterly unnecessarily, the show fell back into the very bad habits of the Mazzara years, brainless and awful. This, it seems, is going to continue into the new season. A killer opening ep, followed by a shitty sequel, followed by a mediocre third installment. "Fear the Hunters," the comic tale adapted by the last two episodes, could, absent the material that was drawn from it and put to use in the previous season,[6] have been covered in a single episode. Instead, it was stretched to two, packed with filler and the brutal payoff watered down[7] until the point is entirely lost, then the whole thing was paved over with a string of clich├ęs and Lifetime For Women demographics-servicing faux tenderness regarding Bob's imminent demise. Just a waste.

My articles for season 4 reflect both the unevenness of its eps and my changing perspective on the series. A shift in them I note is that I don't just catalog the inanities of the weaker installments but, instead, begin to try to diagnose, at greater length, the basic nature of the series' problems and to suggest ways it could be improved--treating it as something worthy of those sorts of considerations. Toward the end of the season, by contrast, the series began to wear on me and my articles sometimes became quite cursory. For at least one ep, I didn't even write one (and heard an earful from my readers for it). I don't like writing the kind of reviews one finds all over the internet where most of the text is consumed by a mere recap of the ep's events. If I'm going to write about an ep, I need to have something to say about it. The eps on which I skimped are a mixed bag of mediocre-with-good elements that didn't particularly inspire me. My short take on "The Grove," on the other hand, represented a judgment that it was a great tale, one I thought spoke for itself.

For a time, Gimple actually had me looking forward to the next week's ep. That's quite a feat and he managed it on multiple occasions. And then he managed to drub that out of me. After the last two eps of this new season, I'm not looking forward to any more TWD. I doubt I ever will again. I'm sure there will be some more good eps sprinkled throughout this season and through the series for however long it continues. I'll probably even write about it. It isn't something in which I can reliably invest any enthusiasm though. I don't understand why Gimple doesn't just kick free from Mazzara-ism entirely and allow TWD to soar but he won't. He's had every chance. For all his TWD's seeming criticism of it, he lets it continue to drag down the show and it's likely he always will, dooming TWD to remain no more than what it is now--a wildly uneven series that offers up an alternating mix of impressive episodes that raise one's expectations and eps of mindless Mazzara-ist garbage that relentlessly grind down the same enthusiasm the former inspires. That's unfortunate but it is what it is, and though some of my readers have suggested it looks as if Gimple, based on some of his reforms, had been reading some of my criticism, changing it isn't really in my power.

I'm no longer clinging to the series as a subject; I came away from that slowly and over time and last season removed any doubts that may have lingered. My writing hasn't entirely recovered from my personal traumas and maybe it never will but it's better. Between the TWD seasons, I wrote a few articles here on various unrelated subjects about which I had much more enthusiasm. I didn't think they were bad. I was somewhat disappointed by the minimal reaction to them. Now, TWD is back and my readers want to see my analysis of it; still stuck with watching it, I'll probably keep writing about it, if for them alone.  I may be, as some insist, a moron for writing about it so much; people will just have to judge that for themselves. To aid them in those weighty considerations, I'll go ahead and confess a certain disappointment with myself in writing so much on a subject that is so often so unworthy of that much attention while giving short shrift or failing entirely to write about much better movies and series. For the record, though, I'm not some crazed obsessive when it come to TWD. I'm not a "hater." Nore am I Paul Sheldon in "Misery," perpetually driven by commercial concerns to write of a subject I hate--I don't make a dime from my writing on the subject. And that's where things are with TWD and I.

Postscript: I should, in closing, offer a few words regarding my friend, the fellow who doesn't always like TWD but hasn't disliked it enough to stop watching it; the one whose desire to look at it has, in turn, kept me watching it. Given how little I've said about him here, I fear some readers could have been left with the impression that being forced to keep up with TWD on his behalf is, at best, some sort of resented chore and at worst, some hellish torture. It's neither. The friend in question is a good one and has been with me for many years now. He can watch TWD with me any day. I dedicate this article to him:

To Darren. A jolly good fellow.



--j.

---

[1] I'm not sure why anyone thinks, caricature aside, that's a legitimate criticism anyway. On what planet are critics expected to write only about things they really like?

[2] The pieces in question were typically political commentary written in response to something I'd read somewhere and in retrospect some of them aren't bad but my real-time impression was that they more often came out quite poorly. They are, for me, very clinical, impersonal, matter-of-fact--at the time, I thought most of them rubbish and maybe more importantly, they were on subjects I didn't enjoy.

[3] On the IMDb board, which was my main haunt, the fights would go on for thousands of posts; frequently, I, rather than TWD, seemed the #1 topic of discussion for the day.

[4] An ex of mine, a fine lady with whom I'd remained very close, killed herself that Summer.

[5] I wrote an evaluation of the Mazzara seasons for the IMDb board. Which was best? Well...

On one hand, S3 had one good episode ("Clear") and two eps that, while problematic at times, still managed to rise above the series' usual rock-bottom standard ("Seed" and "This Sorrowful Life"). This compares to no good episodes in S2. Every episode that year, without exception, was a complete waste of space. Purely on a scorecard, season 3 wins that way.

On the other hand, the IQ of the series, which plummeted in season 2, hit a new low in season 3--TWD S3 is a much dumber show than S2. "Sick" and "Killer Within" were basically full-episode extensions of Lori taking the car to fetch Rick and Glenn, and were a series low when it came to this. If you prize intelligence, you're going to despise both, but if you can appreciate one being a bit smarter than the other, S2 wins. If, on the flip-side, you actually prize abject idiocy and find it one of TWD's endearing traits, S3 is definitely for you.

On a third hand, the second half of S3 was like the first half of S2, in that nearly everything we were shown was simply filler. TWD, in both seasons, has been mostly filler, but those two "eras"--to the extent that they can be cleanly divided (important caveat)--featured the greatest amount of padding. The S2 filler era lasted 7 eps, while the S3 filler era lasted 8. At the same time, though, the padding in the S2 era was far more repetitious--the same scenes and conversations being repeated dozens of times with barely an altered word.

On a fourth hand, S2 is as dull as dishwater. If you prize any sense of pace, there's nothing for you there. S3 doesn't move any faster but it throws in lots and lots of action to confound bumpkins into mistaking it for superior. The special effects in S2 (and, particularly, S1) were excellent; in S3--probably as a consequence of that greater demand for action--a lot of them looked like the effects from a Troma flick. There are exceptions and still some great work here and there, but often you'll find better work in a Toxic Avenger movie.

And on and on. When it comes  to judging such things, lot of it just depends on what you prize. The bottom line about Mazzara TWD is that no matter how many hands you may have, comparing the seasons is like saying this pile here stinks a bit less than that pile over there--it may be true, but you don't want to step in either.

[6] The excellent episode "The Grove" was a significantly altered version of a subplot from"Fear the Hunters."

[7] As I've written here before, attenuating the material for a middle-American whitebread audience has been a problem for TWD from the beginning. In this case, the incredible brutality of the climax of "Fear the Hunters"--our heroes, appalled by the cannibals, spend all night torturing them to death in the same way the cannibals have tortured others to death--is, as always with tv TWD, eliminated. Heaven forbid middle America ever be exposed to brutality in a horror show about the end of the world coming at the hands of flesh-eating monsters. That doing this eliminates the entire point of the story no more occurred to the writers than the fact that cannibalism didn't make any sense in the first place in the the sanitized world they've created in the tv version wherein food is plentiful and never really much of a problem (in the comic, it's nearly always a problem).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pace and Consistency Strangers To THE WALKING DEAD

Series television is written by committee. An individual script will usually only have one writer's name on it, but the final filmed version of it will be the product of a large number of people, from the showrunner and the writer's room down to even the individual actors (in series that don't insist on overly rigid recitation of the written word). One of the things that has long puzzled me about THE WALKING DEAD is how Robert Kirkman, who is a talented writer I've read for many years, always ends up as the author of record on so many godawful episodes. If his name appears on a script, it's guaranteed to be a stinker, and tonight's installment, "Strangers," was his sixth turd in a row, a turd that, like the previous five, shows no trace of his influence, much less of his authorship. Not a single Kirmanesque moment, line of dialogue, anything. This simply isn't how Kirkman writes.[1] Are his scripts being dragged down by too much influence from others? Is he choking when it comes time to write a tv script? Is someone of lesser talent ghostwriting for him?[2] It's a mystery I've pondered for a few years now, one that's likely to remain a mystery for the foreseeable future. For our purposes here at the moment, it's enough to note that, tonight, TWD squandered the good will it had earned via its great season 5 opener with yet another Mazzara-esque filler episode.

Once again, we're back to the soap melodrama dialogue wherein no one has a normal conversation about a mundane subject; every exchange involves some preposterous, overblown speech about some Very Important Things that are mostly repetitions of things we're heard a million times already. Let's wallow in how Troubled a character is about something bad in their past by having them repeatedly tell us--regulation hangdog look in place--they Don't Want To Talk About It. The other 9,999 times clearly weren't enough, so let's have Rick give his 10,000th repetition of his speech to Carl about how he must be exceptionally careful in this zombified world. Let's have another speech from Abraham about how we must get Eugene to D.C. so we can save the world.

Other bad habits returned. Bob is suddenly given lots of dialogue, the home of which he's long dreamed, and a romance with Sasha. Longtime viewers of TWD know what that means; he's being set up for a gruesome fate. He isn't dead by the end of the ep, but only, one suspects, because this is a filler episode in which virtually nothing happens. He appears to have been bitten by a zombie on  mission to find food--something at which the episode only hinted[3]--and was then snatched by the remnants of the Terminusians. When they weren't killed, you just knew they'd be back, right? The subject of a Terminusian shish ka-Bob--yes, you may roll your eyes at that--he seems to have been designated by the creators to meet Dale's fate from the comics.[4] Meanwhile, Carol apparently decides to leave the group near the end; she treks to a broken-down car she and Daryl had encountered earlier, gets it running, and is just about to leave when Daryl stumbles upon her. Not satisfied with one such remarkable coincidence, the ep immediately throws us another--at that very moment, the car of whomever kidnapped Beth goes speeding up the road right in front of the car Carol just got running! She and Daryl jump in and take off in pursuit, but, again, this being a filler ep, whatever becomes of that will have to wait until next week.

The pace of the ep is wretched, little of any substance happens, it brings the momentum established by the previous ep to a standstill--overall, "Strangers" was a disappointing fallback to Mazzara-esque crap, an exercise that deepens the mystery of Robert Kirkman's substandard scripts but is otherwise a complete waste of an episode.

--j.

---

[1] Kirkman's first ep, "Vatos," is very Kirkmanesque, a great script with lots of Kirkman touches and great moments, including the best ever last line of a TWD ep, but the big twist toward its end--the "gangsters" who turn out to be guarding a nursing home--was so bad, so ill-advised, and left such a bad taste in viewers' mouths that its merits tend to be ignored and it often ends up listed among the all-time worst TWD eps.

[2] Certainly a possible scenario. Though Kirkman has always described himself as intimately involved in the creative end of the show, he made numerous public comments in interviews during its 2nd and 3rd seasons that were wildly inaccurate and suggest he was only minimally aware of what was happening with it and was merely trying to fudge his way through questions regarding it to which he didn't know the answers.

[3] He's attacked by a zombie during one of TWD's patented ridiculous zombie setpieces. The group wants to collect food from the lower level of a building that is waist-deep in water. There's a hole in the floor above it; the flooded lower level is teeming with zombies. Instead of simply spearing the zombies from above, which could be done with no risk, the team descends to the lower level to battle the zombies in the waist-deep water. At one point, one of the creatures grabs Bob and drags him under. When he's rescued, he claims to be all right, but something is clearly bothering him, and later, after the group returns to home base--a church--he's shown standing outside alone crying, perhaps over being bittern, perhaps only to make viewers familiar with the comics think he was bitten.

[4] It wouldn't surprise me if Tara eventually ends up wanting to marry Glenn and Maggie either. As sometimes happened last year, Gimple likes to try to mine some of the material from the comics that Mazzara pissed away during his reign as showrunner.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ze State of Z NATION

Just watched the first three eps of Z NATION, the new SyFy zombie series. Given the perpetually duplicative complexion of television, I assumed that, in the wake of the remarkable ratings success of THE WALKING DEAD, everyone in the biz would soon be purloining its premise and delivering up a plethora of living dead-plagued landscapes populated by bands of ragged roustabouts just trying to survive. As TWD sank into the baleful depths of Mazzara dullardism, I even fantasized that someone would build a better zombie-trap, throw it against TWD and bury that series, which I'd really come to hate, beneath its own premise. For whatever reason, this hasn't materialized, neither the trend nor the fantasy. A tv adaptation of ZOMBIELAND made it as far as a pilot film but it apparently went over poorly and was dropped. Only this year--5 seasons into TWD--did SyFy partner with the Asylum to produce the next ongoing televised zombie apocalypse. I'm only a little late to that party but last night I did finally get around to taking in the first three eps of its fruit, Z NATION.

Z NATION is a bit of a party. Karl Schaeffer, its showrunner, tells us that "every week, you’re going to see our zombies doing something different, that you haven’t seen zombies do before. Our goal was to put the fun back into zombies." A clearer focus on that goal would have certainly aided "Puppies & Kittens," the series pilot. It delivers some humor along the way, mostly toward the end, but overall, it takes itself way too seriously and this combined with its other sins almost led me to forgo the rest of the series. It indulges in one of my least favorite tropes of genre productions in having characters spout faux-"futuristic" language. Zombies are called "Zs," killing them is called "granting them mercy," dates are recorded as "A.Z." (After Zombies), there's militaristic techno-babble ("Delta-Xray-Delta, this is Northern Light. Operation Bite Mark, do you copy?") and so on. In one of the early scenes, a group of people are throwing a going-away party for their sick grandmother, who is then given "mercy" via an "eight sacrament"--ritually shot by one of our heroes. This is treated as a joyous event.[1] In my view, such tropes are the waste-products of feverish nerdish circle-jerking and they only tend to alienate viewers from material that, set in a world only divorced from our own by three years, shouldn't be so alien to them. Following contemporary b-movie trends for better or worse, the cinematography favors the hand-held and a fairly restricted color palette. The latter is a huge mistake; while the pilot is often fairly dull, the tone adopted by the subsequent episodes would be much better served by a vibrant, even over-the-top expressionistic use of color. The production design is dirt-cheap and it often combines with the scale of the piece to give the impression of simply trying to do too much with too little.

Much of this is emblematic of the work of the company that produced Z NATION. I'm an ordained minister in the Church of the B-Movie but it's exceedingly rare that I've felt compelled to preach a sermon on behalf of a product of the Asylum. Over the years, I've slogged through more of its execrable filmography than I'd care to recall  The company's bread-and-butter is grinding out "mockbusters"--dirt-cheap knock-offs of whatever huge-budget blockbuster Hollywood is currently pimping. Hollywood makes TRANSFORMERS, the Asylum has TRANSMORPHERS; Hollywood remakes THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL; the Asylum counters with THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED. Hollywood offers THE HOBBIT: the Asylum gives us AGE OF THE HOBBITS.[2] The company makes its money by using such titles to separate credulous Redbox renters from their entertainment dollars by making them think they're getting the current upbudget Hollywood schlock.[3] One can admire their initiative. Admiring their schlock is more difficult. A lot of schlock can be endearing; the Asylum's schlock one more typically finds oneself enduring. Their movies aren't so bad they're good; they're mostly just bad. There have, in my experience, been a few exceptions. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE'S SHERLOCK HOLMES--released to ape the Robert Downey Jr. SHERLOCK HOLMES--had a good b-movie take on Holmes and was entertaining enough. It fell on its face only insofar as it, like so many other Asylum projects, simply tried to do too much with too little. SIX GUNS, the Asylum's rip on JONAH HEX, ended up being a better Jonah Hex movie than the one that bore the name. And of course, the Asylum's biggest catch--and likely its biggest hit--was SHARKNADO. A riff on Roger Corman's weird critter movies for SyFy, the flick about a tornado full of sharks is schlock done right, and--no other way to put it--an absolute blast.[4] These bright spots are definitely the exception. That the Asylum was behind Z NATION is one of the reasons I was initially disinterested in the series.

I finally looked into it because I kept coming across internet chatter from the following it has developed, raves about it being a fun little show. The clincher was when a comrade from the Internet Movie Database boards threw some kind words its way and said she hoped I was going to be checking it out (thanks, Helen).

As I sank into the couch and started watching, a lot of the pilot fed my own initial prejudices. A lot of it looked and felt a lot like the Asylum. There was borrowing from THE WALKING DEAD. The central plot of the entire series, in fact, is a straight lift from the previous season of TWD: a "package"--a fellow with a potential cure for zombie-ism--must be delivered to a lab across a long, dangerous stretch of the zombiefied U.S. Initially, the "characters" barely qualify for the word. In the pilot, only Citizen Z (DJ Qualls) and, in particular, Doc (Russell Hodgkinson) bring any real life to the proceedings.[5] While most of the others were just presences, Harold Perrineau was terribly unlikable as Hammond, the needlessly prickish, order-barking soldier assigned to escort the "package." Thankfully, he ends up as Zombie Chow before the end of that first episode and the way ZN handles the events surrounding his demise is what made me, rather unimpressed up to that point, decide to give it another shot and continue to the next one. Our heroes find a cute baby in a wrecked vehicle and suddenly the show finds its sense of humor. Holding the child at arms length as if horrified by it: "Whoa, it's a real live baby--I haven't seen one of these in years... What do I do?" The characters have just shot several zombies but when the baby cries, "Somebody better shut that kid up before he attracts Z's like flies." And another character agrees. There follows the usual argument over what they're going to do with an infant in a zombie apocalypse. Rather than reveling in the angst, TWD-style, though, Hammond dramatically declares "God, I hate moral dilemmas!" Which made me laugh. Shortly after, the proceedings are interrupted when the baby itself abruptly turns into a zombie. Not a helpless baby zombie. No, the hellish tyke gets up out of his carrier like a little gremlin and chases our heroes out of the building, angrily pounding at the door as they slam it in his face. The "moral dilemma" talk then shifts to how we can't possibly leave it running around like that--it would be inhumane. Hammond volunteers to go inside and kill it and instead ends up being eaten by it and another zombie. Z-Baby is too small to even have any teeth but there he is, chewing big, meaty chunks out of Hammond.

As Z NATION continues beyond this initial outing, its efforts at "drama" remain fairly low-grade--nothing of any real seriousness is handled very well. It has little in the way of internal logic--zombies sprint or shuffle at a glacial place depending solely on the momentary needs of the plot; they're driven by a ravenous lust for flesh yet ignore live humans within arms reach in order to follow distant sounds. A lot of it doesn't make a lick of sense--Citizen Z is able to remotely tap into cameras, tvs, phones, radios everywhere in spite of their being no power; the other characters go into a large city like Philadelphia that's swarming with millions of zombies yet are able to walk around the open streets while talking, yelling and even shooting with minimal attempted molestation or even interest by the flesh-lusting corpses. But what ZN does deliver after that initial mixed bag of a pilot is a typically black sense of humor, which takes center stage and becomes its saving grace. This is a show wherein a guy driving a truck pulls over thinking he has a flat and it turns out he has a ground-up zombie stuck in the wheel-well. "Well, I guess that explains the pull to the left." Some of the laughs are as cheap as the production design, others more pricey, a lot of them may not even be intentional, but together they do work, and while they don't make Z NATION great and may not make it any more than disposable entertainment, they do make it a goofy, gory, fast-paced bite of fun. An amusing diversion I'm going to continue following for a while.

--j.

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[1] The soon-to-be-deceased is toasted while a chorus sings "Shall We Gather At The River" and it's possible the entire scenario was meant as a joke but if it was, it really falls flat.

[2] The Asylum was sued over that one and lost.

[3] Exploitation flicks have always knocked off popular Hollywood product. The Asylum takes that practice to a whole 'nother level.

[4] A sequel was recently released; haven't seen it yet.

[5] Thankfully, this improves with the subsequent episodes. Doc finds a worthy foil in "10,000," a cocky young sniper, and Cassandra (Pisay Pao, one of the most beautiful women on television) begins to get some moments (both characters appear in the pilot but are given virtually nothing to do there).

Sunday, October 12, 2014

No Sanctuary From THE WALKING DEAD 2.0

Not much to say about tonight's WALKING DEAD season 5 opener.[1] Featuring some very welcome brutality and ugliness, it was a very solid episode--by TWD standards, outright great.

There were a few problems. The exposition between Carol and Tasha Yar was very poorly executed--Carol is on a rescue mission where every second may count and she stops right in the middle of it to listen to Yar fill her in on the backstory of those at Terminus. Rick wanted to go back and kill the rest of the Terminus gang but everyone else balked, ham-handedly setting this up as something that will return to bite the group in the future.

My major regret regarding "No Sanctuary" is about something really obvious that the writers didn't quite sew up. The episode is bookended by flashbacks showing what happened to the Terminusians in the past, the subject of that ill-placed exposition. Their story is that a group with guns once took over the Terminus and raped and brutalized them, but they were eventually able to take it back. And then, of course, they became monsters themselves, going so far as to take up cannibalism, mirroring the living dead monsters outside. In the flashbacks, their conquerors are raping women, and we hear the victims screaming in the distance. Back in the present, one of the same women chosen for rape is, at one point, shot by Rick, and we see zombies devouring her in a moment very reminiscent of a rape, as her screams echo those we heard in the flashback earlier. There are, in fact, multiple zombie attacks on women in the "present-day" portions of the ep, and the staging always echoes rape. A stronger association between all of this would have been welcome--I suspect the point will be lost on most TWD watchers--but it would be stupid to complain; this kind of complex, multi-layered, even--gasp--subtle storytelling is light-years ahead of anything TWD has ever managed. Considering the source, I was very impressed. All of this brings me to my regret though. The story of the Terminusians is, in part, a cautionary one, a glimpse of the depths of barbarism to which people can descend in such trying circumstances unless there is serious commitment to retaining their humanity. In the course of tonight's ep, Rick and co. free one of the prisoners the Terminusians had taken, probably a remnant of the renegade band that had captured the complex and had so tormented them. As he's released, he dances around maniacally changing "we're all just alike now!" When the Terminusians captured Rick and co. at the end of season 4, Rick's final line, after he and the others had been locked in a train car, was something like "they don't know who they're screwing with." In the final flashback showing the tormented Terminusians also confined to a train car--maybe even the same one--their final line (and the one that closes out the ep) should have also been, "They don't know who they're screwing with." That would have been as good an ending as it could have had.

While this was definitely one of the best episodes of TWD ever produced one would like to receive it as an avatar of things to come, some caution is advisable. Last season also began with two great eps, also among the best TWD, and it still fell back on the bad old Mazzara habits as it went along, becoming very uneven. Hope for the best, I suppose.

--j.

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[1] My initial comments were maybe a bit too brief, so I've expanded them slightly.

ADDENDUM (13 Oct., 2014) - Lebeau points out something really obvious--this ep should have been the season 4 ender. It's what half of season 4 built toward, and everything about it would have worked better as a finale. In any event, this quick disposal of the Terminus storyline is a tribute to the Gimple Gang too and another example of how far TWD has come. Is there any doubt that, if Glen Mazzara was still showrunner, the same story we got from this one episode would have been made to fill more than 8 and would have concluded only after the mid-season break? If then?