Tuesday, February 18, 2014

WALKING DEAD: Context, Content, Comics & a Melodrama Problem Briefly Revisited

This morning, I was perusing the IMDb's Walking Dead board and came across an exchange in which a poster had objected to a scene in the recent episode "After" and was met with the objection that the scene in question had been taken directly from the comics. This led me to chime in with some remarks on the exchange that ended up running a bit long. A little later, reader JerryK. wrote me and suggested they'd be worth reproducing here. They cover some familiar ground for readers of this blog, but I don't have anything to do at the moment, and what I'd written is sort of an extension of my piece on TWD's melodrama problem, as well as some other thoughts I've offered here over time, so I thought I'd go ahead and adapt it into an article as Jerry suggested. One that may seem a bit less focused than usual for me, but it wasn't conceived as a blog article, so I'll apologize for any such lack of focus in advance:

The television version of THE WALKING DEAD sometimes replicates scenes from the vastly superior TWD comic. One of the big problems with how it goes about doing so is that, typically, the scenes are entirely stripped of the context that, in the comic, gave them their meaning and their power. The comic features consistent, conceptually strong characters who drive the plot, whereas the show is approached by its writers as a soap melodrama, a species wherein plot dictates characterization. As I've written here in the past,

"Soap melodrama takes all of the potentially problematic elements of the [standard] melodrama and cranks them up to 11. It eschews reason, subtlety, nuance, understatement and intelligent, adult behavior, and aims, instead, at provoking emotional reactions through simplistic and sensationalistic narratives centered around highly emotional themes, played out via exaggerated, non-naturalistic, emotion-laden behavior. This is the level on which it tries to engage its viewers."

It's a lowest-common-denominator genre that wallows in the overly familiar, and in which everything is constructed around trying to involve the viewer solely via that trite emotionalism. "Characters," in the genre, are, like everything else, made subordinate to this goal, and characterizations are arbitrarily changed, often radically, to serve this end.

Here's how this works in practice: When, back in "Sick," Hershel lost his leg, the group was almost entirely out of medical supplies. They immediately recognized the need to find the prison infirmary, which would have those crucial supplies, if Hershel is to have any chance of surviving, then no one did anything toward that end. Instead, half the group went off to pursue the terribly pressing task of finding the former prisoners a place to sleep while the women hovered around Hershel making long faces and creating an "isn't this a sad, tragic thing?" atmosphere. No one asks the prisoners about the infirmary. Hershel's own daughters didn't go in search of it nor do they demand any action toward finding it. Instead, Maggie does a weepy, soap opera scene wherein she tearfully tells Hershel it's o.k. to die. Only Carl even bothers to look for the supplies, off camera on on his own initiative, and his reward is that he's berated for his actions by his mother. This is soap melodrama. It's aimed at servicing a particular viewer demographic, those who want to weep along with Maggie, but its absolutely brainless and insulting to anyone who gives it any thought at all. And when the writers decide they want to invoke another familiar emotion, the characterizations completely change. Compare Maggie's weepy, totally resigned attitude in "Sick"--she's was content to just sit there and cry and let her father die, rather than do anything to help him live--to her steely, rock-solid determination, in this week's ep, to find Glenn, whatever it takes, even if she had to do it alone and fight her way through every zombie on Earth. Both of the characters in these episodes are played by Lauren Cohan, both are named Maggie, and both are supposed to be the same person, but in soap melodrama, two different episodes looking to involve the viewers via two different emotional responses = two entirely different characters.

It has long been my contention that this approach is fundamentally incompatible with TWD, which is, in comic form, an open-ended zombie movie that has always had, as a central feature, a character-study of the long-term effects of a zombified world on a group of people and the society they form. Obviously, you can't have a character study if you don't have characters.

The tv series doesn't adapt the comic--it pillages it like a group of Vandal raiders. When they drop in moments from the comic, the context that, in the comic, gave those scenes their meaning and power, is usually gone, because everything leading up to them has been changed. When, in the comic, Michonne took the extraordinary step of leaving the larger group making its escape from Woodbury and returning to the Governor's apartment, she had a very good reason for it; he had sexually tortured her on repeated occasions, and she was out for revenge. When she does the same on tv, it's essentially a random act--it's insanely dangerous, and there's no motive for it at all. The series was just pillaging a moment from the comic, absent the context that gave it meaning. A little later, the series writers give her a motive--she tells Andrea she want back in order to expose GINO as a means of hurting Andrea for choosing to stay in Woodbury! Michonne as insanely petty soap opera Angry Black Woman.

In last week's ep, Carl, in a big, melodramatic moment, berates Rick for his ineffectiveness as a leader. It's a mirror of a similar scene in the comic, but in the comic, Rick is a good leader and Carl is a child--much younger than on tv. His judgment that Rick can't protect anyone is patently unfair, a product of a child's hurt and frustration, and he realizes it almost immediately and backs away from it. On tv, Rick is a comically incompetent clown whose weakness and idiocy routinely get people killed, and Carl, much older, is offering up a much more thoughtful and dead-on critique of his father's abilities. When tv Carl does the same flip-flop as comic Carl, there is, hidden in the melodrama, some unfortunate metatextual content; the writers presenting a legitimate critique of their work--their awful representation of Rick--then playing at "refuting" it. Or, more to the point, juvenilely shooting spitballs at it. Suggesting it isn't valid and refusing to address it. This isn't the first time TWD's writers have done this, and it can be seen as a side issue, but as one who has strongly criticized the writers' handling of Rick, knows that criticism to be valid, and considers prideful idiocy to be much worse than plain idiocy, I'll concede it rankles.

This season of TWD is, for the first time in ages, divided on the soap melodrama approach. Even if he doesn't always follow through, current showrunner Scott Gimple seems to understand the value of strong characterization, the kind that approach renders impossible. That creates a pole that at least draws the series away, to some degree, from that unfortunate genre. It would nice to see this become an even more prominent feature of the series. His TWD has, unfortunately, displayed plenty of the other sins of the genre; even this week's ep, which, overall, wasn't bad by TWD standards, was plagued by soap-ist sloppiness and inanities. I've been accused of going far too easy on the season in my own reviews, even as I've outlined its many problems. Maybe I have. I want TWD to be good; I always have. I don't think I've allowed this to cloud my judgment of what it is.

--j.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Inmates Running THE WALKING DEAD

And, in what's becoming the pattern for this season, THE WALKING DEAD bounces back from yet another lackluster episode last week to offer up a much more solid entry tonight. "Inmates" picks up the pace and the trail of most of TWD's other major characters in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the prison.

The ep kicks off with Daryl and Beth running for their lives through a forest filled with zombies. A voiceover accompanies the events, Beth reading an entry from her diary from the time the group first moved into the prison. Through this juxtaposition, the hope for a new life once represented by the prison is contrasted with the present horror of being once again forced out into the zombified world. TWD has a bad habit of killing off a redshirt then having the other characters rhapsodize, after the fact, over what a great guy the deceased had been and how much he'd meant to everyone, and I've certainly criticized this for the lazy hackwork it is; if, while those characters were still alive, the writers had spent a few minutes making them interesting and making us care about them, there would be no need to come in, after the fact, and try to convince us in this way. Beth's voiceover about the prison could be seen as another variation on this phenomenon; the prison, throughout season 3 (the timeframe when Beth would have been writing those words) had been presented as a dark, filthy, claustrophobic shit-hole, not--as should have been the case--something that would engender a sense of hope. Still, even if it contradicts what we were shown (yet another example of showrunner Scott Gimple trying to overwrite his unfortunate predecessor), the voiceover isn't a bad idea. Far from perfect in its execution, admittedly; it isn't particularly well-written, and, worse, there's no follow-through--it's entirely abandoned after the ep moves away from Beth and Daryl and on to the other characters. It's worth a half-credit, in my book, though. Beth is shown, at one point, using the pages of that diary for kindling for a camp fire, which I thought was a nice touch.

In the midseason finale, it was established that the characters had a rendezvous point in the event of an emergency that forced them from the prison. It was a relatively minor factoid, but it was such a fundamental break with Mazzara-era TWD's refusal to deal with any reasonable survival matters that I highlighted it in my review of the ep, and gave it a minor thumbs up. Unfortunately, everyone in the last two episodes seems to have forgotten all about it. No one heads toward any rendezvous point, no one mentions it, no one has any idea where anyone else might be; they all just sort of wander around looking for one another, trying to pick up one another's respective trails. A pretty serious--and disappointing--continuity error.

Not the only one featured in tonight's ep. When, in the battle over the prison, Mika and her creepy sister Lizzie saved Tyreese and fled, they were toting firearms and ammo. Tonight, for the sake of plot convenience, these were made to disappear, downgraded merely to knives. Something else that pretty much falls into this category is what happened with Glenn. In the midseason finale, most of the prison population was evacuated on a bus. Glenn, still recovering from a serious illness and barely even able to stand, was on it. When Maggie went to look for her sister, he wanted to get off the bus and follow her but was too weak. Moments later, the bus pulled away. Tonight, he inexplicably wakes up deep inside the ruins of the now-zombie-overrun prison. Not necessarily impossible and so perhaps not technically a continuity error, but a big enough leap that it isn't unfairly tagged as such.

It's a bit of a crime that the "next week on the Walking Dead" preview at the end of the previous ep gave away the fact that Glenn had survived. Tonight, Maggie, dragging Sasha and Bob along, went off in a desperate search for him. With the established rendezvous point having apparently departed their minds entirely, they merely follow the direction the bus left the prison, and very shortly come across it, stopped in the middle of the road. It didn't get very far, and somehow, in a very short drive, everyone in it--it's still sealed--ended up either zombified or zombie-chow. Setting aside the obvious impossibility of this (it was done solely to get rid of the peripheral characters in as quick a way as possible), the sequence wherein Maggie and co. clean out the bus in an effort to discover if Glenn is among the dead is one of the best directed and best edited sequences in the entire history of TWD. It's as taut as a zip-line right to the last second, and it ends in a commercial break without resolving the question for the viewer! Only when the break ends do we see that Glenn is alive and back at the prison. Without the knowledge that Glenn had survived, it would have been an even more powerful sequence, but it works remarkably well in any case.

In a welcome development, Carol is back in the picture tonight, coming to the rescue of Lizzie and Mika while Tyreese was away helping another band of survivors fight off a zombie attack. Tyreese, who doesn't yet know it was Carol who killed Karen,[1] is delighted to see her. She's less than forthcoming about where she's been and how she came to be on their trail. The last dying member of the group Tyreese had tried to save gives them a tip--a promised safe-haven to be found along a railroad line. Following it a short distance, they find a makeshift sign promising the same, and, with no more apparent memory of any rendezvous point than anyone else, they begin to follow the line.[2]

Glenn, having awakened in the prison, grabs a big bag worth of supplies, dons his riot gear and, in the process of fighting his way through the zombie hordes outside, runs across Tara, sitting alone in a fenced-in area, sick with regret over having helped destroy the place.[3] She reluctantly teams up with him and they make their way out of the compound and to the open road. They have a bit of a brawl with some zombies, which proves too much of an exertion for Glenn--he collapses while Tara fusses over him, repeatedly calling him by name, even though they were total strangers and he hadn't told her what it was. The ep ends with the arrival of a character who will be very familiar to fans of the TWD comic.

When it comes to my seemingly endless criticism of TWD, I'm often wrongly accused by its apologists of "nitpicking," of unfairly focusing on its shortcomings. Looking over what I've written here, I've spent a lot of time on this ep's problems. That doesn't really do it a disservice; the problems are present and they shouldn't be. The ep isn't bad, though. Not a classic, by any means (though that sequence with the bus earns that label), but by TWD's usual standards, it's quite good. Unlike all those other eps, the ones that so persistently drew the charge of "nitpicking" but were, in reality, little more than the sum of their errors and idiocies, this ep's merits definitely outweigh its shortcomings. I'd like a lot better from TWD, but after the property has been so terribly abused, it's hard not to laud any measurable improvement, and "Inmates" definitely qualifies. If the series follows the pattern of this season, the next ep will probably be another godawful Mazzara-esque waste of space. Oh well. I guess we'll see.

--j.

---

[1] The series has dropped several heavy-handed hints that twisted little Lizzie, rather than Carol, committed those murders, and that Carol merely took the rap for it, but that seems almost as implausible as Carol committing them.

[2] Baby Judith is, unsurprisingly, still alive and in Tyreese's care. On tv TWD, no one is dead unless you see the body, and babies aren't eaten by zombies. They aren't smothered by psychos looking to save themselves, either, and crazy Lizzie's devilish efforts in this vein were cut short.

[3] Tara is the sister of Lilly, who was GINO's love interest.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

WALKING DEAD Crappily Filler After

THE WALKING DEAD ended the first half of its fourth season with an unfortunate bout of prick-waving by showrunner Scott Gimple; rather than break any new ground, Gimple decided to spend some episodes trying to prove he could do the end of TWD season 3 better than season 3 showrunner Glen Mazzara had done it. No real task, that, and even so, the results were, to put it as kindly as possible, significantly less than spectacular. That's over, though, the prison is gone, our heroes are scattered, and TWD returned tonight from its midseason break to pick up the story. I was curious to see what direction Gimple would take the show. Would it reflect the reformist TWD he launched earlier this season or would it fall back into the unfortunate habits of the Mazzara era, also in evidence in recent episodes? Alas, the first ep out of the gate, "After," is a frustratingly mixed bag, one I'm beginning to suspect may be the new normal for TWD.

The first thing that must be said of it is that virtually nothing happens. It's yet another TWD ep that features perhaps 15 minutes worth of plot that has been padded to the gills in order to fill a full hour. Gimple's strong distaste for Rick is, depressingly, still in evidence; the first act features Rick behaving like a clueless idiot toward his son, who, to his consternation, has adapted rather well to their zombified world. While Rick sleeps off his injuries, Carl rehashes a monologue he originally delivered at the end of season 3, noting Rick's serious failings as a leader and venting his anger over it. He concludes by noting that, if Rick died, he could take care of himself just fine. All things that needed to be said, just as they needed to be said the first time around. And, just as the first time around, the episode then sets out to refute Carl's view, showing him as less uber-competent than he believes himself to be.

Need I even note how very tiresome this particular pattern has become?

Much of the ep is nothing but filler. We follow Michonne around as she surgically alters a pair of zombies into neutered, zombie-repelling escorts on leashes, allowing her to once again walk among the dead. She has dreams and does a lot of walking, pointlessly kills some zombies, and adds essentially nothing but running-time to the ep. That's mostly what happens with Carl as well. There are some nice little Gimple-esque character bits tucked away in his plotline, but they're small and virtually lost in it, as his "story" amounts to little more than his doing a lot of walking, foraging for food, dealing with zombies, and proving not to be as capable as he thinks he is, all stretched over far more time than it should take. The ep's last line is a good one. I'm not sure that matters very much.

--j.