Monday, August 31, 2015

Not Close, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD Only Goes So Far v. 3.0

"So Close, Yet So Far," the second installment of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, dramatically ramps up the pace from the series' unfortunate pilot but the writing continues to be just terrible.

What does Travis actually know? He's just seen Nick's drug dealer Calvin turned into a slobbering killer who, seemingly impervious to pain, keeps trying to kill even after suffering significant bodily harm. He freaks and, the writers granting him magical knowledge he doesn't, in fact, possess, immediately decides it's time for the family to pack up and leave the city! Leaving one's home is, of course, the most extreme possible course of action, one that would be reserved for only the most extreme emergencies. Here, there doesn't appear to be any emergency at all, extreme or otherwise. The media are silent. People are going about their ordinary lives. Some sort of bug is going around but, absent the magical knowledge, Travis has no reason to connect that to the zombies and, in fact, every reason not to do so. Travis knows of three cases of apparent zombie-ism: Calvin, Nick's girlfriend and the street person shot by the police. Two of the three were into drugs; it's no big leap to hypothesize a street person may have been as well and to conclude from that it could be some drug causing the zombie-ism. It's impossible to consume the crime-obsessed news media without seeing story upon story of people indulging various illicit pharmaceuticals then behaving in a violent manner; as a high-school teacher in a major metropolitan area, Travis would have probably even seen this before. That doesn't constitute any sort of emergency and it certainly doesn't erect any sort of bridge between the bug and the zombie-ism. Calvin wasn't sick and Travis knows it--he'd seen Calvin, who was the picture of health, earlier that same day. Calvin hadn't been felled by any illness--he'd been shot. At the same time, the widespread nature of the mysterious bug--enough students had fallen ill that the schools have been closed--argues against drawing any connection to zombie-ism because if the bug was causing that, turning its victims, a large number of whom are kids, into mindless killers, the press and the internet would be single-mindedly drowning in coverage of it. Instead, the press in the world of FTWD has been entirely silent on the matter and even as Travis is making his pronouncement about leaving the city, Nick is flipping through local radio stations and noting that no one is talking about it.

TWD would never be mistaken for a smart show--not, at least, by anyone qualified to render the judgment--but the idea that a national and probably even international zombie outbreak could occur and be so entirely covered up, presumably by malevolent officialdom, is the worst insult to the intelligence of viewers this franchise has ever delivered. It's absolute bottom-of-the-barrel writing. This entire series is being premised on it.

Absent magical knowledge, an ordinary person isn't even going to suspect he's dealing with the dead returning to life. That would seem fantastic, ludicrous. Just about any other remotely plausible explanation would be preferred. And without the magic, Travis just watched Nick kill a guy (or at least break him up and leave him for dead). It's a matter of self-defense but Travis doesn't even call the police. He just leaves the scene.

Travis is a gangstah!

He's not alone in this either. Later in the ep, Madison returns to the empty high-school where she works in order to steal oxycontin for her junkie son. Apparently, high-school nurse's stations these days come equipped with oxycontin that can be had by merely prying back the door on a locker. While there, she encounters Tobias, the odd kid from last week who had figured out zombie-ism. He's there at the school to pillage food and supplies and loads up an entire push-cart with them. When he and Madison learn there's a zombie in the building, they flee through the hallways with the cart. Something falls off it, Tobias goes back to get it and Madison scolds him. "Leave it!" He doesn't. Smart kid. Then, within reach of the door, they encounter the now-zombified school principal. Madison tries to reason with him. He attacks them. In the ensuing struggle, she kills him by bashing in his head with a fire extinguisher.[1] Ever conscious of the show's budget, she does so just outside the camera's range to spare any expense for make-up effects. She's a gangstah too. She doesn't call the police. She and Travis just stroll out to her car in a leisurely manner and drive off, leaving the principal's corpse and the entire cart full of supplies they'd just gone through so much trouble to acquire.

In a single ep, Madison and Travis, two middle-class, middle-American professional educators, walk away from what are, as far as they know, two murders. They not only fail to alert the authorities or do anything to establish their innocence with officialdom, they make matters worse when returning home by destroying evidence. Travis washes Calvin's blood off his truck before going to look for his son; Madison washes the principal's blood out of her jacket.

All that magic is, of course, present to more rapidly advance a poorly constructed plot. One of TWD's worst plotting tropes is also present throughout this ep, characters who fail to communicate vital information to one another, information that, in such circumstances, they absolutely would not fail to share. When Travis calls his ex-wife Liza trying to find their son Chris, he doesn't tell her what's going on, so she proceeds to bitchily reargue their custody dispute. When Travis finds Alicia with her very ill boyfriend Matt, he also sees Matt has been bitten by something--granted more magical knowledge, he immediately searches for a bite--yet incredibly fails to even ask the guy what happened! The family drag Alicia away but don't tell her why or what's going on; absent any explanation, she is, at one point, rushing out the door intent on returning to care for Matt (fortunately for her, her brother has a well-timed seizure and she must stay). Other than Nick's flipping through the radio dials, no one even bothers to turn on the tv and try to find any news of what might be happening. Y'know, that first thing people do when there's a crisis. Then when Liza is trying to locate a protest at which her son is present, her first move is--what a shock!--to turn on the tv and--whaddya' know!--coverage of the protest is the first thing that comes on.

Normally, this "poor communication" bad-writing trope is present in order to artificially extend a poorly-constructed, terminally underwritten script and that's also the case here but FTWD has an additional reason for wallowing in it. Because the writers have granted Travis magical knowledge of what's happening, things his character doesn't know and wouldn't intuit from what he's seen, he can't explain, on screen, what's happening. There's no way he can know. If he has to explain, what's he going to say?

Tonight's installment succeeded in making the already-terminally-unlikable characters even more unlikable. When Travis rings Chris's cell, Chris, seeing his father calling, puts on his headphones and listens to loud music instead of picking up. Later, Madison's neighbor is attacked by a zombie and rather than going to the neighbor's aid, Madison tells her daughter not to look at it and barricades the door with her body to prevent her daughter from rendering assistance. Charming.

With only 4 eps left, FTWD continues to be worthy of the original--another creative abortion that leaves one shaking one's head at the waste of such a rich premise.

--j.

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[1] Yet another black character decimated.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Z NATION in Meme

Z NATION returns for its second season on 11 Sept. It's a good show. I like it. It deserves a larger audience and it can draw one. The pilot, which is arguably the weakest ep of the entire series, has proven a difficult hurdle for some to overcome and the series is constantly bad-mouthed by WALKING DEAD fanboys, which makes for a negative buzz it has to overcome. Perhaps it has, to some extent. My impression is that it's a series a lot of people missed and then discovered in the down months--those behind it wisely rushed it to home video and Netflix, where it makes for great marathon viewing. I know I've brought about a dozen people to the show, probably more (those are just the ones who have told me) My articles on it seem to have a healthy readership and I pimp it whenever the opportunity arises and would encourage any other fans to do the same. I spent a little time today putting together some ZN memes. Nothing fancy, just some amusing moments from season 1 that will perhaps make ZN viewers smile and act as conversation-starters with non-viewers:


--j.

Monday, August 24, 2015

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD Pilot Missing A Plane

In the last two or three weeks, some of you--you know who you are--have been bombarding me with questions about whether I'm going to be watching and writing about the new FEAR THE WALKING DEAD series. Until fairly recently, I'd been avoiding both the series and the questions. My first look at material from it didn't go so well. And didn't speak very well of its creators.

Thankfully, the pilot itself featured no further replication of material from the execrable WORLD WAR Z. Unfortunately, it didn't feature much of anything else either. The beginning of a zombie apocalypse is, in competent hands, a story with all sorts of potential and Los Angeles is a good setting for it. The creators of FTWD decided it would be just peachy to tell it through the eyes of a collection of dysfunctional, unbearably obnoxious, uninteresting and unlikable people--a complete fail when it comes to the central cast.

This is only one of the sins of the mother series carried over to the offspring.

The pilot ran half-an-hour longer than the usual hour-long timeslot but huge portions of it were taken up with filler material that added nothing but running time. The characters fail to share vital information with one another solely for the metatextual purpose of artificially extending the underwritten story. Nick, a junky, encounters a zombie in a drug-den as the ep opens. He tells Travis, his mother's boyfriend, about it, Travis checks it out (unarmed exploration of a crack-house and in the middle of the night) and finds an incredible amount of gore--as in, someone, maybe several someones, obviously died horrible deaths at the scene. He doesn't take the info to the police, which is, in context, somewhat forgivable, but when he tells his girlfriend, Nick's mother, about it, he only says something bad seems to have happened there--not a word about thick gouts of gore on the floor and wall. And, lacking this information, she just blows him off. And he lets her do it, even  as she accuses him of acting as her son's "enabler" by talking about it (she wants to dismiss the son's entire story as some drug-fueled hallucination). This is done solely to allow a later twist to convince her she needs to see it for herself and we get the same explore-the-crime-scene sequence repeated with the two of them, leading to the same conclusion--something bad happened here--and adding nothing but running time.

A common pitfall for prequels is that we, the viewers, already know where it's all going. Among other things, we go into any such project facing the prospect of watching characters figure out a very long list of things we already know, which is dull. There are a few ways to overcome such problems. One is to play on what the audience knows but the characters don't. There are two or three very minor tips of the hat to this in FTWD, no more. Another is to handle the familiar material in new and interesting ways. There's certainly none of that in FTWD--it's shot as flatly, dully and straightforwardly as its parent program. Another is to allow time to jump so as to let the characters learn off camera things we already know. Still another--the big one--is to tell a part of the story that hasn't yet been told. FTWD's untold story is, of course, how it all happened--how the world died while Rick was in a coma. That doesn't mean one provides some explanation for the zombie bug--Robert Kirkman is right in saying that should never be explained. How does the apocalypse start though? In what populations does zombie-ism show up? What's the reaction to it? How does it spread--globally down to outside one's back door? Why do the living fail to contain it? Los Angeles is huge. The tale could be told from a wide range of perspectives. Lots of disparate characters from different walks of life, occupations, social classes. See it happen through a variety of eyes, characters who could either come together or whose story could simply continue alongside others. This could be a great story and it's the one great story built into FTWD's premise.

Alas, it's the one story FTWD's writers seem entirely uninterested in telling. The pilot script (which is just awful) dodges it at every turn. The news cycle apparently doesn't exist at all in this world. As what we, the viewers, know to be zombie-ism begins to swell and make its presence known, there's no word from officialdom at any level. Even as the school at which the two leads work empties out from the sick, the only thing the characters learn comes from bootlegged Youtube vids of cops shooting it out with a zombie on the freeway (a scenario and scene directly lifted from George Romero's DIARY OF THE DEAD). The script focuses almost entirely on the ridiculous family melodrama scenarios and there's no exploration from any quarter of what could possibly be happening and how. One random kid at the school seems to have figured it out and he's presented as some sort of weirdo. There's no effort to create any sort of sustained atmosphere of concern or fear or uncertainty--for the most part, everyone just goes on about their business--woe is me over the poor junkie, woe is me over my unappreciative son, woe is me, the overachieving daughter, etc.--and barely even mentions what's happening.[1] And the dialogue piles on the clich├ęs as thick as the Los Angeles smog--if one's ear is sensitive to such things, it would be prudent to keep antibiotics handy.

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD certainly didn't take off in its oversized inaugural episode. This pilot is definitely missing a plane.

--j.

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[1] UPDATE (25 Aug., 2015) - I'd be remiss if I didn't mention (and was remiss the first time around, 'cause I didn't) that among the other sins of the parent series carried over to the spin-off is the habit of killing the black guy. On TWD, this has become like a long-running joke. The FTWD pilot introduces two black characters, Calvin, who is Nick's drug-dealer pal, and Matt, who is teen daughter Alicia's boyfriend. By the end of the ep, Matt is among those who have disappeared to an unknown fate while Calvin tries to kill Nick and ends up being killed himself.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fearing FEAR THE WALKING DEAD

The new FEAR THE WALKING DEAD series soon to debut has a lot of my regulars asking me if I'm going to be writing about it. If I didn't know otherwise, I'd say this means they hate me and are plotting against me. The answer is, I don't know if I'll be writing about it. The idea of a second TWD--if, at least, it turns out to be another TWD--makes my head hurt. It could, of course, turn out to be good. One always hopes for the best. This week, I was asked if I'd seen the trailer for the new series. I hadn't, so I took a look at it. To my dismay, it seems one of the models for the new series was our old pal WORLD WAR Z.

The FEAR THE WALKING DEAD trailer is here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDxew5SguVw

In it, we have:

Sweet domestic moment before the storm.
The characters get stuck in traffic.
Motorcycle rockets by their door.
Helicopter overhead.
"Do you see anything?"
Chaos up ahead (in WWZ, it came from behind).
Cop bullets prove ineffective against the dead.
Leaving the vehicle and fleeing.
Getting off the road and taking shelter in Hispanic home.

Not only is all of this stuff directly lifted from WORLD WAR Z, most of it ended up in the WORLD WAR Z trailer (in exactly the same order):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcwTxRuq-uk

WWZ is, of course, just about the worst possible model the show--or any show--could have used and even if it had been the best thing since NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, this sort of direct replication of another picture is fucking embarrassing. I don't know if I'll be writing about the new series. I do know this makes my head hurt even more.

--j.