Monday, October 14, 2013

WALKING DEAD: 30 Articles Without A Break

Tonight's season 4 premiere of THE WALKING DEAD was entitled "30 Days Without An Accident," and by coincidence, this also marks 30 TWD articles I've blogged here--at least one on every episode since the middle of season 2--and even that's just a fraction of my total work on TWD. A lot more of it has been scattered across message boards here and there, particularly on the Internet Movie Database. There may even be a new TWD project on the horizon for me (still too early to say on that one). The articles have proven incredibly popular, which is why the possible new project. They're also incredibly trying at times. Way back toward the end of season 2, I'd started to feel as if I'd said all I had to say about Glen Mazzara's awful version of the series. Worse, I came to be plagued by the thought that I may have even said everything in my original article, and the ones that followed had merely been appendices that unnecessarily expanded on the issues I'd raised in it. I had, I felt, fallen into a pattern of repeating myself. This repetition mirrored the events on TWD itself, and as season 3 proceeded and I was looking for new approaches to covering it, I began to play with even that, sometimes repetitiously offering up the same points I'd made in the past in a deliberate mockery of TWD's writing. If anyone ever caught on to it, they never said. Collectively, I've done more work on TWD than any of the series' writers did in that same period, and put a lot more thought into it as well. I seem to have given voice to some widespread discontent with TWD--demand for the mostly-critical things I have to say about it has always been strong, and hopefully that's not just a reflection of the kind of knee-jerk backlash one sees against anything that becomes popular. Somewhere along the line I realized I was like the central character in Stephen King's novel "Misery." Not trapped by a monstrous, dangerously obsessive fan, but trapped with a subject I'd come to hate.

I started writing about TWD during a very difficult time in my life, the aftermath of a full-blown personal cataclysm of which I'm still feeling the effects (and probably always will). It was the first thing about which I was able to substantially write after a period when I didn't even know if I had anything in me anymore. At times, I was a bit ashamed that I was writing so much about it while all manner of good and great movies and television series came and went with barely a mention here. I stayed with it long after I would have left it because I have a friend who loves it but has no other means of seeing it. He's a good friend; he's helped me out a lot over the years. Subjecting myself to TWD is a very small price to pay for the enjoyment he derives from it. Then my parents started watching it, and, again, I'm their only means of seeing it. If I have to see it and feel so terribly displeased with it, went my thinking, I'm damn well going to write about it. Part of writing about it also became an exercise in discipline--I made myself do it no matter how I felt, because I had a need to know I still could. Part of me has always hoped the noxious blend of incompetence and indifference that had made TWD such an utterly miserable experience would finally play itself out and something better would emerge. Maybe something that even lived up to the promise shown by the series in its earliest days.

And maybe this has just happened.

The suits at AMC have earned a very bad reputation for their treatment of those behind their original series, but it was impossible to view with anything but glee their firing of Glen Mazzara from his post as TWD's showrunner. Stated bluntly, Mazzara had been a pestilence on the series, utterly contemptuous of all of its central premises, a devout acolyte of the worst breed of soap melodrama, and a painfully incompetent and lazy storyteller. TWD couldn't have gotten any worse than under his reign, and his departure meant there was finally a chance for it to get better. With "30 Days Wthout An Accident," we got the first look at Gimple's TWD. It's still too soon to make any overly sweeping pronouncements, but if tonight's ep is any indication, this year may see the rebirth of TWD.

The episode was, on its own, no classic, to be sure, and not without problems--Carl's time on screen is mostly unfortunate--but it was such a departure from what we've been getting from TWD for the last two seasons that it was virtually revolutionary. The first rule of screenwriting is "show, don't tell." It's also the first rule Mazzara's TWD flushed. Thankfully, Gimple, who also wrote tonight's ep, embraces it. One of the smaller but remarkable moments tonight involved a new character on a supply run who walks by a shelf filled with liquor and suddenly becomes quite conflicted about being there with it. There's no dialogue. It's all conveyed physically. Another good little moment was the pre-credit opening with Rick listening to some down-home gospel[1] while tending a field. Having unearthed an inexplicably buried pistol, he pauses for a second, takes out one of his earphones, and the piteous cries of the undead, kept at bay by the nearby fence, rise to drown out the music. Rick is somewhat taken aback by their volume, offers a glance their way and quickly puts the earphone back in place and goes about his business. These aren't, in themselves, terribly subtle moments, but it points in the right direction and is the sort of thing that, except in Gimple's prior scripts, had become virtually non-existent on Mazzara's overwrought, over-the-top, subtlety-of-a-hammer-to-the-face soap TWD. It's something I hope to see continue.

Gimple's last two scripts--two of only three from season 3 that weren't outright awful--had shown a penchant toward strong characterization. This carried over tonight. Many of the central characters had good scenes. Hershel's remarks about the need to outfit Rick with a proper farmer's kit was a funny little moment. Daryl had an amusing one with one of the new characters who was trying to guess what Daryl did before the zombie apocalypse (in some amusing metatextual commentary, Daryl is treated as a celebrity by the prison survivors--again, the sort of thing you'd never see on Mazzara's TWD). Gimple set up individual storylines for nearly all of the central characters, storylines he can milk as the season continues.

Another strong and admirable departure from Mazzara's TWD--one that address one of my longstanding gripes--is that survival concerns are now front-and-center, the thing around which our characters lives revolve. TWD is, as the comic legend says, "a tale of survival horror," but Mazzara hated this and set survival concerns at odds with nearly everything else that happened, while presenting such concerns, whenever expressed, in contexts intended to refute them or make them look entirely inappropriate. Not Gimple. Tonight, everything is basic survival.[2] The characters' days are dictated by doing what it takes to get by, and their interactions occur in that context. This is conveyed by even inconsequential shots of the prison grounds, where it's clear the characters have significantly fortified the facility. Gone--hopefully straight to hell--are the braindead days when the characters just moved into one grubby cellblock and let zombies roam through the rest of their home while ignoring its potential. There's a great moment when Carol is doing "story time" for the young children they've taken in and she sets aside her book, rolls out a selection of cutlery, and begins explaining to the class how to use bladed weapons. There's a hint that what she's doing may be regarded as inappropriate, but let's hope that doesn't blow up into much of anything.

Rick's central preoccupation tonight was a survivor he finds in the forest while checking traps he's set for animals. She and her husband have apparently been living on their own throughout the zombie uprising. They have, she tells Rick, done terrible things to survive. Is it possible to come back from such things? She doesn't think so,[3] and what episodes like her tale and its ultimate disposition add to the story of TWD is immeasurable. Show, don't tell. This is the world of TWD. This is what it does to people.[4] It's the sort of incident that, in Mazzara's TWD, would have probably been rejected as pointless and irrelevant. Another of the sorts of thing I hope continue.

I'm still skeptical about how much of this will continue. Season 3 had a relatively good opener, too, then collapsed. Tonight's ep was much better than that one, though. Gimple wrote this episode, but as showrunner, he has apparently retained most of Mazzara's nepotistically-assembled writing staff, the hacks who have made the last two seasons such a chore. Will this radical new direction--which is really just a return to the original direction--continue, or will it fizzle? I'm definitely curious, and, for the first time in a very long time, I'm actually looking forward to TWD.



[1] An inspired musical choice, "Precious Memories." As Rick looks over the rotting dead outside his fence, how they linger, indeed.

[2] Tonight's ep featured an imaginative and well-played action sequence in a department store--the roof, on which there are a slew of zombies, begins to collapses and suddenly it's raining zombies on our heroes below. And further dashing the expectations engendered by Mazzara's TWD in a positive way, the new black guy, when trapped in the zombie downpour by a falling shelf, doesn't die!

[3] And that question could be seen as a bit of metatextual commentary, too--can TWD come back from the last two godawful seasons? Time will tell.

[4] And I'd like to think--though it's far-fetched--that this incident was inserted as a sort of "fuck you" to Mazzara's entire approach to TWD, specifically for his screwing up Jim's end in season 1. The character Jim lost his family to zombies. In the comic, he's bitten during a zombie attack on the survivors' camp and, dying, asks to be left on the outskirts of Atlanta so that, when he comes back, maybe he can find his family and be together with them again. In season 1 of TWD, Jim was also bitten by a zombie during an attack, but Mazzara, the writer of record on the relevant episode, removed all the creepy business about him wanting to try to find his family and just had a scene that tried to be sad, with the long-faced group leaving Jim sitting under the shade of a tree. I reacted very badly to this. It seemed to destroy a powerful moment in favor of generic melodrama, and, unfortunately, was indicative of what was to follow once Mazzara got his hands on TWD. With the incident tonight, we saw something like that actually played out. It felt like a righting of the ship.


  1. I was not blown away by tonight's episode. I was hoping for a little more time inside the Prison. Especially since it appears the action will be on again next week. I'm also crossing my fingers Maggie and Glenn perk up a little. At least with poor lil Beth, she showed some life by hugging Daryl.

    But I do agree, there is more promise here than there has been in a while. Daryl and Carol might just be my favorite characters. I'm looking forward to next week, and not just to get my "it hate it, but it's still TWD" fix. Because, as you said, interesting possibilities have been sown.

  2. I agree. Your article is spot on, and I must say, even if my "fanboy" genes did not always agree with what you have written in previous articles, your judgment, I grudgingly and subliminally was forced to admit, is always spot on. And the technique "show, don't tell", is really very simple but for some--hard to do. In my opinion, the worst episode of Season 3 was I Ain't a Judas written by the abominable Angela Kang (who, to my alarm, is writing the second episode of the 4th Season next Sunday), in which the characters literally did nothing but sit, stand, and talk about things we saw happened and no longer cared about as an excuse for a ham-fisted reunion of the Farm Group with....Andrea.

    Hopefully, under Gimple's guidance (it seems he has taken stock of his writers: he seems to have limited Kang to only one episode..yay) this trash does not occur again. "Show...don't tell". Damn right.

    Good job today, sir.

  3. That Gimple wrote it does give me some pause in my enthusiasm. By the end of last season, it was easy to see he was the pick of the litter when it came to the regular writers. This week's ep was his third relatively strong one. I appreciated it all the more because I perceived it as such a significant ideological break from Mazzara's entire way of doing business. Mazzara's writers are still there, though. If I come across as optimistic, it's cautiously optimism.

    Last night, I caught part of the repeat of "Talking Dead" with Gimple, the first time I've seen him in a live interview setting, and he seems like a pretty cool guy--as different in demeanor from Glen Mazzara as it gets. Mazzara was always stiff, overly defensive, standoffish. Gimple just seems like a cool nerd guy who is enjoying himself.

    Anyway, thanks for the kind words, fellows. I hope the next ep doesn't dash this great set-up.

  4. The episode was cool and shows promise. But whats up with the same title sequence from lasy season. I was really looking to what the mew seasons one would be