Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Zombie Tales

When it comes to a television series, a project will sink or swim based on how a pilot goes over. As a consequence, pilots are typically a place where creators try to put their best foot forward. When a series is approved, that pilot will almost always be the first ep aired, the one that will have a bigger built-in audience than anything that will come later, the one that will hook an audience or lead viewers to black-book it. The pilots for THE WALKING DEAD and Z NATION, tv's ongoing zombie apocalypses, offer an interesting contrast. TWD's pilot was great; after 56 episodes over 5 seasons, it's still the best ep of TWD ever produced and by a fairly substantial margin. Z NATION's pilot, on the other hand, was exceptionally weak. Of the first 9 eps of that series, it remains the worst of the run. TWD's pilot set viewing records and established what became the biggest show on cable. ZN's pilot, drawing a relatively small audience on SyFy, probably left many with a poor impression of the series and didn't inspire them to continue with it.

Too bad for them.

One could almost see ZN's pilot as a metatextual commentary. It started out looking way too much like standard-issue Asylum product, undercooked and underfunded yet trying to be way too big and taking itself way too seriously. Then in its last few minutes, Hammond, the order-barking prick of a soldier on an Ever So Important and Solemn Mission To Save Humanity, was eaten by a zombiefied baby and it fell to the much more entertaining and personable b-team to carry out this essential task. Hammond isn't THE WALKING DEAD--his amusing shout of "God, I hate moral dilemmas!" sets him apart, if only for a moment--but he is a personification of the utterly humorless, tight-assed, overblown way TWD approaches everything, and the passing of his mission, particularly in such an amusing way, is like a passing of a torch to a new approach to zombie apocalypses on television.

At the core of that new approach is humor, and subsequent episodes poured it on. The second installment easily topped the first and the next topped it. The plotting and characterization began to improve and the scale of the production began to more closely match the available budget. The series continued topping itself and something interesting began to happen: Somewhere in the process, it managed to come to terms with what it was, stand upright and develop into a great, scrappy little horror show.

Though ZN is a very different critter, comparisons to TWD were inevitable (and further begged by the fact that it sometimes clips elements of TWD). In a cultural environment in which fans of such entertainments like to treat them as competitors and divide up into warring clans over the question of which is best, a necessary preface to any effort to weigh their respective merits is that there's plenty of room in the world for both shows and no reason one must annihilate the other. TWD fanboys do themselves no more credit by mass-flooding ZN's listing on the Internet Movie Database with ratings of 1 in an effort to drive down the show's overall rankings than they do by complaining that many people on IMDb give TWD the rating of 1 it so richly deserves.[1] There's nothing wrong with having two zombie shows--diversity is a good thing--and no harm in liking just one or both or neither.

ZN's humor is its heavy left hook. Doc (the most excellent Russell Hodgkinson) is chucked down an airshaft by a crazed military commander angry that the amateur pharmacologist can't treat his zombie-bitten leg.[2] Doc ends up snared in a tangle of cables and tubes suspended over a long drop only inches away from the similarly ensnared zombie of the previous doctor who couldn't treat the leg. Desperate and with no way to dispose of the creature, which is intently trying to eat him, Doc fires up a joint and starts blowing smoke its way, hoping to get the snapping ghoul second-hand stoned.

Definitely not a scenario one would see on TWD, a series from which the writers have so relentlessly drained any trace of humor that in a recent episode when they suddenly threw in a little joke about Glenn tripping over some boxes, it came off as utterly bizarre and out of place. Fans started threads.

The lack of humor in TWD is only one manifestation of its general lack of humanity. My own soap-box has been worn down to splinters by all the times I've mounted it to sermonize against TWD's creators treating it as soap melodrama yet it persists in being a show in which people stand around and trade anti-naturalistic speeches about their humanity and whether they're losing it rather than just living their lives as they are and letting the audience figure it out. A show from which mundane conversation is banished, where there's no effort to conceptualize characters as real human beings and in which the characterizations are constantly being altered to suit the temporary needs of the plot. There must, it's true, be a certain gravity for the horror elements of any such story to work. Humor that endears one to the characters can be an important part of that. It makes one care about what happens to them. It's particularly conspicuous by its almost complete absence from TWD because, like ZN, TWD doesn't present a typical narrative wherein people are thrust into a horrifying situation, said situation works itself out then is resolved before the end-credits. What we see, instead, is the open-ended playing out of the day-to-day lives of the characters, day-to-day lives that, in the case of TWD, include virtually no humor and very little love or any other ordinary human sentiment.

How this works out in practice: When TWD's writers feel it's convenient to milk the point, the Greene family is shown to be very close-knit but when Hershel, the patriarch, loses a leg in season 3, neither of his daughters make any effort to find the prison infirmary containing the medical supplies he'll require if he's to have any chance of living through the ordeal nor do they demand action toward this end by anyone else. Instead, Maggie, serving up the melodrama, offers Hershel a teary-eyed goodbye! In season 4, Maggie, her boyfriend Glenn and her sister Beth are separated after the fall of the prison but while entire episodes are built around the efforts of Maggie and Glenn to find one another--lots of melodrama to milk there--neither of them make any effort to find Beth. Maggie even goes so far as to leave signs along a railroad track instructing Glenn to follow it to the end to find her but including nary a mention of Beth. In the current season, Beth has been kidnapped by an unknown person or group but rather than staying in the area and making any effort to find her, Maggie and Glenn have just left with another group going to Washington D.C. (for metatextual reasons we're likely to get in the next ep). From any logical or human perspective, none of this makes any sense at all but each is an example of the TWD writers' practice of making that series' characterizations subservient to the temporary needs of the plot, usually its need to generate melodrama. There are, as a consequence, no human beings on TWD, just a series of arbitrary characterizations that are, with some regularity, arbitrarily changed. Strung together over an extended period, none of them represent a record of a life, with one part evolving into the next; they are, instead, just a disorganized and contradictory mishmash, illustrative only of the varying moods the writers wanted to invoke from week to week.[3]

This lack of humanity means the "characters" offer the conscientious viewer nothing interesting or relatable. They don't sound or feel or ever remotely act like real people (or the fantasies of real people), they're made breathtakingly stupid in the service of poorly constructed plots, we learn virtually nothing about them and there's neither humor nor anything else to endear them to the audience.[4]

On this score, ZN couldn't be more different. It features an increasingly vibrant cast of living, breathing characters and it definitely wants you to know them.[5] That "increasingly" is a significant point. ZN's characterizations are doled out over the course of its various adventures. We get a teenage sniper who has dubbed himself "10k" because, in the kind of mission a kid would give himself, he intends to kill 10,000 zombies. 10k was fairly young and inexperienced in the world when the zombie apocalypse hit, and we see the older characters explaining to him things like ROCKY and porn. We get flashbacks dealing with how he'd had to dispose of his own father when the fellow had been zombified. We see him become smitten, likely for the first time, a flash infatuation with a pretty, cross-eyed Asian girl who can shoot as well as he. And 10k is a very good shot--sharp shooting, sharp-eyed and plain sharp--always looking for potential danger, always trying to keep ahead of it (and usually succeeding). We learn about 10k, as with all the others, over time, by watching him do things, showing how he acts and reacts to different situations. ZN understands the first rule of screenwritng: "Show, Don't Tell."

That is, unfortunately, a rule most of TWD's writers never learned. Nothing on TWD is ever allowed to speak for itself. When, in season 4, the still-healthy Hershel, a physician, is intent on entering an isolated cell-block full of his sick comrades in an effort to treat them, it can't just be something he does because of the kind of person he is in light of the situation. Instead, everything must be brought to a halt in order for him to give a lengthy speech justifying his actions as a profound act of humanitarianism in a harsh world. That's how the series handles everything. As mentioned earlier, it features, as a recurring theme, the question of the characters' humanity and whether they can hold on to it in this savage, zombiefied world, but its creators don't handle the matter by writing stories showing situations that challenge their humanity, showing how they react to those situations and showing what effect it has. Rather, in pursuit of melodrama, the writers have the characters overtly state the question--"Am I losing my humanity?"--then talk about it. And talk about it. And talk about it. Never a serious, adult conversation, mind you, just stilted, overblown soap opera angst.

Far more interesting than all of TWD's many silly speeches about humanity is ZN's Murphy, a guy who is actually in the process of losing his. Murphy is ZN's resident mouthy asshole, always on hand to offer some obnoxious, inappropriate, self-centered comment. He'd been one of three imprisoned criminals who were "volunteered" to take part in an experiment aimed at creating a serum capable of overcoming the zombie virus. The other two died but Murphy made it and now, apparently immune, he may hold in his blood the key to defeating zombieism. But over time, the serum is changing him, making him more zombie-like. Initially terrified by the shuffling ghouls, a natural reaction to having been nearly eaten alive by a pack of them, he begins to view them with something more akin to sympathy. Eventually, he discovers they no longer try to attack him. As his physical appearance deteriorates, his worsening condition frightens him. He's not always in control of himself, his behavior becoming less human, more predatory, potentially even dangerous to the rest of the group. All of this conveyed, extraordinarily enough, without any of TWD's pompous speeches (or, indeed, much commentary at all).

Storywise, ZN tends to embrace a lot of wilder, more creative ideas, even when it sometimes clips them from elsewhere. It's a crazy blender and you never quite know what will come out. Sometimes, whatever does works, other times not so much. Its most recent experiment was a bottle episode wherein one of the characters experiences a series of dreams (they take place on the same industrial set as most of episode 2) revolving around a repressed traumatic memory. A bit much, perhaps, for not much of a payoff. More interesting was an installment wherein Citizen Z, trapped at the North Pole, was visited by a Russian cosmonaut who crash-landed near his facility. Nothing of that scenario should be quite what it seems and in the end, it wasn't. TWD, being an adaptation of an existing property, is at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to this sort of thing. Under current showrunner Scott Gimple, it's staying much closer to the comic on which it's based than it had before but the book's best material has already been squandered. Though for much of its pre-Gimple run it departed rather radically from the book, its departures weren't in the direction of anything terribly creative--it remained basically just a soap that pillaged elements of the book to create a series that was far less interesting than the book (and that, in general, sucked).[6]

ZN is much better paced than TWD. While both shows employ a similar amount of raw plot, ZN resolves its individual chapters in a single episode, whereas TWD tends to drag out that same amount of plot to cover many. Sometimes, many, many, stretching tales so far beyond their natural lifespan that it would be comical if TWD allowed for any humor. By the end of its first 13-episode season, ZN will likely have covered as much ground as TWD has in its 56 to date. It would be nice to see ZN get into some longer tales. There's much to be said for well-executed multi-episode storytelling. There's much less to be said for how TWD has handled that format.

In most of its technical departments, on the other hand, TWD is definitely superior to ZN. With a few notable exceptions, TWD's cinematography tends to be flat and uninspired but it's unquestionably richer and prettier. ZN follows many contemporary b-pictures in employing a restricted color palette, which I think is a poor fit for the series; as I've noted here before, the tone of the series would favor a more vivid, expressionistic use of color. TWD features the make-up effects wizardry of Greg Nicotero and his team; even with his working on a tv budget, it's hard to top that. ZN's production design is unquestionably cheap. TWD has better access to better locations and gets better coverage of them.

Those are just about the only things it does better than ZN though, and those are merely a product of its larger budget. In my initial review of the first eps of ZN, I wrote that "its efforts at 'drama' remain fairly low-grade--nothing of any real seriousness is handled very well." Some of the other problems I identified then have remained but the series has definitely overcome that one.[7] And I'm willing to let slide some of the things I'd normally consider shortcomings because, warts and all, ZN works. It isn't perfect but with a reported budget of less than $700,000/ep, it's an enthusiastic little b-movie in multiple installments and, understood as that, a series that, whatever else may be said of it, delivers the goods. TWD, with a budget floating around $3 million/ep, has been, for much of its run, essentially a daytime soap, the world's most expensive version of one of the world's lowest-grade entertainments, one that, preposterously, wanted more than anything to be taken seriously. Its current showrunner has a much more relaxed notion of TWD's place in the world and has significantly improved it but he just can't seem to exorcise the old, bad habits of his predecessor and TWD will never be great because of it. While ZN is a good show that is constantly improving itself, TWD is an uneven mess, with the good work choked by the bad and any investment a viewer makes in it is almost immediately met by a slap in the face.

I'm glad I didn't let ZN's pilot turn me off the series, as I'm sure happened with many. With it, I have a show in which I can invest my attention and not be constantly made to feel insulted. I wish I had a TWD like that.



[1] Hey, if I don't point out that's a joke somewhere, a lot of people will not get it.

[2] Said crazed commander played, in a great piece fo casting, by the most excellent Bill Moseley.

[3] I've dealt with this problem at often ridiculous lengths in my TWD articles over the years. "A Melodrama Problem" offers a good, compact treatment of the subject. It covers, among other things, the many contradictory, often awful versions of Rick Grimes TWD has thrown at its audience. The Z NATION gang, by contrast, is led by Roberta Warren. As leaders go, you can't do much better than a deity and Kellita Smith, who plays Roberta, is an absolute goddess of a woman.

[4] Most of these problems, introduced when, for season 2, TWD was converted into a soap melodrama during the regime of showrunner Glen Mazzara, have persisted long after Mazzara's departure. Subsequent showrunner Scott Gimple has introduced many radical reforms that significantly improved the series but rather than eschewing the soap melodrama approach he tries to straddle the gaping chasm between it and proper character-driven drama. It isn't a line that can be straddled though, and TWD has been left a remarkably uneven mess by the effort.

[5] On the long list of things ZN does better than TWD, perhaps the most extraordinary is its characters. TWD has had 4 full seasons and counting to establish theirs yet TWD's random, ever-shifting characterizations make it impossible for any reasonably intelligent viewer to even care if any of its characters live or die. ZN, by contrast, has only had 9 episodes but a death among its central cast as it now stands would definitely be felt as a serious loss.

[6] The existence of the book actually makes this worse because it shows the vastly superior template the series creators abandoned in order to churn out the muck they've so often delivered through TWD's run.

[7] A rather spectacular moment that jumps immediately to mind is a scene in ep. 7 ("Welcome To The Fu-Bar") wherein a somewhat sloshed Roberta has a moment of surreal serenity in a monologue with a zombie who, minutes earlier, had been her bartender. She'd just lost a man she'd silently loved for years--he was killed just when she'd started to express it to him--and pouring forth from her in this scene comes all the feelings she'd bottled up in her head for all the years she'd known him and had never gotten to say to him. Perversely, it comes out through a great deal of anger she has for his giving her hope and then dying. It's a brilliantly-written and executed emotional roller-coaster that lets you see into her soul--character drama done right, something entirely alien to the uninspired, anti-human soap melodrama over on TWD (and almost entirely absent from it since the tale of Morgan and his wife in its pilot).


  1. Another point I would like to add is that the world of Z-Nation is a society. There's trading for medicine, bullets, weapons and home-cooked drugs going on, there's a county fair with a contest, people interact with each other and have developed an economy. In a way the world of Z Nation is closer to Mad Max than to TWD, it's a more fully realised world with all sorts of people living their new life.
    And that's a good thing because people ,would trade for aspirin, bullets and home-made booze and probably other things like food, fuel, a mechanic, whatever.
    It's a shame many can't see past the low-budget aspect.

  2. I totally agree with you Cin. And I totally agree with you, HPWB. As far as I'm concerned, Z Nation is getting better while The Walking Dead is getting worse. Last night's episode with Abraham's group on the road, (sigh).

  3. I'll have to give Z Nation another chance. I watched the pilot and I couldn't justify wasting 45 minutes of my life watching the second episode. I can't figure out why TWD can't get their act together and make a great show. Even with great source material to work from, TWD proves that writing is the single most important aspect to TV and film media. Everyone focuses on actors, and to lesser extent directors. These people don't realize that great actors and directors pick projects based on their screenwriting and production budgets. A great actor can't save a bad script, and great actors are proficient at picking great scripts and roles. Writing first and foremost, something TWD just can't figure out.

  4. No, good cinema--and that's what the best tv these days is, long-form cinema--is a lot more than just good writing. Every department involved is telling a story, and you can get a good story out of everyone else's "writing" even when you don't have very good writing. Sometimes, everyone is doing good work but they're all pulling in different directions and the complete finished product is flawed or even bad because of it; sometimes, just one or a few elements are counter to the others (ZN's cinematography, something I've mentioned a few times, isn't bad; I just think it ill-suited to the tone of the show). Ideally, it all works and it all comes together. Ideally.

    ZN is a low-budget show and it embraces a low-budget aesthetic, but its budgets also place restrictions on it that, if seen as flaws, one must overlook in light of its merits. TWD has a healthy budget and absolutely no excuse for how exceedingly awful, uninspired and unambitious it has so often been.

  5. I love how people complain on how bad The Walking Dead is but yet every year in increases in viewers. If the show was really as bad as you say it is the show would lose viewers every week and the it would be canceled.

    Sorry Z Nation is an ok show but at the end of the day its no where near TWD.

    Also, you keep pointing that Maggie doesn't care about Beth but you forget that Maggie knows where Glenn was heading. She has no idea where the Beth is and when Daryl says she was kidnapped she knew there was no leads in finding her.

    Anytime you want to debate TWD I am down for it.

  6. If ratings are a measure of quality then the final episode of MASH is the greatest thing ever aired on television, followed, in order, by eps of CHEERS, SEINFELD, FRIENDS, and MAGNUM P.I. And BREAKING BAD, which never had great ratings, sucked.

    Or maybe not.

    Contrary to your assertion, Maggie, when the prison fell, had no idea where Glenn was heading. Her complete disinterest in her sister, to the point that she didn't even include Beth in the signs she left beside the railroad tracks, can't be explained except as an arbitrary choice of the writers--they had melodrama to milk elsewhere and their plot dictated their characterization. The same is true of Maggie's recent departure for D.C.

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