Tuesday, October 27, 2015


I've long been a mouthy advocate for getting--finally getting--comic book heroines on the screen and Supergirl has always seemed to me a character with a lot of potential for adaptation. Her one feature appearance, 1984's SUPERGIRL, became a bit of a fiasco and, in turn, became something of a camp classic. She was later introduced into SMALLVILLE, which did hint at all that potential but she was still just a supporting character. I was pleased when Greg Berlanti, a creator of CW's ARROW and THE FLASH, announced he was working on a Supergirl series. Eventually, CBS picked it up and last night, it made its big debut. The pilot is slapdash at times, dramatically confused at others but it left me at least willing to see more.

The series eschews the original--and convoluted and bad--origin of the character in favor of a sort of mucked-up version of one introduced in the comics about a decade ago. In the tv telling, after baby Kal El--Superman--was launched to Earth from a dying Krypton, his cousin Kara Zor El, then 13 years old, was dispatched to look after him. The blast-wave from the explosion of Krypton knocked her ship off course and into the Phantom Zone. When it finally made its way out and to Earth, twenty-four years had passed, though she, preserved in suspended animation, hadn't aged.

Given Superman's own story, the nature of the Phantom Zone, etc., very little of this makes much sense but as quick and dirty as it seems to a comic vet, it effectively sets up everything.

When Kara arrives on Earth, Superman finds her and places her with an adoptive family. It's a long tradition in Superman adaptations to recruit for cameos actors and actresses from previous screen incarnations and here, Kara's adoptive mother is played by Helen Slater, the original screen Supergirl, and her adoptive father by Dean Cain, Superman from LOIS & CLARK. Kara grows up and goes to work as the assistant for media mogul Cat Grant but all the while, she keeps her powers and her real identity secret. When the plane in which her adoptive sister is flying nearly crashes, she's forced into action. She saves the plane but she's photographed, becomes a media sensation and gets hero fever--decides she'll just burst if she doesn't take up the cape and the family business. Supergirl is born.

Melissa Benoist plays Kara in an overly-bright-eyed and maybe way-too-enthusiastic manner that is, at first, rather endearing--the vibe is straight "it's cool that a girl can do this stuff"--but carried too far and too long, it could make her look flighty and stupid. Benoist is basically doing a 15-year-old Supergirl. That would be great if the show featured a teen Supergirl. The character in this series is supposed to be 24 years old.[1] How this will play out is something only time will.

A significant plot point--because it will provide the series' villains--is a Kryptonian prison ship that apparently followed Kara's ship out of the Phantom Zone and to Earth. It seems pretty unlikely a whole prison full of inmates--hardened criminals with the Earth-shattering powers of Kryptonians--have been hiding out on Earth for over a decade without drawing the attention of, say, Superman. There may be a larger plot at work here. Something else to watch. In the pilot's biggest error, the identity of "the General," the central villain revealed at the end, was quite confusing. It's Kara's Kryptonian mother, who, up to that point, hadn't be shown to have a villainous bone in her body, to say nothing of the fact that she's supposed to have been dead for years. In the brief preview for next week's ep, Kara calls her "aunt," so I'm assuming Kara's mother had a twin sister but there's no mention in the pilot of any twin sister.

When it was announced earlier this year, the casting of Mehcad Brooks as Superman's longtime pal Jimmy Olsen caused a bit of an internet stir. Jimmy Olsen is, of course, a very young, short, wimpy, freckle-faced redheaded white guy, whereas Brooks is a 35-year-old, 6'5', 230-or-so-pound muclebound bald black guy with a deep voice--a guy who could, himself, be playing a superhero. And, indeed, he is, in practice, as bizarre a Jimmy Olsen as he looked on paper, a guy who commands nearly every room he's in. While the comic vet in me just can't seem to accept him as a Jimmy Olsen, his Olsen is a very good character--my favorite, in fact, of the supporting roles so far. As it turns out, he knows all about Kara; her cousin filled him in.

Nearly everyone knows about Kara. Olsen knows. Her adoptive sister knows. Her adoptive sister's employer--a secret agency charged with monitoring and countering potential extraterrestrial threats--knows. She even tells a friend at work. The only regular among the  so-far-introduced supporting cast who doesn't know is Kara's boss Cat Grant. This exposure could come back to bite our heroine in the future.

The pilot's biggest shortcoming is that nearly all of the performances are carried out in an over-the-top, anti-naturalistic manner that perpetually borders on camp yet they're so contrary to one another they never cohere as a unified dramatic universe. One sees all of these sorts of performances pretty regularly with genre properties (though, mercifully, not as often as was once the case). With Kara, this sort of characterization can seem charming. With Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant, it's full-blown caricature. And at the other end, Kara's mother/the "General" is insanely over the top, spouting ridiculous, stilted, ever-so-serious dialogue as melodramatically as possible. One could break down each of these by their relative merits but whatever conclusion such an evaluation may yield, few of them seem as if they belong in the same show.

Still, while this wasn't a great pilot--it certainly wasn't up to that of either ARROW or THE FLASH--it was, rough edges aside, a pretty good one. I'm pleased to have Supergirl back on the screen and interested to see where this incarnation goes.



[1] When Kara's boss Cat Grant dubs the mysterious new hero "Supergirl," Kara objects, arguing for "Super Woman," but not only is it a ridiculous objection given how Benoist is playing the character, Benoist is also playing the very scene in which she's making this objection as if she was 15.

Monday, October 26, 2015

WALKING DEAD, No Thank You [Updated Below]

"Thank You," tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD, may have set a record. We see, near the beginning, an Alexandrian redshirt, fleeing from the zombie horde that has turned toward the safe zone. He's whining that Rick has dragged them out there to die. Seasoned viewers will know what that means. But they may be surprised by how long it takes: it's less than a minute after said whine when one of TWD's patented teleporting zombies materializes and makes hash of this heretic.

There were multiple incidents of zombie teleportation this evening, along with some action and suspense, some massive plot-holes and a genuine shock along the way.

The big holes in "Thank You" begin with some basic geography. No one has ever said exactly how far the zombie-snagging quarry lies from the safe zone but it has been made clear it's a very short distance. In the season opener, Deanna told Rick to drive Pete's body "a few miles" west for disposal; when Rick and Morgan did that very thing, Ron successfully followed them on foot. That's when the quarry was found. Once the zombies escaped the quarry, they walked even closer to town--the fact that the road would bring them right to the safe zone was a plot-point for why Rick wanted to act right away and his proposed plan, which involved bringing them even closer to town before turning them, was a source of argument. Our heroes turned the herd in a different direction at an intersection by constructing temporary walls across the road and leading the creatures around the "corner." Just as the herd cleared the turn, there was a blaring noise from the direction of town and a large number of the creatures broke away and began following that sound.

At this point, the creatures should be very close to town and our heroes, who were between them and the town, even closer. Morgan ran back to the safe zone in last week's ep and stopped the noise, which was a truck horn. The clarity with which it was heard at the herding operation also means the distance couldn't be great.[1]

But in this ep, our heroes run and run and run toward the safe zone but never even seem to get close to it. Then, they walk and walk and walk, dicking around and talk, talk, talking, as characters on TWD will do when they should be far more concerned with other matters. Michonne assures them they've put at least half an hour between themselves and the zombies! Almost certainly a reference to shuffling zombie speed, to be sure, but even half an hour worth of lead figured in that way really should have put them back home. Instead, they end up in a deserted town where, it seems, some of the herd have teleported ahead of their undead brethren and are there to cut off our heroes. So instead of getting the hell out of dodge while the numbers are still on their side,[2] they dick, dick, dick around some more, eventually coming up with the brilliant plan of finding a large building they can set ablaze so as to draw away the zombies (which, with all the dicking around, arrive soon).[3]

This presents a potentially big problem for Rick's plan. Rick broke with the larger group early in the ep, returning to retrieve a big RV they left at the intersection where they turned the zombies. The distance in this case is flat-out said to be one mile yet it takes Rick 20 minutes while running to get to the RV. His plan is to get on a road between the safe zone and the herd and get it to follow him, leading it, once again, away from town. Glenn setting a big fire to draw in the creatures--thousands and thousands of them--would, if successful, pretty much kill off this idea and leave all those creatures in the immediate area but neither Glenn nor anyone else seem terribly concerned about the implications of the action.

As it turns out, it didn't matter anyway. The building Glenn intended to burn had already burned down (my kind of luck). He and the ever-worthless Nicholas are then hemmed up by the zombie army, Nicholas shoots himself and his lifeless corpse drags Glenn over into the midst of the flesh-eating ghouls!

AMC management likes to pinch a penny and as one of the surviving season 1 castmembers, Steven Yeun--Glenn--was always likely to be high on the potential death-list for this season. Everyone who, in the first year of the series, signed a five-season contract renegotiated before the current season began and is likely making a great deal more money now. As Noble Willingham put it in THE LAST BOYSCOUT, "I believe it's just gonna' be cheaper ta' kill that son of a bitch." Still, Glenn's death was a legitimate surprise, something TWD hasn't managed in a very long time. TWD always telegraphs the death of a significant character. That didn't happen here. The closest thing one can say is that Glenn has been relegated to a bit of a background character lately and has shown remarkably poor judgment re: Nicholas. Poor judgment that ultimately led to his end. One could see this as progress--when he died without prior ceremony, it was as if he hadn't died at all. It's a significant break from the usual and possibly some recognition by the creators of the tiredness of their own formula. Last-ditch efforts to mix things up a bit can lead in some positive directions but, it must be confessed, the late-series openness to undertaking such stunts can ultimately make an even bigger mess of things. Something to watch as the series continues.

There were some WTF moments. A character volunteers to be left behind for the zombies, not because she has any sort of mortal wound that would prevent her from surviving but because she has a sprained ankle that slows her down a bit. Not exactly death wish material. Later, she's overrun by the creatures and the others just watch her eaten alive, no one putting a mercy bullet in her. Still later, another of the Alexandrians goes down and Michonne and co. do the same--just look on horrified, separated from the mayhem by a fence, while the guy is torn to pieces. They watch for a long time. Daryl, who is helping manage the front of the quarry herd--the ones who didn't follow the sound of the truck horn--breaks off at one point, leaving Sasha and Abraham to continue Pied Pipering the critters. His intent is to help the others but all he does is run up the road on his bike in a long series of scenes before returning to where he started, having done nothing. Material present just to eat up screentime with some Daryl.

It's tempting to see this ep's geographical problems as a metatextual commentary on the series itself. Taking a long time to do things that shouldn't take long at all. Is it a show that knows where it's at anymore? And so on. The ep ends on a cliffhanger, Rick in a tight spot. On the occasions when TWD manages to build any tension, it's the series' usual practice to immediately dispel it by going amateur-hour-at-film-school on viewers--throwing out the drag-weights, slamming on the brakes and bringing everything to a halt. The preview for the next ep looks as if it's going to follow in this dismal tradition, ignoring this week's events entirely and focusing, instead, on a tale of how Morgan became a Jedi master. A tale to be told in--no kidding--another 90-minute ep. AMC, it seems, is going to milk this cow right to the grave.



[1] While they heard the truck horn loud and clear in the season opener, they didn't hear the much louder burst of full-auto fire that preceded it. Throughout this ep, they don't hear any of the gunshots from the battle with the Wolves at the safe zone until nearly the end, a time when that battle should have already been over.

[2] Rick gave them very clear instructions to go, go, go, kill anything in their path, don't stop, don't hide, get home. They ignore every part of it.

[3] No one, however, thinks of either the old "cover yourself in zombie stink" trick, which would allow them to travel among the herd without molestation or the "cut the arms and jaw off a zombie" trick, which has the same effect. Michonne has used both. Here, she thinks of neither (particularly amusing, given that she's made to offer a longwinded, self-righteous speech about how she and the others know what it's like to be out in the zombified world and how the Alexandrians don't).

UPDATE (27 Oct., 2015) - I've been discussing the question of geography in various venues where I post my work and the exchanges led me to go back and look up some things, reconstructing the characters' movements as closely as it possible.

The quarry was located a very short distance to the West of the safe zone. The business with Ron in the season opener absolutely precludes it being any more than a mile or two. That makes sense, given that Rick and Morgan were simply disposing of a body--they wouldn't bother hauling it out very far.

When the zombies were freed, Daryl initially led them East. The road on which the herd were traveling was established in the season opener as leading directly to the safe zone. That's why our heroes built a wall at an intersection in it and turned the herd on to a different road, so it could be directed away from the safe zone. So from the original short distance--a mile or two--one must deduct this, whatever it was. And it was, it seems, quite a bit; at one point before the turn, we see a shot featuring what's probably more than a mile of zombie-filled road behind Daryl before the turn.

That doesn't yield any precise mileage but it's clear there's very little distance left when the truck horn began to blare (and, as previously noted, the horn itself couldn't be heard at any real distance). Our heroes should have been practically in sight of home. Absent geographical teleportation, there's certainly not enough space to put half-an-hour's distance between Michonne's group and the zombies. Half an hour's distance should have placed Michonne and co. beyond the safe zone.

In the course of my exchanges on this subject, it was also suggested that I could be wrong in writing that the horn blew "just as the herd cleared the turn," and that the editing of the season opener could mean the herd could have actually been traveling for many miles after the turn, taking our heroes further from home. This doesn't hold any water either though. The distance traveled past the turn isn't precise but one can get it pretty close. The job of the foot-soldiers in the herding operation was to cover the herd and make sure it stays together until it reaches point "green," at which time the foot-soldiers will go home and Daryl, Sasha and Abraham will take the herd 20 miles out. During the turn, Team Rick manned the walls while Team Glenn took care of the store zombies up ahead. After the zombies made the turn, these two teams rendezvoused and Rick told them to spread out and cover the parade as planned--clearly a meeting that's taking place right after the creatures cleared the turn. Carter volunteered to take the front, ran a short distance then was attacked and killed, all on camera and within less than a minute. Rick sent Morgan back to update those at the safe zone at this point--again, a time when we can say with near certainty that the safe zone is probably less than a mile away. Before Morgan departs, Rick tells him they're about an hour from point "green." An hour at zombie speed would probably cover less than two miles. The horn begins to blare very shortly after this but edits make it unclear how much time has past. We don't know exactly how long they traveled after Morgan's departure but they never made it to point "green," meaning it was less than 2 miles. Probably significantly less.[1]

When the horn begins to blare, everyone on foot runs away from the herd and toward home. After a time, Rick decides to break away from the other fleeing footsoldiers and return to the walled intersection to retrieve the RV with the intent of using it to lure the breakaway herd back on course. The RV gives us a hard distance reference--it's flat-out said to be a mile back. This means the herd hadn't moved very far and that this is all taking place within what should be spitting distance of the safe zone. It also immediately raises the question of why everyone else didn't just go with Rick. The intersection where the RV is parked leads directly to the safe zone. In fact, when the zombies begin to follow the horn toward the safe zone, they pass a cheap roadside stick-up sign that says the next right will take one to the Alexandria community--the right, that is, at that intersection. Had they gone with Rick, they could have probably walked a couple hundred yards past the RV and they'd be home.



[1] At one point in this ep, Sasha and Abraham assert they've moved the herd "five miles out," and the plan is to move them 15 more but that's an error. The 20-mile distance they were supposed to lead the herd began after the "green" point, which they wouldn't yet have reached. They couldn't yet have taken the herd five miles beyond that either. That's hours of work and there's no way to squeeze that in.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Z NATION Goes Down the Mississippi

There's nothing on television like Z NATION. There's never been anything on television like Z NATION. A lot of the bits and pieces that are put into this Crazy Blender have been flung over the airwaves over the decades. Tonight's installment "Down the Mississippi," for example, took pieces of, among other things, Mark Twain, DELIVERANCE, Southern Lost Cause culture, Huey Long-style down home demagoguery, bluegrass and BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID but what comes out when it's all blended together is, as usual, like nothing television has ever seen. And it can be truly glorious.

In my articles on THE WALKING DEAD, I spend a lot of time engaged with the mechanics of that series' formula, cataloging it, outlining its narrow and rigid contours, dwelling on the tired, shopworn nature of it and noting the series' utter predictability as a consequence of it. In this respect, Z NATION is like the anti-TWD. When you sit down to watch it, you never know what the hell is going to happen next. It's a free-for-all. One week, it's a Mad Max-style adventure up a road in the middle of nowhere, the next, it's a sci-fi tale of gruesome experiments resulting in a greenhouse full of zombie/plant hybrids, the next, it's delivering a human/zombie hybrid baby in a Mennonite community and everyone trying not to die from anthrax. This diversity is the sort of thing some would see as a potential liability. And, indeed, if handled poorly, it could make a series seem scattershot, unfocused, without a center or soul. ZN's ability to tell great, entertaining stories within it week after week and not suffer these potential pitfalls has made it one of the series' greatest assets. You never know what's going to happen next but after a while, you do start to realize it's probably going to be something great. And you can't wait.

"Down the Mississippi" featured the return of Doc's relentlessly entertaining pals Sketchy and Skeezy, allegedly fresh from looting Graceland, full of magnificent bullshit and plotting their next move. While trekking down the river, our heroes' boat gets caught in a "zombie jam"--exactly how is sounds--and the characters are separated. 10k ends up with S&S and the trio go off on a series of hilarious (and Huckleberry Finn-ish) adventures[1] while the others search for their young sniper and debate how much effort they should put toward this at the expense of their primary mission. The ep puts a lot of focus on the relationships between the characters, particularly Doc's strong connection to 10k. This last has sort of receded into the background lately; tonight marked a welcome return (and a great performance by Russell Hodgkinson). I still don't like Murphy's hacking away at 10k over Cassandra while no one objects, a dramatic problem with last week's ep. Vasquez is a needlessly disagreeable prick throughout the proceedings and this with his early insistence on simply abandoning 10k did little to endear to me a character for whom I haven't developed any affinity anyway. To put the matter of Vasquez bluntly, the sooner he's gone, the better.

"Well, the Mississippi sure ain't as mighty as it used to be," notes Doc, and indeed, the mighty Mississippi seems to be reduced to a much more modest and budget-conscious river but the cinematography eschews the usual washed-out color palette (of which I'm not a fan) for a more natural look with some most agreeable results in those moments along the river. Best of all, the ep is, like last season's excellent "Welcome To The Fu-Bar," shot in full scope. A way to my heart, I'll confess.

Tonight's excursion was written and directed by frequent ZN hand John Hyams, who was last seen pulling those same duties on the awesome "White Light." This was another feather in his cap and a pleasing return to form after last week's creative misfire.

More generally, ZN continues to mix wild-and-crazy ideas and familiar influences in new and entertaining ways. There's nothing on television like it. There's never been anything on television like it. ZN's detractors would probably say that's a good thing. Having seen a lot of the petty and absurdly superficial reasons so many of them insist they dislike it, I pity them. They're missing out on something very special.

I, on the other hand, have no intention of missing out on it. Keep up the good work, ZN; I'm with you for as long as you do.



[1] Tour-de-force performances by Mark Carr and Doug Dawson as S&S--this ep gave them what would be a great end if they never appeared again but I'd definitely prefer to see more of them.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

WALKING DEAD, Just Stop the Stupid

"JSS," tonight's episode of THE WALKING DEAD, focused on what was happening back at the safe zone while so many of its inhabitants were away on Rick's insane zombie-herding scheme. In the course of it, we get the source of the mysterious horn that, at the conclusion of the previous ep, began to attract the zombies toward the town.

It proves to be quite an "in the course of it" though.

Most of the first 15 of the eps 40-something minutes are merely soap and filler. Scene after molasses-in-winter scene of absolutely no consequence that could have and should have been left on the cutting-room floor. At about the 15 minute-mark, Carol puts a dish in the oven and sets a timer. It's tick-ticking away and she strolls over to the window and sees her neighbor, with whom she'd been talking earlier, having a smoke. Suddenly, a big machete-wielding pirate comes out of nowhere and attacks and kills the woman! It's a big shock and the filmmaker in me immediately recognized it as the scene that should have concluded the cold opening of the episode--cut right from it to the opening title sequence. TWD instead made viewers wade through a lot of pointless mush.

The safe zone apparently has no one on look-out,[*] even after such a big deal was made out of this last season and even after they know there's a hostile element in the area, and it's caught with britches down by an attack by the "Wolves" group, piratical raiders who cut the letter w into the foreheads of their prey. They don't have guns, only blades, but most of the safe zone's more competent combatants are out herding zombies and a lot of carnage follows. Carol, in order to maintain her secret identity as a mild-mannered housewife, dons a mask, hood and a long-coat that could certainly double for a cape and, no doubt in the name of truth, justice and the American way, takes to kicking serious ass. The mysterious horn is revealed to come from a truck the Wolves were driving. The Alexandrian who apparently wasn't on look-out suddenly is on duty and he shoots the driver as the truck barrels up. It crashed into the wall and its horn momentarily locked down.

After tonight, I suspect a significant portion of the TWD fan community that so long clamored for the return of Morgan may be feeling as if they've been sold a lemon. Consistent with TWD's soap melodrama model, Morgan, like all the other characters, has actually been several characters over time, his characterization changed radically, repeatedly and arbitrarily to suit the needs of the plot of the moment. At first, he was a very take-no-nonsense regular guy; basically a good fellow but if Rick was bitten or meant any harm, Morgan would have put him in the ground without a second thought. When he appeared again (in season 3's "Clear"), he was completely out of his mind and actually did try to kill Rick, Carl and Michonne. His third and most bizarre incarnation is that of a peaceful, staff-wielding Jedi master, suddenly proficient in martial arts.

It's becoming hard to see this as anything other than a big step down.

Last week, when Rick tried to let the incompetent Alexandrians handle some zombies, Morgan 3.0 looked upon this with disapproval. Then when Rick had to kill Carter to avoid derailing the herd and getting everyone killed, one would have thought from Morgan's droopy visage that Rick had just committed some sort of war crime. Tonight, Morgan returned to the safe zone and took up the fight against the marauders but he's clearly starring in the wrong comic. Battling subhuman Wily Wolves out to do nothing but commit rape, murder, arson and rape, he's Merciful Morgan who doesn't want to hurt anybody, suddenly doesn't seem to know what kind of world in which he's living (though he's been living in it for, at this point, years) and while the Wolves are tearing the town apart and carrying out their carnage, he constantly stops for long intervals and tries to reason with them. After taking down one of them, he even ties up the fellow! When Carol sees it, she has the right reply--she just walks up and shoots the guy. She hands Morgan a gun, which he looks upon as if she'd just handed him a day-old turd before passing it off to the equally worthless Father Gabriel.

Morgan squares off with the last several attackers. He gives them a pretty good beating but he tells them to leave and never come back if they want to live, in a scene that looks uncomfortably like he's siding with them over his fellow Alexandrians. They finally get the hint and flee. Everyone knows what happens on TWD when the characters don't properly deal with situations like this. Not Merciful Morgan. He gets a lesson in it moments later but all it does is make him look sullen and walk away, a time-limit counter practically flashing across the back of his head. The stupid is strong with this one.

An amusing running sequence has to do with Coral holing up in order to protect Judith. He manages, at one point, to save Pete's worthless son Ron from a Wolf but nearly gets himself killed because of his moronic failure to put the guy away. Then he immediately turns to Ron and, with deadly earnest, says "Come inside--I can keep you safe." Yeah, I laughed. Ron, having just witnessed Carl's proficiency in dealing with trouble, wisely passes.

But for the incredible amount of padding and the offensively stupid take on Morgan, this could have been a good ep. All the actual notes being hit here, though, are quite stale indeed. TWD isn't doing anything new.[**] It isn't doing anything interesting either.



[*] 19 Oct., 2015 - Some readers have objected that there is an alleged lookout on the wall, a fellow who gets torched at one point, but like the fellow who is later shown in the tower, he somehow missed the entire invasion. He's killed by molotov cocktails chucked from inside the town, where people are already being audibly killed while he remains oblivious. A TWD "lookout" who never sees anything is the same as no lookout.

[**] 19 Oct., 2015 - Further underlining this point, reader "Wolverine Smith" notes that "This episode seemed like a recycling of last season's premiere, 'No Sanctuary', except with Morgan standing in for the role of Tyreese and Carol playing the role of, well, Carol (or at least Carol 2.0 with the Rambo twist. Once again, the real badass fighter has lost the stomach for killing and Carol 2.0 must show them the way." The Morgan/Tyreese parallel is obvious but the "No Sanctuary" parallel hadn't occurred to me.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Z NATION's Absentee Zombie Baby Daddy

Can't win 'em all, they say. Z NATION has been on such a winning streak lately it was starting to look like it could win 'em all but the streak came to an end last night. "Zombie Baby Daddy," written by Z NATION's own zombie baby-daddy, co-creator Craig Engler, just didn't work. At all.

About last week's awesome "Zombaby," I wrote that I had two reservations:
"The major one is that five eps into this season, Cassandra still seems to be lost in the transformation she's undergone. She snarls and moves around like an animal but we're still getting very little indication of how much of Cassandra is left in her. Tonight, 10k, with whom she'd grown quite close last season, was infected by anthrax and became quite ill. This would have been the ideal time for her to show some concern or at least some sort of reaction but none was forthcoming and its absence was palpable. My second is one I almost hate to mention. Pie Girl has been a joy in her every appearance and while I forthrightly acknowledge the impressive guts it took to wrap up her story as this did--that's why I'm loathe to complain--I can't help but imagine the stories that could have been told if she'd been kept on for a while. It feels as if she's gone too soon and the series has lost a significant asset. A ballsy move but part of me wishes there had been a different outcome."
"Zombie Baby Daddy" left me revisiting these but with Cassandra as the focus of both. And I'm not feeling at all charitable about the second one this time around.

Lucy the "zombaby" has her father's ability to interact with zombies. She draws them to her wherever the team goes and even as an infant, her powers are apparently greater than those of her father; he can't control the zombies she's attracting. As "Zombie Baby Daddy" begins, our heroes have to fight their way through a gaggle of the creatures. After, Warren observes that Lucy could be humanity's savior or a significant menace and that they must discover which. To that end, she tasks her companions with getting the baby away from Murphy for a moment. Herein is the conflict around which the ep is built but it's a phony conflict, because whether Lucy is a savior or a menace isn't something they're going to be able to settle right away or probably for years to come and certainly not by temporarily separating Murphy from the tyke. Worse, Murphy senses ill intentions from them and leaves, ordering Cassandra to prevent anyone from following him.

The others, following that we-gotta-get-Murphy-away-from-the-baby premise, plan to confound Cassandra by running in different directions. After all, she can't stop all of them. Addie is sure Cassandra won't really hurt them but when they run for it, she ends up being the one Cassandra tackles and chicken-wings. The others return to her aid and Cassandra resumes guard-dogging them. So much for that plan. 10k says he'll talk to Cassandra, and we finally have the set-up for the conversation viewers have been waiting six episodes to see. These two had become very close in the first season. How much of Cassandra is left in the animal-like creature we've been watching? Can 10k reach her?

And ZN blew it. Big time. The big conversation never emerged, nor did any part of Cassandra. Instead, the others just ran away again, which led to another fight and this time, 10k was forced to kill Cassandra.

No way to sugar-coat it, it's impossible to see this as anything other than a spectacularly stupid waste of a character with all sorts of potential, a character whose humanity had been taken and whose struggles to regain it could make for fascinating drama. Cassandra had been particularly well-chosen for this role. Before encountering our heroes, she'd been enslaved by a brainwashing cult who had forced her to eat human flesh. She fought back and managed to overcome them. Her situation under Murphy's thumb was a direct parallel, which would seem to make it a particularly personal form of Hell on Earth for her. Could she fight back again and reassert her individuality? Leaving her a growling monster then killing her in this way not only wasted a rich potential subplot full of great material, it rendered her entire season 2 storyline pointless. She, in effect, ceased to exist as a character and became merely an element of Murphy's story. Cassandra deserved better. So do viewers.

When Murphy learned she'd been killed, he says he "gave her life" and angrily moved on 10k, mocking the kid's running count of zombie kills and squaring off to fight. Warren put herself in Murphy's path and diffused the situation but essentially took his side in the matter while 10k just stood there, never really reacting at all. Nothing about this made any sense. It's 10k who should be furious with Murphy for essentially stealing Cassandra's soul. Murphy turned her into a marionette who, when he pulled her strings, rubbed his feet and vanquished his enemies and was otherwise barely even there. Murphy gave her the order to keep the others from leaving, which is what ultimately forced 10k to kill her, and it's entirely likely Murphy could have, at any time, allowed her free will as well. Murphy may be pissed his pet was piked but if there's going to be a fight, 10k needed to be the one seriously ready to throw down and it's hard to imagine the others wouldn't be in his corner.

Also in the wasted potential category but far more excusable is the resolution of Lucy's story. It isn't really over, of course--it's just a plot thread this conclusion left hanging for a later installment to pick up--but happening so soon, it can't help but feel somewhat wrongheaded. What was the point in introducing this entire storyline if ZN's creators are just going to kill the mother then immediately write the baby out of the show? Admittedly, the proximity of this to the Cassandra debacle probably influences my feeling here. It's logical for Murphy to want to stash the baby away somewhere, given that every nutcase in the world is after him and after the horror-show in Colorado, he has to be suspicious of what awaits him--and would probably await Lucy--at that lab in California.

On the bright side, the ep featured a very funny bit wherein Doc encounters the zombified remnant of an Abraham Lincoln lookalike contest and a great scene wherein Warren has been shot and Vasquez is sewing her up that shows, once again, why Warren is the most badass goddess of a woman on television.[1] When she, in turn, was sewing Vasquez, he filled in some of his background, including his connection to the Zero Cartel. I haven't developed much of a feel for Vasquez yet. He's a fairly bland outsider who doesn't seem to add much to the group's dynamic, mostly because he's an unknown who hasn't been given much to do. Hopefully, this is the start of making him more interesting.

Overall, though, this one was a loser, like a course correction for a course that didn't need correction. It didn't add anything to the series and took a great deal away from it. Oddly enough, it felt, in many respects, like an episode of THE WALKING DEAD. The underwritten conflict, the wasted potential, the poorly-motivated characterization, the death of a major character used solely for shock-value[2]--all of these are TWD trademarks. ZN has carved out its own niche and it's a great show. TWD isn't, and the last thing in the world ZN needs to do is emulate it.

You are better, ZN.

Do better.



[1] Not long ago, a question was asked on the Internet Movie Database ZN board about who would win in a power-struggle between Warren and THE WALKING DEAD's Rick Grimes. My response: "Rick would be his usual emotive, irrational, idiot self and Warren would kick the sh!t out of him, take over and deal with whatever problem has emerged while he was still crying over it and soliloquizing about what Coral will think."

[2] And ZN has been on a bit of a killing spree lately--Mack, Serena and Cassandra in a span of only 5 eps. Cumulatively, that feels uncomfortably like Glen Mazzara-era TWD.

Monday, October 12, 2015

WALKING DEAD's First Time Again Much Like The Last Time Again

Since Scott Gimple assumed showrunner duties on the THE WALKING DEAD, the series has delivered pretty solid season openers. Tonight's extended 6th-season kick-off was the first exception to that rule and supports my own contention that the series is in a cycle even its fans will come to see as a serious decline (if only in retrospect).

It was then-showrunner Glen Mazzara who, way back in season 2, hit upon the idea of camouflaging TWD's infinity of problems by throwing zombies (or, more generally, action) at them. Upping the pace as a means of pacifying the bumpkins. TWD has employed this tactic at various times ever since. Tonight was the most spectacular example of it yet, the biggest collection of zombies the series has ever seen.

The story of "First Time Again" is built around a series of contrivances and incredible coincidences on the order of being hit by falling meteorites over and over again. Rick randomly decides he isn't going to allow Pete to be buried within the walls of the safe zone on the grounds that they don't bury "murderers" there. He and Morgan take the body into the outside world [*] and, by meteoric coincidence, happen to stop to drop it off within close proximity of a granite quarry that, upon inspection, is filled with zombies. The creatures have been entering it by stumbling down a hill on one side, drawn by the sounds of the others, but are then trapped in the quarry by trucks that have been positioned to seal it off. They've been amassing there for some time--there are thousands of them. Rick returns to the safe zone to report that one of the trucks could, at any moment, fall from the upper end of the quarry, maybe after the next good rain, and that would set the entire herd on the road right for the safe zone. Another meteorite--good thing they found it just in time, right? The idea that rain would cause a ledge of solid granite to erode until it collapsed under the weight of a truck is amusing but would be a fairly minor gripe if the ep had anything going for it.[1]

Rather than merely reinforcing what seems to be a pretty good zombie trap[2] or just killing the zombies in it, Rick, who in the course of the ep declares "I don't take chances anymore," decides to free the herd and carry out an incredibly elaborate scheme to try to steer it away from the safe zone.

What could possibly go wrong with that plan, right?

Our heroes assemble for what's supposed to be a dry run and in the very moment Rick finishes explaining his plan, yet another of those on-cue meteorites hits--the ledge on which the truck sits collapses, the truck goes over and the creatures are free. The plan will have to be carried out on the spot, no practice.[3] We get lots and lots of shots of lots and lots of zombies.

The effort to use spectacle in place of storytelling doesn't do a thing for me. For the presence of all those zombies, there's very little tension--herding them seems, throughout the ep, a rather simple matter. That the series resorted to this go-massive-on-the-zombies thing only a week after FEAR THE WALKING DEAD did exactly the same thing is only one sign of the creative bankruptcy haunting TWD.[4] The ep also spent a great deal of time hitting a standard TWD note: Carter, a character from the safe zone, is a moron, doesn't like Rick and though he's too cowardly to tackle a skin-and-bones zombie on his own, is conspiring to kill our fearless leader, thrust into center-stage in his own little sub, well, plot. Rick, learning of the plot, passes on the opportunity to shoot the fellow but he later tells Morgan that Carter is an idiot who is too stupid to be alive in this zombified world. Seasoned TWD viewers will know exactly what all this means and that what happens to Carter is exactly what they expect proves how thin and tired the TWD formula has become. Carter is even wearing a red shirt when it happens.

If one is willing to ignore the hack-writer contrivances,[5] this wasn't really a bad ep by TWD standards (admittedly, setting the bar rather low).[6] There's just absolutely nothing interesting or special about it. The overwhelming impression it makes is that of a by-the-numbers re-covering already-much-covered ground. I was bored well before it was over and even its cliffhanger ending--someone sets off a big power-horn and diverts the herd toward the safe zone--didn't really make me want to see any more. "The First Time Again" is pretty much like the last time again.



[*] 12 Oct., 2015 - Reader Steve Johnson further notes that "if Rick doesn't want to bury Pete the killer inside the walls, why not drag the body 10 feet from the gate and leave it, instead of risking driving into the woods when they know a hostile group of 'wolves' is lurking out there somewhere?" I would add that the presence of the "wolves," who, it's been established, use zombies to do their dirty work, makes unleashing the herd even more insane.

[1] This portion of the story was handled badly in general. When Morgan and Rick were examining the quarry, they never look at the allegedly problematic truck and make any comment on it. The writers felt it was more important to throw in some bullshit melodrama with Pete's son, so the trouble was never established.

[2] Despite being rejected out of hand, this could, in fact, be done in any one of half a dozen ways absent any risk and employing a fraction of the resources used to carry out Rick's idiotic scheme.

[3] In one of those moments that sort of micorcosms the "what the fuck am I watching?" vibe this series so often emits, Rick and co., when planning the herding operation, come across a store near the road that has some zombies in it. The creatures claw at the inside of the building and make a lot of noise. Rick tells Glenn that when they carry out the operation, they're have to kill those zombies so they don't attract the herd off the road. Instead of simply opening up the place and killing them right there on the spot while they were all standing there. When the herd escapes, Glenn rushes to the store, opens it up and though the herd is already on the road, uses guns against the zombies!

[4] It's also the case that such a huge conglomeration of zombies would destroy any survivors in its path and they're being herded right up the road, which, of course, any travelers would be following. This doesn't quite evince the same blatant disregard for human life shown by the FTWD gang, who intentionally sicced their herd on a hospital, but it's still a fairly monstrous act.

UPDATE (12 Oct., 2015) - Reader "lone-foxx" makes a good point in noting, "They should have found a way to thin the heard over a few weeks time, slow drip style. This would be a great training camp experience for all the noobs as well. Teach them guns and spears, and the guns are only to be used as back-up."

[5] And hack-level writing. Throughout the ep, there's a particularly bad bit of soap opera scripting wherein Morgan and Rick go on and on about how they "know" one another. Rather than just showing them get to know one another (again), the writers have them talk about knowing one another.

[6] There are two jokes, very rare things for TWD, and one of them even works, which is even more rare (it's about Eugene's hair).

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Z NATION Gives Birth To A Zombaby!

Quality film and television criticism is an art. I've been known to be rather outspoken about what I see as the generally quite sorry state of it in recent decades and it's impossible to deny the internet has degraded it even further. In discussing it, one feels compelled to put quotes around the word. "Art." At the lowest end, of course, bad criticism amounts to the equivalent of "Dude, that was bitchin'!" Or "Man, did that suck!" Either sentiment bracketing a plot synopsis of the specimen under examination. At the upper end is a mega-popular celebrity critic like Roger Ebert going into THOR on a bad day and writing a vicious review slamming it based on things he presented as inexplicable shortcomings that were, in reality, almost all things that were clearly explained in the movie but that he simply missed because he wasn't paying it the slightest attention.[1] To do good criticism--criticism worthy of the word "art" without those quote-marks--one doesn't just have to get the details right, of course. One must also have something interesting to say about a piece.

That brings me to my present conundrum regarding Z NATION. The series has been on a solid winning-streak lately. Really knocking 'em out of the park. I was into my initial write-up on last week's "Batch 47" when I realized I was basically doing a "Dude, that was bitchin'!" review. I'd felt as if I'd done the same thing with the previous week's "Zombie Road" as well. I'm particularly ill-suited for that sort of review because I think the good stuff in a good show should mostly be allowed to speak for itself. It's something people should experience while watching, not something about which they should read on some blog, so my work when it falls into this already-weak vein tends to be superficial and to skip over most of what I thought made the object under consideration so special in the first place. And even if that wasn't the case, I still consider that level of work to be beneath me. I'm better than that. ZN deserves better from me. It's a great show.

Tonight's installment, "Zombaby," was another bravura performance. The Crazy Blender turned out, among other things, a Mennonite community plagued by zombie sheep and anthrax, a building-sized cheese-wheel used as an anti-zombie device, zombified wise-men (complete with zombie camel) seeking out a newborn zombaby born in a stable under a particularly bright star and soaring above it all, the awesome presence of the hilarious, vivacious one-woman riot that is Sara Coates as Serena the Pie Girl.

In the past, I've written about how ZN's use of humor helps humanize the characters. Humor well deployed isn't, as is sometimes suggested, something that undermines the heavier, more serious stuff. Rather, it compliments that material, giving it more power and dramatic heft. Obviously, the "well deployed" part can prove a fairly significant caveat. That ZN can do it so well so often is a credit to everyone involved with it. "Zombaby!" was a real emotional roller-coaster ride in which straight farce rubbed shoulders with some very dark and difficult moments. Joy and ugliness, horror and holiness, duty, dairy products and desperation. Poorly managed, this could have been a disastrous embarrassment. Handling all of it is quite a juggling act and pulling it all together in such an effective way is a remarkable achievement, the work, in this case, of writer Jennifer Derwingson and director Rachel Goldenberg, the same team responsible for last season's "Sisters of Mercy." Hats off to these ladies.

I find myself with only two sort-of reservations. The major one is that five eps into this season, Cassandra still seems to be lost in the transformation she's undergone. She snarls and moves around like an animal but we're still getting very little indication of how much of Cassandra is left in her. Tonight, 10k, with whom she'd grown quite close last season, was infected by anthrax and became quite ill. This would have been the ideal time for her to show some concern or at least some sort of reaction but none was forthcoming and its absence was palpable. My second is one I almost hate to mention. Pie Girl has been a joy in her every appearance and while I forthrightly acknowledge the impressive guts it took to wrap up her story as this did--that's why I'm loathe to complain--I can't help but imagine the stories that could have been told if she'd been kept on for a while. It feels as if she's gone too soon and the series has lost a significant asset. A ballsy move but part of me wishes there had been a different outcome.

It isn't really true that ZN manages to top itself with every new ep. It is the case, though, that it's chapters of late are all so different but, for that impressive diversity, all so delightfully good that it can feel like it. For my part, I come out of every episode feeling great about what I've just seen. I don't know if "Zombaby!" was the best ep this series has ever produced. I do know I loved it. I don't know where the series will go next. I do know I'll be there, wherever it does. I don't know if my review of Z NATION is worthy of being called art. I do know Z NATION is.



[1] As a consequence, an upbudget Hollywood blockbuster that was actually good--a very rare bird indeed--ended up taking an unjustified black eye from a trusted Big Name who was just being a horse's ass. Worse, when he was called on this by his readers, his response was to double down and slander his critics instead of simply copping to the foul-up.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Tale of Two Tales of One Zombie Tale

Throughout its just-concluded seven-week run, the first season of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD drew a wide range of responses in internet locales where people gather to discuss such things. My entirely anecdotal impression is that reaction to the show was closely divided, with those registering in the negative holding a slight majority and virtually no one offering entirely unalloyed enthusiasm. Take that for what it's worth. Not much, in my view.[1] It's enough to say a lot of people didn't like it and even those who did like it didn't like big, meaty chunks of it.

A persistent feature of this commentary, offered by partisans both pro and con, is the idea that FTWD is significantly inferior to its parent series, THE WALKING DEAD. This sentiment has, I'll confess, somewhat baffled me. FTWD is little more than a cut-and-paste of TWD. Every one of the shortcomings that made it such a spectacular creative failure is a direct import from the parent. But while FTWD carried over nearly all of TWD's problems, it carried over few of the gimmicks TWD has developed to conceal them.

Obviously, there's a lot in that to unpack. While FTWD has only one season under one creative team, TWD has had five featuring episodes of often wildly varying quality crafted under three different showrunners. Insofar as comparisons go, this makes TWD stubbornly resistant to any overly broad generalizations--for any pound-for-pound evaluation, one must break it down a bit.

To get the easy part out of the way up front, nothing FTWD has done can touch the best of TWD. The awesome TWD pilot, for example, or "The Grove" from season 4 shame the entire FTWD project. But of course very little TWD has done can touch the best of TWD either. Its a series that peaked in its first ep, "Days Gone Bye," which still absolutely towers over everything that has followed. Beyond it, TWD's top-shelf episodes could be counted on the fingers of one hand with digits to spare. Very few and far between and so anomalous they usually seem more like happy accidents that creeped in from some other series.

Below that, there are the more numerous eps that, while perhaps quite good by TWD standards, aren't ones that, outside that comparative context, would necessarily earn the word "great. These are disproportionately concentrated in TWD's first and fourth seasons and nothing offered by FTWD can touch them either.

But then we come to the rest. Many fans who comment on TWD seem to have allowed their overall impression of it to be disproportionately shaped by its few better moments but no reasonable evaluation can fairly ignore the great mass of TWD, the problem-plagued mediocre-to-godawful eps. These make up most of the series' run; they must form the bulk of any general estimation of its merits. And by any comparative estimation, FTWD fits in among them rather neatly. I don't really care to spend much time weighing the relative merits of such poorly constructed episodes in order to more precisely pinpoint where FTWD's installments may fall in relation to them.[2] Mine is a pound-for-pound comparison, not a kilogram-for-kilogram one. It's sufficient to say FTWD's eps are certainly as "good" as or better than most of what happened in TWD seasons 2 and 3 and as "good" as or better than large swathes of season 5 and a not-insignificant number of eps from even season 4.

More to the point here are the reasons these eps are, qualitatively, such close acquaintances. FTWD is simply a clone of TWD, basically the same show set on a different coast, and the problems that sank it are all direct inheritances from the parent. They aren't just both poorly written in general; they're poorly written in the same way.

Both are populated by a raft of extremely unlikable characters. From the gullible wimp Travis to the petulant brat Chris, from junky Nick, who feeds his habit by stealing the meds of a dying old man, to Madison, who refuses to render aid as her neighbor is attacked by a zombie, FTWD's characters were an across-the-board fail of epic proportions, leaving viewers with no one interesting to follow and no one about whom they could care in the least. The top item cited by those who have, in recent weeks, tried to make a case for the superiority of TWD is that it, unlike FTWD, features likable characters. Again, TWD's much longer run can complicate comparisons--it has featured many more characters over a much longer period of time--but taken as a whole, it has the same problem. From Rick 5.0, who was prepared to turn over Michonne to GINO to be slowly tortured to death even while admitting this wouldn't save the rest of them, to Andrea and Lori, who were so hated that fans openly celebrated their eventual deaths, from Shane the obsessive, murderous cartoon maniac to early Carol, who angrily blamed Rick for her own daughter's stupidity then declined to even take part in the search for the missing girl, TWD's ensemble has also been a parade of off-putting personalities.

Where the TWD partisans sort of have a point is that, unlike with FTWD so far, they're not always off-putting. That sort of gets to the item that makes this particular comparison the most difficult, TWD's abandonment in its second season of any effort at being a character drama and its descent, instead, into full-blown soap melodrama. I've written a lot about this here over the years. My piece "A Melodrama Problem" hits most of the significant points. The short version is that this low-grade melodrama model largely eschews any effort at creating strong, consistent characters in favor of characterizations that are dictated almost entirely by temporary plot needs and that arbitrarily shift, often radically, with those needs. Characters don't evolve in any logical way; they're just suddenly changed. Then changed again. Then changed again:
"TWD's central concern is merely to create one artificial scenario after another aimed at generating those emotional reactions. In one episode, Lori berates Shane for his selfishness in suggesting they should call off the search for Sophia; an ep or two later, she's berating Rick for volunteering to go to the tavern in town to fetch Beth's father after Beth falls ill; she guilt trips Rick and says their son, who had no pressing need for Rick at all at the moment, needed him there, as if he was entirely abandoning the boy if he left long enough to drive a mile up the road and back; minutes after Rick leaves, she, herself, abandons their son and takes a car to pursue and retrieve Rick; she tells Rick to kill Shane; a few eps later, after Rick did that very thing, she's furious about it. Lots of overwrought melodrama in all of those situations but no effort at anything remotely resembling consistent characterization.

"Multiply that by every significant character and you have TWD."
Among other things, this means we do, indeed, sometimes get likable characters from TWD. Carol from the early seasons was a cringe-worthy presence. Then she was suddenly converted into a sort of grim survivalist, much more interesting. That character was assassinated by having her commit two utterly pointless, cold-blooded murders (in one of TWD's many rounds of "demonize the survivalist"). Later still, she suddenly became a character who pretended to be a mousy housewife in public while privately scheming and offering up a string of blackly humorous wisecracks. Easily the most entertaining version of the character but one whose most amusing element has absolutely no basis in any previous version and was suddenly tacked on to Carol solely because Z NATION, with its black humor schtick, had appeared. With TWD, the characterizations are changed on a dime and by no means are the changes always for the better. In the first season, Rick was written as tough, smart, brave, a fellow who had demonstrated significant leadership skills. With season 2, that original character basically ceased to exist and the 2.0 version was plopped down in his place, a character who was, as I've written in the past, "overly emotional, weak-willed, indecisive and just plain dumb--almost the polar opposite of 1.0 in every way and no leader at all." To date, there have been 8 major versions of Rick. Most of them have sucked.[3] Whether or not a given character is written as likable at any given moment is entirely dependent on whether the writers of a given ep are spinning a story that, for that moment, requires the character be likable. FTWD hasn't managed any likable or interesting characters yet. TWD hasn't managed any stably likable or interesting ones.[4]

FTWD's creators have opted to make of it a melodrama rather than a character drama--cut-and-paste, cut-and-paste. How far down that trail it will eventually go remains to be seen. Its first season didn't inspire much hope that it will be handled in the finer tradition of the classic melodrama. Rather, its writing persistently displayed the same sloppiness, randomness and what-the-hell contempt for logic, character motivations, consistency and everything other than generating that melodrama to be found in the sorriest specimens of the species. The stuff we get from TWD.

I've documented TWD's hopelessness on this at greater length than even I'd care to believe. In season 3, Andrew, one of the former prisoners, opened the gates to the prison to allow zombies to enter and baited the creatures into the facility. Chaos ensued. In "Say The Word," the next ep, Lori has just died, T-Dog has died and Carol is missing. Rick is out of his mind with absurdly over-the-top grief over the death of his awful wife and is entirely unresponsive. And they have a newborn baby on their hands. With all of this and with the prison full of zombies and an entire army of the creatures probably bearing down on it from every direction--Andrew repeatedly sounded the huge prison alarm in order to attract them--Daryl, Glenn and Maggie--every remaining able-bodied adult--immediately decide their most pressing priority is to leave the prison grounds entirely and try to find some baby formula somewhere. Daryl, in solemnizing the decision, declares they're going to find that formula because they aren't going to lose another of their own this day but they're leaving the infant about whom they're allegedly so concerned in the care of a crippled old man who had only just recently lost one of his legs and is, at the moment, stuck standing on the remaining one in the yard. He can't get out of the sun or even sit down--the building is full of zombies. He certainly has no way of defending the facility if Andrew's alarm draws more. He's left to tend the baby with, as his only company, two children, a lunatic and two former prisoners no one even trusts. Glenn ultimately opts to stay behind only because Daryl can't fit three people on his motorcycle. And why is it so important to immediately go out and find formula for baby? Well, in nine months of pregnancy, neither Lori nor anyone else has bothered to acquire any.

Must it really be noted that nothing about any part of this makes a damn bit of sense?

FTWD plots the same way. In "The Dog," Madison and her family are so sure there's a major crisis afoot they're preparing to abandon their home, the sort of thing people would only do in the most extreme circumstances. Travis has been caught in a riot in Los Angeles. Rather than staying glued to the television in an effort to learn as much as possible about what's happening--the thing everyone would do in such a situation--Madison sits down with her kids for a game of Monopoly. When the power fails and they hear a zombie creeping around outside their home, they try to locate it via the stealthy technique of shining a really bright light out the window. They hear something at the sliding glass door and jerk back the curtain to find a dog. Nick then opens the door and immediately turns his back on it to pet said dog and talk to the others. They decide the thing to do is go next door and try to steal a neighbor's shotgun and as they depart, they leave their own door standing wide open behind them, allowing the zombie to enter. From the neighbor's house, they see Travis return. To the home they've just allowed to be invaded by the zombie. Rather than running out the neighbors' front door, which would put them within a few strides of Travis as he sits in the driveway or just opening the window through which they're watching and sounding a warning, they opt to return home via the much more elaborate and time-consuming route they took on the trip over, navigating a garden maze, climbing a fence, crawling down a big dumpster. So concerned are they about getting back home to use their purloined gun to save Travis from being eaten that they don't bother to bring with them the shells for the gun and Alicia has to race back to get them. And so on.

This sounds like a comedy spoofing zombie fiction but the only laughs here are entirely unintentional.

Character motivations in both series trend from poorly conceived to non-existent to vehemently counter-logical. Andrew's big plan in TWD was to flood the prison with zombies so that the creatures could kill all our heroes then he and the other former inmates--guys who would also be in the path of the zombie horde he's unleashing and are, unlike our heroes, entirely unarmed--could retake it for their own. That same season, ("Made To Suffer"), GINO gathers his lieutenants around him and says he wants to destroy the group at the prison. He has absolutely no reason for wanting to do this and doesn't offer one--even says he has no interest in the prison itself. He's just the designated villain and the designated villain, it seems, must do villainous things. In FTWD ("Cobalt"), the story is the same; it's revealed that the Evil Military has decided the way to deal with an extinction-level event in which the dead become the army of the enemy is to kill the few living people who are left. In "The Good Man," Cpl. Andy, who has been tortured by Daniel, believes Daniel is intent on killing him and convinces Travis to release him. Near the end of the ep, he becomes one of the most tired cliche's in movies and television--that bad decision that comes back to bite you--as he returns, waving a gun with blood in his eye. The corporal's military has been wiped out. He has nowhere to go. It's perfectly understandable he would want revenge on Daniel but instead of shooting the fellow who hurt him, he turns and randomly shoots his girlfriend instead! Probably the only person left in the world who still loves him.

The writing of both series is perpetually plagued by another tired hack's trope, poorly-constructed plots that are artificially extended far beyond their natural expiration date by characters who decline to share critical information with one another, information they wouldn't, under any circumstances, actually fail to share. In TWD season 2 ("Nebraska"), Dale collects a great deal of evidence that Shane is an unbalanced killer, an ongoing danger to the entire group, yet when he confronts Lori about this he declines to share any of that accumulated evidence, even when Lori specifically demands it from him. He just chalks it up to a bad feeling he's gotten because he's known guys like Shane in the past! Dale sees Andrea falling under Shane's spell and talks to her about it--he again declines to share what he knows. The same dynamic is repeated in season 3 between Michonne and Andrea over GINO. Michonne collects a lot of evidence that something is rotten in Woodbury but whenever she tries to convince Andrea to leave refuses to share any of it, saying only that her "gut" tells her something is wrong. In FTWD, Alicia is tending to her zombie-bitten boyfriend and Madison virtually kidnaps her while refusing to explain why Alicia must leave and stay away (later, away from Madison's watchful eye, Alicia nearly returns to him). While the world may be coming to an end around them, Madison keeps Alicia entirely in the dark as to what's happening, putting Alicia in a great deal of danger. When Travis is afraid his son may be in danger, he talks to the boy's mother, his ex-wife Liza. He doesn't bother to tell her what it's all about and she becomes incredibly bitchy, basically rearguing their former custody dispute rather than trying to be helpful.

That last touches on another unfortunate aspect of FTWD ported over from the parent, a rather ugly streak of misogyny. As I've covered, the creators of TWD, for a very long time, wrote the lady characters like their own least favorite ex-wives--bitchy, stupid, unhelpful and unpleasant. On FTWD, Liza's petty bitchiness made her instantly unlikable. Later, she was recruited by a sinister doctor to lie to the civilians and help the Evil Military whisk away a number of them, including Nick. When Madison's neighbor is attacked by a zombie, Madison not only fails to render any aid, she physically bars the door in order to prevent her daughter from doing so. Then later, when she and the others are preparing to leave the safe-zone after they've learned the military intends to kill everyone in it, she doesn't bother to warn her neighbors, self-righteously sniffing that when the military came for her Nick, none of those neighbors came to her aid. When the military had occupied her neighborhood, she unleashes on Travis a torrent of absolutely pointless abuse about being left to handle too many domestic affairs herself--a cliche' monologue phoned in from some daytime soap or Lifetime movie.

On neither series do the writers do a very good job of keeping up with what they've written in the past. In "Clear," Rick returns to his hometown in order to recover guns from the storage cage of the police station where he once worked--guns he, himself, had cleaned out in the TWD pilot. In FTWD "So Close, Yet So Far"), Travis realizes the dead are, in fact, dead. "They come back," as he puts it. Then in the next ep ("The Dog"), he reacts with disbelief when Nick suggests the zombies are dead. "Why would you say that?" Minutes later, he has a discussion with Liza in which she says he was right. Right, that is, in previously saying "they come back." Shortly after that, he's flipped again, arguing that Madison shouldn't kill her zombified neighbor because they don't know if the woman is dead. "We don't know that. We don't know anything."

Uh huh.

Much of TWD and all of FTWD could be summed up as "really stupid people randomly crashing into one another." While FTWD inherited its problems from TWD though, it didn't adopt the gimmicks by which TWD has concealed those problems. Glen Mazzara assumed TWD's showrunner post during production of TWD's second season. The first half of that season was disastrous. A pair of planned eps that would have launched it with much more of a bang ended up being abandoned.[5] The gap created by their loss was filled by simply stretching the plot of what was left to cover more eps and still get events to the same point by the already-carved-in-stone midseason break. The result was deadly dull, a poorly-paced, poorly written, repetitive mess. Rather than addressing the series' mounting problems, Mazzara adopted the tactic of throwing zombies at them, or, more generally, throwing action at them. In the second half of the season, the zombies, who had practically disappeared for a time, were suddenly back in force. The effect of picking up the pace and adding more action--even, as was often the case, entirely gratuitous action--pacified viewers and acted as a sort of camouflage for the problems. TWD has used this tactic ever since. FTWD, partly due to the nature of the series' story and largely, one suspects, as a consequence of budgetary limitations, didn't have this option open to it. All of its budgetary resources for such things seemed to have been poured into its season ender and the massive zombie horde unleashed in that ep did, indeed, manage to convince some who had been quite critical of the series up 'til then to praise that ep as its best, though it was, in reality, just as problematic as every other ep had been. It just wasn't as boring.

The most significant thing FTWD lacked right out of the gate, though, was TWD's superior first season. TWD began as a spectacularly appealing novelty, not only a zombie apocalypse on weekly television but one that had been specifically tooled for a mainstream audience--watered down, dumbed down and with the horror and survivalist elements significantly dialed back. TWD's great pilot was followed by a serviceable if flawed first season with a relatively good lead in Rick 1.0, some very solid character interactions and memorable moments that allowed the series to build a great deal of good will among its audience. It became a water-cooler show, the thing about which everyone talks the next day. When this happens, viewers commit to a series. This attachment can be extremely difficult to break. When Mazzara assumed the reins as showrunner, the series creatively collapsed as dramatically as a truckload of pianos going over a cliff but by then, it had already sunken a hook deeply into its audience. FTWD didn't have these advantages. As I and others have noted, it's more like what TWD would have been had its first season never happened and it had instead started under the season 2 Mazzara regime.

And to state the obvious, had that happened with TWD, TWD would have ceased to exist years ago.



[1] The only firmer data we have come from the series' Nielsen ratings. According to Nielsen, the series opened to a large audience exceeding 10 million viewers. This plummeted until FTWD's 4th ep, when it evened out at 6.6 million viewers. Still in themselves respectable numbers for a cable series but a pretty steep drop. And the lost audience didn't return at the end either. Traditionally, the season opener and ender are the highest-rated eps of a series' season. FTWD's season ender barely increased over its ratings nadir, rising only to 6.8 million. It's safe to say that nearly 100% of FTWD's viewership is derived from TWD's viewership but TWD was drawing more than 15 million viewers at times last season. FTWD's ratings mostly mirror the "where's Sophia?"-into-infinity low-point of TWD season 2.

Insert as caveat my usual rant about the Nielsens, a ratings system riddled with problems everyone seems to acknowledge, even as no one is willing to give up the system.

[2] And I realize this refusal to parse things to that fine a degree is arguably a weakness of my analysis but when one is talking about the bottom of the barrel, what's the point, really? When the eps are bad, stupid and just don't work, they're bad, stupid and just don't work.

[3] I included an appendix to this article outlining "The Eight Ricks" to date.

[4] And before anyone yells "Daryl"--for much of TWD's run, the series' most popular character by far--I'd remind them that even Daryl spent the first season as a dumb, unlikable, unidimensional redneck jerk

[5] Frank Darabont, while he was still showrunner, wanted to open the season with an ep described as "Blackhawk Down With Zombies," a story of a group of soldiers who are cut off from their unit and have to try to escape Atlanta. His next ep was one in which our heroes revisit the Atlanta nursing home from "Vatos," find it overrun by the dead and have to fight their way out of town. The first of these was vetoed, the second filmed but abandoned, apparently because AMC didn't like it.

Monday, October 5, 2015

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD: When the Good Man Has Bad Writers

The freshman season of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD reached its ignominious end tonight with an overly long hash of cliche, chaos and randomness entitled "The Good Man."

Last week, we learned that the Evil Military was secretly preparing to initiate "Cobalt," a plan to "humanely" liquidate the civilians living in the safe-zone. Though this random plan acts as the spur to action for everything we see from the central cast tonight, no further mention is made of it. Rather than pouring into the safe zone the force necessary to carry it out, the military simply packs up and leaves. This allows our heroes to, in a budget-conscious way, drive, without opposition, right out the front gate, which "Mayor" Travis, still bucking for that Larry Vaughn Award For Excellence In Public Service, leaves standing open, exposing his neighbors to the army of the undead he's about to unleash.[*]

The military, you see, has conveniently established a facility right next door to the stadium full of zombies Daniel found last week and has even been kind enough not to post any guards there. Our heroes' plan--they've obviously seen "No Sanctuary" from last season's TWD--is to unleash these zombies and allow them to overrun the base. The base they wish to infiltrate in order to rescue Nick and Liza.

Yeah, FTWD is that kind of show.[1]

Much shooting and random chaos ensues. Ofelia's boyfriend Cpl. Andy, whom Daniel spent last week torturing, tells Travis and co. exactly where to go in the facility to find the holding pen where Nick had been stashed but when they arrive at the pen, Nick has already escaped with Strand.[2] Though the doctor with whom she was working tells her how to get out, Liza just spends a lot of time running around the facility as it collapses. Strand's escape-plan goes wrong and he and Nick do the same. The characters all just sort of aimlessly run around the massive, maze-like facility until coincidentally running into one another just in the--forgive me--nick of time for a last-minute save! Hooray!

Or maybe not.

Prior to leaving home, Travis had deduced--probably correctly--that Daniel intended to kill Andy and, being the soft-hearted guy he is, set the man free. As, near the end, everyone runs to the parking garage to escape, we get an overly familiar moment when a clearly-angry Andy suddenly appears with a gun.[3] He's pointing it at Daniel, which makes sense--even in the random world of FTWD, it seems, torturing a fellow will leave him with a bad impression on your character. But then FTWD reasserts itself and he shoots his girlfriend Ofelia instead! This is supposed to provide for a big dramatic cliche moment when Travis decides he isn't so civilized after all and pummels Andy half to death but the randomness of the shooting had me laughing out loud. It's the end of the world and for no reason at all he's suddenly going to shoot his girlfriend?

Everyone escapes--in a budget conscious but inexplicable development, the army of zombies simply vanish--and makes their way West to Strand's big home by the sea, passing through some cheap effects shots of Los Angeles, a city from which all the people and most of the zombies seem to have disappeared. There's some more emoting and over-the-top melodrama and one more death before the end--Liza was somehow horribly bitten on her torso by a zombie during the escape and didn't even realize it!

Overall, this season of FTWD was a perfect 0 for 6, an across-the-board failure absent a single redeeming merit. A creative abortion on the scale of Glen Mazzara's TWD. Awful characters, awful writing and a series that seemed absolutely determined to avoid at all costs the one story it had.



 [*] 5 Oct., 2015 - Reader Steve Johnson notes that, as our heroes are preparing to leave their neighborhood, "Madison justifies not warning her neighbors that they will be killed by saying something like, 'My neighbors don't know. They did nothing when the soldiers came for us.' In her moral indignation, she has apparently forgotten blocking her daughter from helping other neighbors earlier, when zombies were eating them."

[1] Though it provokes not even a moment of reflection, this plan results in horrible death for hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent people, not just those Evil Military guys.

[2] Last week, Strand, the cool-and-collected guy in the holding-pen with Nick, traded some cuff-links for the kid's ass, asserting that, because Nick was a junky, he'd have skills Strand could use when it came time to escape. As Lebeau over at Le Blog noted last week, "aside from stealing morphine drips and mussing his hair, I wasn’t aware Nick had a skill set." And tonight when Strand escaped, no skills by Nick were in evidence.

[3] His becoming an arguably bad decision that comes back to take revenge is one of the most tired cliche's in movies and television--TWD did it only last season.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Z NATION Whips Up Batch 47

Last night, the Crazy Blender that is Z NATION yielded another flavorful, first-rate concoction. In the early days of the zombie apocalypse, the crumbling government established a crash program in Minneapolis in which researchers were, among other things, growing dangerous plants in zombie mulch in an effort to develop an herbal vaccine for the zombie virus. The results were a deadly greenhouse full of phyto-zombies--plant/zombie hybrids linked to one another root-and-branch--and, if the researchers' incomplete notes are to be believed, "Batch 47," the leaves and seed-pods of which rendered a successful vaccine. For obvious reasons, Murphy is very interested in this facility; he turns up to investigate with our heroes in hot pursuit.

The principal difficulty in harvesting the materials necessary to proceed with any effort to replicate the original work is that, over time, the many batches grown in the greenhouse have become integrated into a single living organism. Its a veritable jungle of dense, interconnected foliage and damaging any part of it harms the whole. At the same time, its phyto-zombies fight back against any effort at invasion from the outside. When Murphy and Cassandra arrive, the site manager is sending random hopefuls into the building one after another, exploiting their desire for a cure and getting them killed in appalling numbers. Murphy's ability to control zombies seems to make him an ideal candidate for carrying out the harvest.

And, indeed, Murphy does manage to make his way through the building to the precious Batch 47, which is both guarded and personified by a creature that strongly resembles DC Comics' Swamp Thing. He acquires a sample, which the site manager then tests on what appear to be the zombified heads of the Three Stooges--he keeps them under glass on his desk. A big dose for Moe makes his head explode. A smaller dose for Larry just puts him to sleep. Splitting the difference in dosage results in Curly enunciating the word "BRAINS!" Success!

Unfortunately, the compound is under the control of the dread Zero Cartel, a powerful criminal empire that uses it to grow z-weed and, as we learn, takes a very dim view of the site manager's efforts to plumb the mysteries of Batch 47. Hector Alvarez, the cartel's "vice-president in charge of sales," turns up, takes out the wayward manager and orders the greenhouse destroyed. Murphy tries to save the Swamp Thing but it doesn't go so well and our heroes are forced to reduce the creature to shredded spinach.

Lots of stuff here: Citizen Z finally manages to reestablish contact with "Operation Bitemark" and relays to Addie the coordinates of the California lab. The now-scarred Dr. Kurien turns up too. After his misadventure in fridge-nuking back in "The Murphy," he's, as Murphy puts it, a nuclear irradiated mad scientist whose ear looks like Elvis. He says Murphy's "kind"--human/zombie hybrids--will inherit the earth, then is hauled off by the Zeroes. Vasquez apparently has some connection with/grudge against the Zeroes or at least some of them. Upon coming across one of their gun thugs, he unmasks the fellow, asks to see the fellow's tattoo--he seems to know about it--then kills the fellow. More grist for future eps. The creators also manage to work in a story about a dying little girl whose, in effect, last wish is that she not become a zombie. When Alvarez confiscates the material related to Batch 47, Doc manages to swipe some of the harvest and deliver it to her before the end. And as things are winding down, the very pregnant Pie Girl reappears!

This continues to be a great season for ZN. One only hopes it will continue at this level and will lead to many more.