Man, we are so in love with the apocalypse, are we not? It’s not a healthy relationship, sure, but it’s got all the elements for a hot romance: exciting events, unfamiliar territory, gripping characters we can see ourselves in, and massive amounts of death. It’s not that anyone (sane) truly wishes for the world to end, it’s just that it’s kind of cool to think of in a “What if?” sort of way.
So what if zombies were not only real, but somehow coordinated a total planet-wide uprising in such a way that humanity was caught off-guard, all the rednecks were at Wal-Mart instead of tending to their gun collections, and the military decided to sit back to “see what these dudes can do”? It would be gross and scary and a little disconcerting to see your social network start posting pictures of their decaying faces (status update: “Eating on brans lol”), but you’d be surprised at how many geeks secretly wish this would happen anyway — because it would be awesome.
This is why the zombie horror genre is here to stay, a fact with which I have no problems because at least nobody (sane) is publishing novels about a sexy zombie who stalks teenage girls and sparkles in the sunlight.
This meandering introduction brings us to both the unfamiliar and completely familiar, then — AMC’s The Walking Dead. While zombie movies are nothing new (and haven’t been for decades), nobody’s had the guts to do an actual TV series about the undead. Vampires, yes; zombies, no. This is partially because of the very graphic subject matter, and partially because zombie flicks are traditionally elimination movies: to be an effective threat, zombies have to kill a cast member now and then.
Showtime decided that the best solution was to draw upon the popular Walking Dead comic book series, which has had a huge following for some time now (although I always gravitated toward Y: The Last Man instead). Season one of the show became a bit of a gamble: A six-episode run with lots of makeup, special effects and all the power of Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist) behind it. Two episodes in, and it was apparent that TWD was a hit, and the network renewed it for a 13-episode second season.
Unfortunately, it’s not as insanely awesome as you’d think — at least, not at first. The Walking Dead immediately begins with two strikes against itself: it’s pretty dang slow for the first few episodes, and it’s as unoriginal of a zombie apocalypse as could be. I mean, heck, you have a character who awakes from a coma to find the world in tatters due to a zombie uprising — 28 Days Later, anyone? — and we totally miss out, yet AGAIN, on seeing the uprising take place. There’s even a scene that takes place in a boarded up home under assault from zombies, a la Night of the Living Dead.
The first episode sees our hero, Rick Grimes, stumble through this apocalyptic nightmare a few weeks after it happened, witness to only a few remainders of what went down. He doesn’t see too many zombies at first, but he soon discovers that a bite will eventually kill and turn you into one of them, the zombies aren’t that fast but they do have the tendency to surprise you, and that there aren’t too many people left. But, as I said, this is slow, plodding exposition that doesn’t take us in bold new directions.
It only begins to get interesting when Rick, on a quest to find his missing wife and son, travels to Atlanta on horseback and encounters a group of survivors. The bulk of the first season revolves around Atlanta, which means that there’s less of a journey to get somewhere as there are a number of forays into and back out of the city (which is completely overrun by the undead). The survivors are struggling to adapt to this bizarre situation even as their personalities clash — after all, any group of survivors must have a few powderkegs waiting to blow, putting the nice guys in the middle of external and internal conflict.
By the back half of the first season, the show gradually finds its legs and starts to make progress toward being captivating. There are more zombie attacks, a few unusual twists, character revelations, and some attempts at showing how this newfound community are developing survival traits for the future.
The big question that hangs over the season is “Why should we have hope?” After all, the zombies appear to be everywhere, and nowhere is truly safe for our heroes. Why go on? What’s the objective? Is it worth fighting to survive if the odds are really good that you’ll be dinner chow for a ravenous creature sooner or later?
I’m not sure how closely the series follows the comics, but I suspect that there’s a fair attempt at mimicking the structure. In just six episodes, the show creates a number of plot threads that are left unresolved by the season finale — a finale which really feels like the end of the show’s prologue in truth. There’s a few great performances in here, although I felt that Andrew Lincoln (Grimes) is a little too bland to be that likable.
Taken as a whole, season one of The Walking Dead makes for a decent zombie tale with the promise of a lot better to come, and I’m pretty okay with that.