Well, this is an inauspicious start to our new feature - I’m already late! Sorry to those who have been waiting for my reply to Henri’s opener on Monday (read that here), but I’ve been on the road with Chris Morris promoting Four Lions and time has been tight. I’m briefly ensconced in a Boston hotel at the moment, though, so I guess this is a good time to get this TV Talking talking.
First things first: I am not a fan of the Walking Dead comic book, despite the intro to the column saying I am. I have read a lot of the books - the first four or five trades, at least - but I did it out of a sense of obligation and a hope that this thing was really going to pick up. For me it never did; Robert Kirkman is just not a terribly good writer and I found most of his dialogue to be insufferable. One of the reasons I was so excited for the TV show was that I was hoping other writers playing with Kirman’s work could actually do something interesting with it.
And I was right. The Walking Dead the TV show is recognizably the comic book, but it’s presented with an incredible storytelling sophistication and skill. Gone are the long info dumps of exposition; Frank Darabont’s teleplay and direction favor silence and quiet. The beloved director of Shawshank Redemption and The Majestic doesn’t play The Walking Dead like TV, which has traditionally been radio with pictures. He treats TV like a visual medium, and he assumes you’re going to be watching his show, not puttering about the kitchen with the TV on. And I love it.
There are some bumps; as Henri mentioned that opening conversation hurts a bunch, especially because the ‘women don’t turn out the lights’ bit feels like something that goes against traditional wisdom/cliche. I guess that’s part of the point, but it’s a convo that feels unreal and unmotivated. I also think that the first episode could have stood to be longer; while I love the cliffhanger that we got, I would have liked to see the initial outing end with Rick finding the group with whom he’s going to stay.
But those are niggling details (as is my problem with the use of slomo) - this was an incredible TV show. Darabont took something that was familiar (and I don’t just mean from the comic but from the many other sources that Kirkman cribbed from) and made it feel really fresh. Look, I’m all but zombied out, and that’s coming from a guy who holds the original Dawn of the Dead as one of his favorite movies of all time. The Walking Dead cuts through the clutter of overcrowded zombie media and makes something unique of itself.
Part of that comes from the fact that Darabont is working longform, which means that he gets to spend a lot of time on the characters. The perfect example of this is Morgan, the guy holed up with his son in Rick’s old neighborhood who nurses our hero back to health. In the comics Morgan is yet another character who mostly exists to deliver information in big chunks of text, but on the show Morgan has a really nuanced - and honestly heartbreaking - set of scenes. It’s been too long since anyone focused on emotions other than terror or fear when it comes to zombification; Morgan’s subtly etched story, where he’s unable to kill his zombied wife, feels incredibly fresh. It reminded me of the opening scenes of the original Dawn of the Dead, where the emotional impact of something so horrible was actually being taken into consideration. Too many zombie films are just about survival of the body; The Walking Dead has already announced itself as being specifically about the survival of the soul, especially as Morgan’s attempt to snipe his wife is intercut with Rick returning to the half-woman and putting her out of her misery.
The show pushes far into emotional territory, but it also pushes deep into gore territory. The opening scene of the show is a flash forward that has Rick take out a zombie… a zombie little girl. It’s gory and intense and incredible, and it’s an announcement right off the bat that The Walking Dead is being serious (it’s also, as Henri noted, a way of assuring viewers at home that this shit is going to get going eventually. I quite liked the slower pace, but then I’m not the whole audience). And it keeps being serious; this could be the only major cable show to include human entrails, let alone people eating the entrails of a horse in deep detail (zombie nerd moment: it’s interesting that the zombies presented here eat animals, which is a major change from the Romero canon). It’s gory and covered in blood and goes right to the edge, but what’s best is that Darabont doesn’t use the gore just to gross out audiences, he also uses it as a way of making us nervous, of freaking us out and of making us feel the world in detail. It’s the best kind of gore use.
I’m excited to keep watching the show, and I hope that it maintains the level of quality that is in the pilot. It seems like cable pilots change the usual TV formula - usually a pilot is the worst, least focused episode of a show, but these days there’s a ton of money being spent on cable TV pilots (or network pilots like Lost), so they can be the best and best made of the whole series.