Wednesday, December 8, 2010

[TV] The Walking Dead Season 1

Today's article will have to serve for Wednesday and Thursday this week. Two days of school delays followed by a full snowday have apparently just worn me out or something.

So Season 1 of AMC's The Walking Dead has wrapped up. It started on Halloween and ran for a mere six episodes. Originally, it had been planned to be a miniseries, which would have made it even shorter, but it was so clearly a winner from the get-go that they upped it to a very short season. Better still, there's a second season already heading into production, and it'll be a full(er) 13 episodes. Personally, I like real 22-episode seasons, but series on cable - The Shield, Psych, Eureka, Warehouse 13, Doctor Who, etc. - all seem to go with just thirteen. More's the pity.

A pity indeed, because the first season was awesome! If you haven't watched it yet, beware - I'm going to spoil the hell out of the first season.

The series begins with local sheriff Rick Grimes and his partner Shane heading off to intercept some fleeing criminals. Rick gets shot in the process and ends up in a coma. He's briefly lucid enough to see Shane come to visit, but when he finally wakes up for real, the world has changed. Grimes was apparently in a coma for several months, during which time we later learn some sort of unknown infection spread around the globe. The disease causes great pain, a very high fever, and then death. And anywhere from a few minutes to eight hours later, the victim's body self-animates and rises up looking for the flesh of the living. The dead walk once again.

Over the next several days, Rick struggles to understand what's happened to the world. Luckily, he meets a man named Morgan and his son Duane who, after clobbering him over the head by mistake, explain to him the basics of surviving the zombie apocalypse. Rick checks out his home and determines that his wife and son were able to get out. They're out there somewhere, and he's going to find them.

First, though, Rick manages to get himself trapped inside a tank surrounded by a few hundred walking dead. He's rescued by some folks who've come to town for supplies. It takes some work to get everyone safely out of town and back to their camp, but in a stunning display of good luck, the scavengers are from the same camp as Rick's wife and son. They're reunited, and he's even back together with his old friend Shane. Who's, ahem, been keeping Rick's wife "company" in his absence. After all, they did believe Rick had been dead for a couple of months.

It's a short-lived reunion, however. You see, one of the scavengers was a racist, redneck jerk and Rick left him handcuffed to a rooftop. He also left behind his bag 'o guns and the radio he needed to warn Morgan not to go into Atlanta. So back downtown he goes. The redneck has escaped on his own (by sawing off his own hand. That's hard-core!), but when they try to grab the bag of guns, some guys instead grab one of the band and drive off with him.

It turns out, a group of Latinos have taken over the old-folks home where their elder relatives live and fortified it against the zombies. They saw the bag of guns and they want it really badly. They're willing to trade Glenn the kidnapped pizza-guy for the weapons. Rick's having none of it, until he learns about all the old-timers who are relying on the vatos to keep them safe. He ends up splitting the guns with them before heading back to camp and his family.

They arrive just in time to help stop a massive attack by the walking dead. The survivors are almost out of food and their camp isn't safe. It's time to go. But where to? Fort Benning is in one direction, and the Centers for Disease Control is back in Atlanta. Neither's a sure bet, but since one of the survivors is infected with the zombie plague, the CDC seems like a good place to try.

Sadly, everybody abandoned the CDC - all the scientists either ran away or killed themselves. All but one guy. He's the husband of the woman who was in charge of the place, and he made a promise to her to keep searching for a cure as long as possible. In a lab accident, he destroys the samples he'd need to do his work, however, and by the time the survivors show up he's nearly out of fuel. He's also a little crazy, so he doesn't mention to them that when the CDC's generators run dry, they automatically set off an explosion to completely destroy the building and all of the infectious samples stored inside. In the final scene of the season, the group barely manages to escape the building before it erupts in a massive explosion. They're back where they started - no food, another couple of members lost, and no clear ideas about where to go. And they're in a city overrun by the walking dead.

This is the first series to seriously take on the concept of zombies. I'm not sure I entirely agree with their core approach, which is that "It's not a show about zombies. It's a show about people." I mean, on the one hand, DUH. Of course it's about people. But there are already LOTS and LOTS of shows about people. And some of the people in this show were either stock characters (the redneck, the wife-beater, etc.) or were so poorly fleshed out that we just didn't know anything about them or care. I hope that next season they find a better balance between good, strong characters and zombie-killing, post-apocalyptic action.

Still, it was a hell of a show. It was the kind of show that regularly - at least once per episode - pulled me literally to the edge of my seat in concern at what was happening. That's rare and precious in TV these days, and it made this show a must-watch for me. It also had some very interesting and likable characters when it took the time to develop them. The redneck's brother, Darryl (also a redneck) ended up being one of my absolute favorites, and I even warmed up to Dale, the old fella, once I got to know him.

Best of all, the show frequently looked like a movie. Whether the producers were flipping an old car over and over like in the first episode, or showing the characters cruising down empty Atlanta streets accompanied only by the walking dead, the show definitely had a grand feel to it. There were several scenes in the show where military positions had been overrun, with equipment still sitting idle, littered with the bodies of those who had been shot down in the attack.The explosion of the CDC building in the finale was terrific and really left you with a sense that a) the government isn't going to be much help and b) the characters were utterly without a safe haven.

I'm a huge, huge fan of The Walking Dead. I think it did far more right than wrong, and as easy as it would be to nitpick the show to death (Wait, the guy was in a coma for MONTHS and then got up and ran around??), I'd be concerned that it would rise right back up and come after me. The season combined stellar action (the attack on the survivors' camp was worth re-watching multiple times) with some tenderhearted emotion (like Morgan trying - and failing - to shoot his zombie wife and lay her to rest, or like Andrea holding her slain sister Amy all night in her arms until she comes back to life, just so Andrea could say goodbye before putting a bullet through her zombie brain. That's seriously good stuff, there.) and ended up with a show that's much better than most of what else is on television. The ratings suggest that most people agree - it was the most-watched series premier in cable history (or something like that) and continued to pull in huge numbers throughout the short season. It's available to watch through, and it's due out on DVD very soon. If you haven't seen it, rest assured that the spoilers above can't really dampen the visual and emotional impact of the show. I rate The Walking Dead an A and strongly recommend it.

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