The Walking Dead, pt. 1

[I give up — I’m splitting this into two parts.  This is a long one.  I haven’t done a really long one for awhile, and as news continues to break/spill/bleed about season 2, it gets even longer.  I have to thank Dave Anaxagoras, Kira Snyder and Michael Patrick Sullivan, all of whom have blogs in the blogroll and who contributed to the Twitter conversation… which is now in Part 2. Also thanks to my sister Julie, who is probably even more rabid about the show than I am, and who helped me verbalize some of the nagging doubts.]

I had been looking forward to “The Walking Dead” for more than a year.  It’s possible I take this show too seriously.

Five and a half weeks ago the show premiered to ratings that AMC has never seen for any of its original dramas.  Over 5 million people tuned in the first night to see what zombies on TV would be like.  As of this Sunday the show is still pulling in over 5 million viewers (the 5th episode had higher ratings than the pilot), and I’m sure the audience for the 6th and last episode of this season will be just as large.

I know, five million isn’t a lot in network tv land, but for cable, and for AMC it is a massive success of a show.  The pedigree of the show is top notch — Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” comic as source material, Frank Darabont, Gale Ann Hurd, Greg Nicotero, Bear McCreary…these are the names of people you want associated with this kind of show.

I watched the pilot four times.  I loved how it moved.  I loved the pacing, the music (the sparseness of it)… oh, heck, I’ll just excerpt my own review:

“The Walking Dead” is more than just another zombie story.  It’s a story very much about the living, the survivors, as many zombie-filled futures are.  What separates this show from most of the others is its focus too on the dead.  Other films, like “Zombieland” and “Dawn of the Dead” while great entertainment, use the zombies almost exclusively as target practice.  The pornographic elements consist of the myriad creative ways to finish off an undead human.  Here, the death, and the “putting down” of the Walkers, is treated with gravitas.  The dead are not just targets; they are our neighbors, our friends, and our family.  When one contemplates what it would really be like to deal with a mysterious outbreak which kills and then resurrects the dead to walk with no consciousness save for where their next meal may be, it’s a frightening scenario.  Even harder would be the task of putting down someone who was once your husband, mother, or child.  How can you look into their eyes to put a bullet between them, even if the soul seems long gone?

The trajectory of the first six episodes closely follows the source material, with a few new characters added to the tale and some slight modifications in the storytelling.  Rabid fans will notice the differences, but what changes do take place make sense for this new canvas; telling the story on TV allows Darabont and Kirkman to put a little more meat on the bones of the comic book story skeleton, allowing certain moments to breathe and play out a little more fully.  At times the narrative may feel slow, but in truth, it’s moving at a speed which makes sense.  Most of these [ed. – other] stories move at warp speed, as survivors race through zombies to get to safety.  Here, we care about the characters, their problems beyond whether a flesh-eating monster is around the corner.  When Rick encounters Morgan Jones (Lennie James, in a wonderful, affecting performance) and his son Duane, he sees firsthand the impact of the chaos he missed.  Morgan and his son have been through a lot, and their experiences are but a taste of what Rick will encounter on his journey.

Of course, now that I’ve seen more than the first three episodes, which is what I was basing this review on at the time, I’d say that the show isn’t quite hitting the mark on all of these points.  Don’t misunderstand – I am a fervent supporter of this show, a FAN, but I can no longer ignore the thoughts that nag at my brain every week when I watch it.  A part of me says, ‘you NEVER argued this much about LOST or BSG in their first seasons and you love those shows,’ but I also know that my expectations for those shows were far different than what I had for this.

So, it is with all of this preamble that I jump into those nagging thoughts.  These are the issues that keep popping up in my head every week when I watch the show.  Some of these are legitimate questions the show should raise, but most of them are dangerous plot and character stumbling blocks.  And with news that there may not be a writers room for next season…well, we’ll get to that.

The pilot, in my opinion, was nearly flawless in its execution, so most of my issues are focused on episodes 2-5 (I haven’t seen 6 yet, so I’ll reserve any judgment there – perhaps all my questions will be answered next week!)  For the purpose of catching you up with the story (or refreshing your memory) here are the highlights of each episode, as posted on the AMC website:

Issue Two: They need a clear goal.  Look, I love the comic book too, but let’s put it aside (I’m saying that a lot in this piece).  Independent of any other source material, the group needs a goal; survival doesn’t cut it.  We are all, in a sense, surviving.  But what keeps me coming back to follow this group is what they decide to do about their survival.  In LOST, the clear goal was “get off the island.”  In Battlestar the clear goal was “find Earth.”  Everything else was secondary (and, for LOST, even when they got off the island, it wasn’t the end – the goalposts moved, which is just fine).

I know Rick finds Lori and Carl practically right away in the comic, but I felt less enthusiastic about the turn of events in the tv show.  Why?  Well, I’m okay with dumb luck, but it just seemed so damn EASY, especially after all he goes through in the pilot.

Issue Three: Whither character logic?  I get why they had to go to Atlanta to get Rick’s bag of guns (and the radio inside), but if I were one of those other survivors in the group, I’d be like ‘hey, let’s go find another sheriff’s office or police department or a military compound and go get some guns. Let’s stay out of the huge city with thousands of flesh-eating zombies.’  Rick won his argument too easily, and that was just the beginning of the logic problems.

Is Shane in love with Lori? I have no idea — there is nothing in his words or actions that prove that he is, but he’s drawn to aim his weapon at Rick in the woods?  To what end?  It isn’t a motivated character action.

Characters will die and there will be lots of mourning, but we only knew Amy for 4 episodes (less, if you consider how little we saw of any one except Rick in the pilot).  I get that Andrea is going to be pretty upset about her sister being dead, but the crying over the body just went ON and ON — this wasn’t an earned scene at all.  You want to show she’s hanging around her dead sister’s body?  Fine, cut back to her now and again, but we’ve got a show to do here, people.  What purpose did it serve to watch Andrea caress and mourn her sister for so long?  We spent longer with Boone on LOST than we did Amy.

I also get nervous when it appears that characters are acting in ways counter to general logic.  Logic dictates that if you are in a zombie apocalypse and that you want to go to, say, the CDC in a zombie infested city, you have a well defined plan of action — you don’t just all hop in the caravan and drive to CDC!  If that had been remotely a good idea in the past, SOMEONE WOULD HAVE DONE IT.  No, logic dictates that they need a backup plan.  If no one is left alive, they need to know where to go next, or have enough gas/food/etc to get to safety.  Their plan is all or nothing.  That’s no plan!  I’m not following Rick anywhere with his “well reasoned” planning.  On LOST when there was a big plan afoot, usually two things happened: a few people would disagree and follow a different course of action.  This allowed for great shenanigans between factions of the group.  Jack takes some people to the caves, Sawyer stays on the beach with other dissenters.  Both are right, in their logic, and we get to see it all play out.

Ultimately, if Rick thinks (and he’d be right in doing so) that the group has kinda been doing the wrong thing, just sitting out in a quarry, not moving, he should say so.  I want to see a standoff between Rick and Shane as to what is the right thing to do.  I want to see the others in the group pick sides.  I want there to be discussion off to the side between Dale and Andrea (“Hey, you think we should tell Rick that Lori and Shane seemed to be getting familiar?” “Nah, let’s leave it alone”), just to show that people are aware of the conflicts and the drama.

I think most of these issues could have been resolved had there been a writers room for season one, but there wasn’t.  There was no showrunner — there was Frank Darabont, who was writing and directing the pilot and there was Robert Kirkman, the comic creator who also wrote an episode of the series, but no one was steering the ship of the show forward through the rocky waters of television.

And then, today the news spreads that there may not be a writers room in season 2 either:

EXCLUSIVE: I hear The Walking Dead writer/ executive producer/ director Frank Darabont has let go of the writers on the hot freshman AMC series, which has already renewed for a second season. That includes Darabont’s No.2, writing executive producer Charles “Chic” Eglee. Writer turnover on series between seasons is commonplace but wholesale overhauls are unusual. What’s more, I hear Darabont is looking to forgo having a writing staff for the second season of Walking Dead altogether and assign scripts to freelancers.

Uh oh.

The freelance model is employed by the Starz/BBC series Tourchwood (sic), which in turn borrowed it from the U.K. where the show originated. Having BBC as producer has allowed Torchwood to proceed with no writing staff but I hear such a plan on an U.S.-based series such as Walking Dead may face issues with the Writers Guild.

Okay, let’s back up a second.  I left out an important quote from the piece:

Darabont, who hails from the feature world with The Young Indiana Jones as the only series credit before Walking Dead, ended up writing 2 of the first season’s 6 episodes of Walking Dead – the pilot and the second episode – and co-writing/rewriting the other 4. Two of those 4 were written by non-staff writers, one by executive producer Robert Kirkman, on whose comics the series is based, and one by Glen Mazzara.

The reason the pilot was so good is that it is almost VERBATIM the comic.  Seriously.  You can go pick it up and read it, and the pilot is pretty much what you see.  When it goes off the path a little bit (starting with dropping the bag of guns in Atlanta), we start to see some story issues.

The other episode that resonated pretty well (despite flaws left over from the wackiness of going off book) was episode 4…which was written by Kirkman.

Some people have brought up in the comments of that post at Deadline Hollywood that J. Michael Straczynski practically wrote Babylon 5 by himself, with only a few freelancers contributing.  I don’t think the example is exactly relevant because Bab5 existed in Straczynski’s head — not as a story that has been read and enjoyed for several years.  He was also writing Bab5 as a TV show, not adapting a comic book, which requires that the story alter slightly for telling in a different medium.

What “The Walking Dead” needs, just like “Lost” and “BSG” had – is a room of smart, skilled writers who can build a season long arc (example: “we’ll get them to XYZ point in the story by the end of the season”) and then break the individual stories.  They can draw from the comic the plot beats, even some of the imagery and dialog, but for thematics to be at work, you need to craft that.  What is lacking in these first 6 episodes is a sense of thematic cohesion.  Once Rick finds his family, there is no long term goal, only short term goals that take us from episode to episode — get to the camp, get the bag of guns, get Glen, go to the CDC… “survival” as a long term goal is expected.

I’m cutting up my post into two parts, because it’s getting ridiculously long.  Also, I kinda want to spark discussion that I can use in part 2 — I’ll be posting up some twitter discussion I had with @davidanaxagoras @sugarjonze and @redrighthand yesterday that I think is worth considering (much of their insight counters my issues).

Remember this: I love this show.  I want to write for this show.  Desperately.  I also want these nagging thoughts to go away.

Posted under analysis, writing

This post was written by Shawna on November 30, 2010

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