Monday, November 29, 2010

"Wildfire" Reviewed: The Walking Dead has Officially Jumped the Zombie Shark

Never would I have imagined that one day I would write the following: The Walking Dead television series on AMC is too positive and bright--that it problematically keeps hope alive in a way that the original source material never suggested possible.

Like most ghetto nerds, I was excited that The Walking Dead comic book series was going to be adapted for television. I was even more excited that it would be on the esteemed AMC network and helmed by Frank Darabont of Shawshank Redemption fame. But alas, be careful what you wish for, as it may indeed come true. While some are gushing over The Walking Dead television series I have reserved judgment. By nature, I am not a curmudgeon. I also reject the worst tendencies of those residents of snarky nerdville to reject all that the "mainstream" has discovered about our secret loves, rites, and rituals as the bandwagon saddles up, eager to take on any and all passengers.

In practice, I see a broader audience as a pragmatic good that can bring more attention to a given creative property. That caveat now having been noted: The Walking Dead television show is adequate. It is not great. At this very early point, in its surrender to the conventions of television (and perhaps even to the Twilight series soap opera demographic) The Walking Dead has to this point lost so much personality that the show is nothing more than a mere echo of its source material.

For some not so devoted members of the mainstream, the newbies with virgin eyes to the series, that reality is fine...perhaps even preferable. For devotees such as myself, The Walking Dead television series is a lost, great, missed opportunity.

The challenge of divergent forms overshadows The Walking Dead as its approaches next Sunday's season finale. The original material is a comic book. Print media, the graphic novel in particular, allows a reader to digest material at a pace he or she sees fit. As visual story telling with text, comic books are a unique union of words and action. As legends of the graphic arts Scott McCloud and Will Eisner so thoroughly detail, comic books engage the reader by allowing our imaginations to fill in the gaps between panels, provide voices and details to the transitions between scenes, and create meaning where there is only empty space.

In addition, the graphic novel is not limited by the inconveniences of budget or scale: if you can dream it, you can draw it. And most important to our meditations on the questions surrounding what is lost in transition from the page to the screen, comic books are wonderful at communicating action (just consider all that can transpire in a few panels of a comic book's page) and limited by the efficiency of words (how few can generally be written on the page). As different storytelling mediums, television and film do not share these relative limitations.

Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman have been honest regarding these artistic and practical comprises. To point: Fans of the original medium should allow a broad leeway as the writers and producers of The Walking Dead negotiate the difficult process of translating page to screen. Moreover, fans of the comic should not expect a literal translation as the page is merely inspiration for the AMC series. Nevertheless, The Walking Dead has a beating heart, a set of relationships between the characters, a set of guiding principles, and dare I suggest a personality, that as of Sunday's episode "Wildfire" the series is now woefully lacking.

Thematically, The Walking Dead is about many things. Hope and loss; the pain of a new normal; hopelessness and survival; how real people--you and me--deal with the heretofore unimaginable. Perhaps most importantly, The Walking Dead is about "the walking dead," that (as I and others have written here) in keeping with the conventions of zombie literature the survivors are now the Other, and in Robert Kirkman's award winning comic series, that the survivors are the real and true "walking dead."

Ironically, in the new AMC series where conventions of profitable episodic television melodrama override adherence to the source material, The Walking Dead perhaps ought to more rightly be called "The Walking Living"--two different shows; two different artistic and thematic sensibilities; and the latter not in keeping with the best of what The Walking Dead as a television series could in fact be.

Per our tradition, some thoughts, Easter eggs, and questions. Beware, there are spoilers ahead:

1. Okay. So Merle is going to be The Governor? I like the nice signal to the comic book offered by the amputation of his hand. This is good stuff that mirrors Rick's eventual suffering...and Michonne's revenge. But, the early introduction of Merle as The Governor seems unnecessary as it is a clear telegraph to a substantial future plot development.

2. There is some nice symbolism at work. The American flag, now simultaneously both a symbol of hope and lost dreams is featured prominently in the background of The Walking Dead. In "Wildfire," Jim is dying in the Winnebago--another symbol of the open road, Route 66, and long gone Americana--the flag is a fitting accompaniment to his delusional and dying moments.

3. The Walking Dead comic book has established some pretty good common sense rubrics for survival. The characters maintain a constant watch, are strict with noise discipline, and are mindful of swarms and "herds" of zombies. Where are these common sense rules in the television series? Dale was always perched on top of the RV. Now, that chair it too often vacant. Moreover, the show went to great pains to establish that the blood is toxic. Why then be so careless this week? Hitting bodies in the head with a pickaxe, fluids flying about, and no fear of contamination?

4. The zombie infection is 100 percent fatal. It is also 100 percent communicable. Would you really not immediately kill a person who was bitten? And would you leave said person tied up against a tree, just to reanimate and become a threat? Sorry. Don't buy it.

5. Second melodramatic television concession unnecessarily soap operaesque moment--Andrea holding her dead sister until she reanimates. Foolish. Unbelievable. Insert finger into mouth in order to induce vomiting.

6. Why have a large group of people just to whittle them down to a few key characters? Why the Red Shirt effect in The Walking Dead? Let's cut to the chase and skip the teasing.

7. Gas. Supplies. Food. Clean water. Basics. These folks drive too much and worry too little.

8. Second point. Is this bring your kids to zombie Atlanta day? What is the logic here? No one guards the vehicles, all folks exit, and they could be easily surrounded as they try to gain access to the CDC. As zombie lore (and common sense point out) cities are death traps. Avoid them. And if need be, send a small group, not the entirety of your group to what could be a fubar zombie brain eating buffet. This is poor writing that damages the believability of the characters involved...especially Rick and Shane.

9. Two thematic points. First, the device of character gets bitten and we all go to Atlanta to find a cure suggests an adventure of the week model. The writers create a problem, the protagonists go on a quest to reaffirm their humanity to the viewers (and each other) and a problem is overcome...or a new one encountered. I always found this to be tedious, piss poor writing that only exhausts a keen and sharp viewer. Darabont needs to avoid this pitfall. He is better than that.

10. Second point. The Walking Dead comic book is about hopelessness and the unforgiving nature of the real. If there were a cataclysm tomorrow, a pandemic of the type shown in The Walking Dead, you/me/no one is likely to get the big reveal/satisfying answer. Kirkman expertly teased this in the comic book, by having a "scientist," likely the basis of the CDC researcher in tonight's episode suggest a "cure" that turned out to be a lie. Folks, there is no cure. We don't know the disease vector of the zombie plague. There will be no epidemiologist present to conduct a seminar on the zombie apocalypse. Our prime directive is survival. Ultimately, as long time readers of The Walking Dead know, there will be no deus ex machina moment in which all questions are answered.

This sad truth is the beating heart of the comic book series. While I cannot divine the future, if the first season of AMC's version of The Walking Dead ends with a grand reveal of what should remain a MacGuffin, the series will have truly jumped the proverbial shark into mediocrity. In that instance, The Walking Dead will become something quite different from its award winning source material. That my friends, would be a horrible shame.


Habitat Vic said...

Though I'm not into graphic novels/comics, I appreciate their art form. For me, it was comics in the 60s, underground in the 70s, some manga in the 80s. That said, I share the mixed feelings about the AMC rendition of Walking Dead.

Inconsistencies about blood contagion drive me nuts. Seriously, you barely survive, see friends/family/etc become zombies, yet are cavalier about blood/cuts/infection? If I were going into potential confrontation, damn straight I would wear a face shield or some type of helmet. Christ, at least gloves of some type.

Where to rate the series? I give it a B or maybe even a B+, IMO. Little bit much on the stereotype love triangle, maintaining-our-humanity, weepy-cheap emotional crap that keeps it from being a more hard-bitten (OK, pun intended) look at humanity under dire terms. Still pretty satisfying.

chaunceydevega said...

Its the blood...I just had to say that.

Those are the little touches of consistency that matter for a show such as this to work for me. As I pointed out above, tv and the graphic novel demand different concessions. But, the core story and characters should more than remain in the adaptation.

For example, where is Rick's son in the narrative? This is the whole point of the first storyline, readers of the comic know that things don't end well, but again, where is this in the tv series?

I will give the show a solid B to this point, the episode prior to Wildfire gets an A-. Let' see what happens with this CDC nonsense and then we can reevaluate.

Anonymous said...

*kinda spoilers*

1. Since when did the comic book lack moments of hope? Without hope for something better, survival becomes rather pointless, and for what it's worth, comic book version of Rick never seems to entirely let go. (His son clearly seems to have, which is going to make for some great material going forward.) Hope is what makes the story engaging; it serves as a counterpoint and provides meaning/gravitas to all of the tragedy and hopelessness that make up about 90% of the rest. Say what you will, but the presence of hope (most of which is inevitably false, anyway) does not seem to be an effective point of criticism.

2. What they did with Jim on the show was roughly what they did with Jim in the comic.

3. Same deal with the "red shirt" effect. The comic dispenses with its characters at least as quickly (more quickly, one could argue), and at a rate practically unsustainable for television.

4. I am, however, with you on the inconsistencies with treatment of the contagion, as well as the ridiculous scene with Andrea and her dead-ish sister. Totally cringe inducing.

5. Nice spot on the whole Merle/Governor thing. I totally didn't pick up on that, and was operatively assuming that they might shoehorn him in for the season finale.

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon--I should have been more precise. Sure there are moments of hope. But as in the last story arch we the reader are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. There is no sustainable dread--to this point--in the show to my eyes.

3. I would disagree on the Red Shirts and the comic book. Yes, people die. But, anyone is fair game--Dale for example--and the comic book doesn't give a sense that these are throwaways like the tv show does. This is why I want a leaner and meaner cast on the show.

Invisible Man said...

I love that show and am sad to see it end? I thought it was going to go on for a full season? Then again I don't have a TV and watch only a few shows on computer so I'm not sure how long a season runs. This series I'm sure this series makes George A. Romero proud. As the best zombies movies do, it's the anticipation of the zombie attack that makes the film.

chaunceydevega said...

@Spook. They have 1 more episode and then 13 episodes next season. Hopefully it will get better. Make Romero proud? The comic yes, the series? No.