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February 23, 2012

The Walking Dead (What is Going on Here?)

I hope you’ll forgive my impertinence, but I probably don’t watch all the movies/TV shows that someone my age should.  That’s not to say I don’t watch TV, of course.  Far from it; I make a note to watch every new episode of Raising Hope and How I Met Your Mother I can, and I’m one of those crazy people who still thinks The Simpsons is funny.  I was also one of the freaks who saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in theaters…but to balance that out, I also saw Super 8, all the Marvel Comics movies last year (with Captain America being my favorite), and Toy Story 3.  I also saw The Thing (2011 version), but the less I say about that, the happier I’ll be.

More like This Thing Totally Blows, am I right?

Setting movies aside, I think the one thing keeping me from getting into a lot of programs is the same problem that a lot of people have: continuity.  Someone who’s been watching a series from its first episode is a lot different from someone who jumps into the fifth season because you see one of your Facebook friends commenting about it.  They have an understanding of the show’s nuances, a connection with the characters, and expectations that have both been fulfilled and will be fulfilled by the story proper, in line with the foreshadowing and the viewers’ own forecasts.  Anyone jumping into a series just points at the screen and says “Who’s that?” until they need a fistful of cough drops.

That’s pretty much where I am with The Walking Dead right now.  I’ve seen…oh, about three and one quarter of an episode as of this post.  When asked if I liked what I saw, I answered, “I think I’d get a little more enjoyment out of it if I knew who the characters were…but overall I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it.  It was good.”  It was more or less a placeholder answer until I could give the show a good analysis -- the problem being that I could never give said analysis.  I’d been locked out of the series merely by not being near a TV with a cable connection.  I could try and play catch-up by reading summaries and character descriptions (which I’ve started, by the by), and maybe peck away at episodes past online, but I’m willing to accept that the ship has sailed.

But even if I did watch every episode online, catch up on character and show summaries, take the comics into consideration, AND make sure I never missed a new episode, I can’t help but wonder: is The Walking Dead a ship that I even want to sail on?

There are two things that are holding me back.  One: I -- like a lot of people -- am tired of zombies.  In the past six years, we’ve had zombie games like Dead Rising, Dead Rising: Case Zero, Dead Rising 2, Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, Resident Evil 5, Resident Evil: Revelations, Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2, Dead Island, Dead Nation, Plants vs. Zombies, and Yakuza: Dead Souls.  You know, to name a few.  To say nothing of games squeezing in zombies because…because zombies, like Call of Duty: Black Ops and Saint’s Row: The Third.  And if I started listing all the movies that have zombies in them, I’d probably never stop -- so let’s just say Zombieland and leave it at that.  The point is, the media is oversaturated with zombies, and I wouldn’t mind if we all decided as a species that we can have things that don’t include zombies.  It’s not that we hate you, zombies; we just need a little space right now so we can sort things out.  And then I hear that The Walking Dead is supra-popular and I wonder if we’re not in an abusive relationship with zombies.

So what’s the second thing?  Well, from what I’ve heard -- from fans, no less -- The Walking Dead is not very good.

More like The Caulking Dead, am I right?  Eh?  Eh?

Dan O’Brien of Cracked is my favorite writer on the internet (to the point where I’d argue he deserves the title of Net Lord).  If not for one of his articles, I probably wouldn’t know The Walking Dead outside of its title -- but having opened Pandora’s Box, I wonder if there’s some truth to his words.  Scratch that; the words of others.  Net Lord O’Brien’s comments suggest that the show has problems.  The comments in the Cracked forum suggest that the show has a lot of problems.  Thereviews from The Onion’s AV Club (and the ensuing comments) suggest that the show has a lot of problems.  Yet they keep watching it.  Lots of people keep tuning in.  The hate comes in liberal amounts.  In spite of said hate, I want to keep watching and see what the hubbub is all about, and avoid getting locked out of a show like I have so many times before.  What the hell is going on?

My guess is that The Walking Dead is the new Smallville.  I don’t know much about the former, but I watched nearly every episode of the latter throughout its ten-season run.  A lot of people said it sucked, but I watched it anyway because 1) Superman and 2) I decided to adopt a “screw the haters” policy.  If I may go off on a tangent (like you have a choice, fools!), in retrospect Smallville wasn’t very good.  It had its high points, of course, and overall I’d give it a positive score if needed, but there were a lot of…iffy elements.  Teenage Clark Kent did a lot of faffing about before finally donning some semblance of a costume, with no shortage of angst.  A lot of conversations spun around in circles, from the aforementioned Super-Angst to “I know you’re a bad guy Lex/Lionel Luthor, and I’m on to you.”  Lana Lang made the plots of a lot of episodes incredibly stupid and pointless, and the conflicts could easily have been avoided if 1) she remembered that when Clark says “don’t trust or DATE that mysterious stranger,” there’s evidence to back it up, 2) she’d stop poking her powerless nose where it doesn’t belong, 3) she’d realize that she was a human with emotions in later seasons, not just a vehicle for getting into trouble or showing off spiffy new skills, and 4) didn’t throw herself into Lex Luthor’s arms because Clark zigged when she said zag.  Plots and story arcs were silly; suddenly, Smallville’s girls -- Lana chief among them -- are possessed by witches!  And then, suddenly, vampire sorority girls!  And then, suddenly, zombies! (Urrrrrrrrgh…)  And repeat plots, like Clark’s powers suddenly getting transplanted into his dad/Lana/Lex/random star of the episode, never to be seen again.  Or how five-sixths of most episodes were devoted to developing romance (or spinning in circular conversations) instead of Superman actually doing stuff.  Lord knows we need more drama! 

More like Smallville: Attractive White People Creek, am I right?  That one's good, right?

But as I said, I liked Smallville.  Fights only lasted for about five minutes per episode, but hey, how many people can take a punch from Superman?  And when he did get to cut loose in a big fight, he cut loose-- like uppercutting Bizarro into the sun, or teaming up with the other superheroes (yes, other superheroes) to raid a Luthor facility…complete with a “cool guys don’t look at explosions” nonchalant walk.  The appearance of characters in the Superman mythos, like Jor-El and Brainiac, added plenty of surprising twists.  Jonathan Kent was so badass, the only way to keep him from overshadowing Clark was to kill him off…and even death didn’t stop him from popping in every once in a while.  Angst aside, the pondering that Clark did on his road to heroism did put up some good points -- and by the same token, the transformation of Lex Luthor from a guy Clark saved from a car crash to him literally saying “I am the villain” was a series-long story arc that I found fascinating.  Nearly every season finale left me breathless, practically shaking my screen in the hopes of summoning the next episode to my TV.  And most of all -- in a world where lots of fiction has to be gritty and dark in order to be “successful” -- Smallville was there to remind us that heroes are out there, and that ideals and justice aren’t just relics of the past.

So what does any of that have to do with The Walking Dead?  Easy.  From what I’ve seen, and as I understand it, The Walking Dead and Smallville have an uncanny number of parallels.  Sure, Smallville was about Superman on the surface, but when you realize that Clark is gallivanting about in a red and blue jacket contemplating his next action, you start to realize: it’s not about Superman, but the journey to become Superman.  The circumstances, decisions, and people around Clark -- good and evil -- helped him develop, and pushed the story towards a climax in which we finally see him take flight.  I’d argue that, even based on a few episodes, The Walking Dead is only tangentially about zombies; it’s about the characters and how they respond to this situation.  Sticking together in the face of adversity.  Making choices for the sake of morality, and the survival of the group.  Overcoming one’s demons, past and present, and securing their future.  That’s cool.  I get that.  And it’s stuff like that I want to see more of.

Is that present in what I’ve seen in the show?  Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…kind of.  Again, blame continuity lockout, but I’m having a hard time differentiating between characters (besides the obvious labels of “black guy, Asian guy, old guy, woman, woman, etc.”).  I know that Rick is one of the lead characters and arguably the closes to “hero” you can get in this shades-of-gray setup.  I know that Glen is going up against zombies even though he’s not necessarily a fighter, and has a crisis of confidence that could spur some character development -- that’s cool, I respect and appreciate that.  I know that Hershel is the southern-fried “leader” of the group on the farm, and a doctor, and comparatively cynical to Rick; that’s all right.  And then everyone else is just kind of…there.  Like, I want to know these characters, but I need more to work with.  More information.  More of these people responding to action.  In a series where there can be long periods of time where characters stand and talk to each other -- again, just like Smallville -- I think we can all agree that we need some exciting conflict between characters, either from dialogue or OH GOD ZOMBIE ATTACK to keep things moving.  Does TWD offer that from what I’ve seen?  Yeah…but…you know.

More like Tariff Slick Limes, am I right?  Please don't shoot me.

It annoys me that that’s the most I can say about the show.  Yeah…but…you know.  Like I can’t form an opinion because I don’t have the full context.  I don’t want to say anything like “Yeah?  Well, Character X is an idiot because ____________,” because I don’t have enough evidence to back it up.  But I can’t shake this niggling feeling that something is wrong here.  Going back to the Smallvillian implementation of action (where actual zombies/living enemies show up, in this case), It’s the dialogue that matters most.  But most of it comes off to me as kind of gray.  These guys are arguing about something!  Yeah!  Now these guys are gonna argue!  Okay!  Now these two characters will say “What do we do now?” All right!  And then another few characters will argue “It’s all over for us” or “It ain’t over yet!”  Cool beans.

…I’d offer more concrete examples, but I’m having a hard time remembering any.

What the hell is wrong with me?  Have I just been zoning out?  Have I not been paying attention?  Am I just biased because there aren’t bright colors and Hadoukens zipping around?  Is it my lack of investment in the series?  I’m usually on top of things when it comes to analyzing and intuiting the cogs in a story; why am I drawing a blank on this?

And then I read the comments that other people -- professional and informal -- have written and I get nervous.  I read that “these people are idiots” or “I don’t know who these people are” or “where are the zombies?”  And unlike me, these are indeed people who’ve stuck with the show for a lot longer.  They know, and understand, and judge based on hard evidence.  Subjectivity is always at play, of course, but…yeah…but…you know.

 For example:

“This has to be the stupidest cast of characters ever assembled on a major network show (or at least on of them anyway). I was so pissed that they (Rick) decided to risk their lives to save some dude, who just seconds earlier was trying to kill them. Aside from the fact that they were getting swarmed and were almost killed while trying to chop off his leg, they now have this bleeding stranger from a rival group that they have to take care of. In terms of stupidity, this is an extremely close number two to dangling Glenn in the well, which, so far, was the stupidest thing these idiots have done.”


“I have no evidence the TWD writers have thought out their characters beyond Robert Kirkman's initial descriptions, because they haven't progressed far beyond them. Characters, like T-Dog and Hershel's family other than Maggie, that never appeared in the comic, seem barely conceived at all.” 

And here’s a gem:

“When confronting each other, its always the exact same surface level, variations on a bitching. Often the only brief growth that The Walking Dead imbues within its characters is through horror and violence. People don't change their minds through reasoning with each other. Hard to call it a drama when, really, the dramatic elements are nil. Rick is always going to be the guy that grits his teeth and whiney huffs, "I'm just trying to do the right thing!" until some action-based event comes along to knock him on his ass, then rinse and repeat. As a result, they just never feel real, there is little human depth.”

You’ll forgive me for being a bit…apprehensive.  And I hope you’ll forgive my impertinence, but I’m at a loss here.  But in spite of that, in spite of my issues with gritty, dramatic zombie-fests and less-than-glowing opinions about the show, I’m going to stay positive.  I’m “The Eternal Optimist,” remember?  I have a feeling that, even if TWD has its issues now, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes something even better.  Just as Net Lord O’Brien suggested, it has this certain appeal to it, one more conductive than a hyper-electromagnet constructed by Dr. Nightmare in his lair atop Mount Disasterdeath.  People are watching this show for a reason: because it can be good.  And it will be good, I’d wager.

Smallville’s been off the air for a year now, I think.  There’s been a hole in my life that I need to fill; if I can’t have a superhero take care of the void, then I suppose I’ve no choice but to turn to The Super Zombie Power Hour.  And true to its nature, I’m willing to watch every episode so far if only to get a better understanding of the show.  If only to know, decisively, whether or not I like this show. 

Actually, now that I think about it, there is one problem that I can comment on.  In the show, the zombies are called “walkers.”  Why?  Why?  WHY?!  CALL THEM ZOMBIES!

More like Mom's Bees, am I ri- *gets shot*

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