Monday, December 6, 2010

'The Walking Dead' Season One (2010)

Starring Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal and Sarah Wayne Callies
Developed by Frank Darabont

Anyone who knows me knows my love of Robert Kirkman's THE WALKING DEAD.  That's right, I love it so much that I usually type the title entirely in capital letters.  I can't help it.  Every time a volume of this comic book series comes out, I rush to get it ASAP.  When I heard they were developing a TV series based on it, I was immediately intrigued.

When I heard that it was being developed for AMC by Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption," "The Mist") and Gale Anne Hurd ("The Terminator," "Aliens") and that comic series creator Robert Kirkman would not only be a producer but a member of the writing staff... I couldn't have been more excited.

And now that the show has premiered, I still couldn't be more excited.  The premiere episode, "Days Gone Bye" is simply a fine hour of television.  It was so good, I watched it twice in a row.

Andrew Lincoln stars as Rick Grimes, a sheriff's deputy who is wounded in the line of duty.  He falls into a coma, and when he awakens nearly a month later, he's shocked to discover that society has collapsed and hordes of the dead roam the Earth.  Rick manages to escape the hospital and make his way to his home, only to discover that his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) are nowhere to be found.  Instead, Rick finds Morgan (Lennie James) and his son Duane who have been squatting in the house next door.  Morgan explains to Rick what has been going on, and about "the walkers."


Morgan and Duane live solitary lives, foraging for supplies by day, tormented at night by Morgan's dead wife, who always seems to find them no matter where they go.  One of the pilot's best scenes involves the reanimated corpse of Morgan's wife trying to get into the house they've boarded up for the night.  The actress playing this... creature... simply nails it, giving what might be the single most creepy zombie performance I have ever seen.

But Rick realizes that his wife and son may be alive, and Morgan tells him his best chance would be to head for Atlanta, where the military had been setting up some kind of shelter.  Rick sets out for Atlanta, hoping to find Lori and Carl still alive and waiting for him.  What he finds instead is a city infested by the dead.  He narrowly makes it out alive, thanks only to a chance meeting with Glenn (Steven Yuen) who guides him to safety.  They meet up with another group of survivors taking refuge in a department store, including Andrea (Laurie Holden), Merle (Michael Rooker), Jacqui (Jeryl Prescott) and T-Dog (IronE Singleton).  Eventually Rick discovers that these are part of a larger group that, thankfully, includes Lori and Carl as well as Rick's partner and best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal) who has been protecting Lori and Carl.

Unfortunately, Rick's reunion with his family is not actually good news for Shane, who has fallen in love with Lori and thinks of Carl as his own son.  Couple that with the pressure of leading a group of survivors after the end of the world, a group running low on supplies and hope, and Shane is a man who begins to crack around the edges.  Other problems crop up for the group, including the fact that Rick was forced to leave Merle behind in in the city, enraging his brother, Daryl (Norman Reedus).  But while Rick has made some enemies, he has also made some friends, including kindly, middle-aged Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), and Andrea's younger sister Amy (Emma Belle).

"The Walking Dead" is ultimately the story of these survivors.  It would have been easy to take a more typical zombie movie route and put the focus on killing the undead, but the zombies actually focus less and less on the series as the six-episode season goes on.  The zombies themselves (never referred to as such by characters on the show, whether it's because in this universe the idea of "zombies" doesn't exist or because it just sounds too ridiculous when spoken out loud in a serious context) are treated almost as tragic victims by both the show's creators and some of the characters.  In the pilot, Rick confronts the reanimated corpse of a bicycle rider, and puts her out of her misery in one of the show's finest scenes.

Later, a scene involving Andrea's sister, Amy, coming back from the dead after an attack is given a sort of special meaning, like a rebirth, as she is reanimated on her birthday, in her sister's arms.  The show treats the creatures as more than simply fodder to be shot or hacked apart by the human main characters, including them as an emotional foil for the survivors.  That's part of what makes "The Walking Dead" so successful, and may even be the key to it.  For all the show's fine acting and production value, it's the fact that "The Walking Dead" is full of great emotion that makes it so damned entertaining.

There are a few missteps, however.  The first season is a scant six episodes, but a bit too much time is wasted on an excursion into Atlanta.  While the subplot involving Shane, Rick and Lori is resolved in the first six issues of the comic book, no such luck for the first six episodes of the TV series, as that's left dangling by the end of the season finale, "TS-19."  The finale itself is a little disappointing in a certain regard, as the characters make a detour to the CDC in Atlanta, hoping to find salvation.  What they find instead is that the supposed experts are just as human, flawed and clueless as they are.  While that aspect of it is a great success, the episode as a whole is a bit of a let-down in that certain plot threads (like the Rick-Shane-Lori thing) are left dangling for season two.

One of the ongoing tropes of the comic book series is that the characters will often come to a new place they think might hold some safety or at least temporary relief for them, only to find that it isn't so.  This episode falls neatly into that kind of story which repeats itself fairly often throughout the series, but I find myself struggling with it as part of the TV series - I know it's a big part of the story of "The Walking Dead," but does it work here?  I'm not sure yet.  Part of me thinks I'd be a lot harder on this episode if I didn't know that Season Two is on its way.  If the show had ended entirely here, I'd probably be pissed.  But since I know there's more coming, I can forgive it for being a little underwhelming and leaving plot threads dangling.

Still, "The Walking Dead" is my favorite new series of 2010.  I can't stress enough how much I've enjoyed these six episodes, even if the finale leaves a bit to be desired, and I can't wait for Season Two to crank into gear.

BLU-RAY UPDATE:

So the first season of "The Walking Dead" is out on Blu-Ray and it's a pretty great set.  It can be bought for a very reasonable price, especially considering the quality of the content.  The two-disc set has some decent features.  For example, if you watch the first disc by selecting "Play All," the disc will remember where you stopped and ask if you want to continue when you boot back in.  And, even better, will prompt you to insert disc 2 when you've finished all the episodes on disc 1.  Inserting disc 2 will prompt you to "Continue Play All?" which will launch right into the next episode!

The special features are a bit disappointing.  None of them are bad, but most of them are pretty short.  The reason for this is because they're all available on amc.com.  To make matters worse, there's actually more material on the web site than there is on disc here.  No sign of any audio commentaries, which is too bad as I'd love to hear some of the cast and crew talking about their experiences in particular scenes and moments.

And here's the real meat you're looking for: audio/visual quality.  The show is shot on 16mm film, which lends itself to certain problems.  Firstly, 16mm is not that amazing when compared to 35mm in terms of picture quality.  What this means for "The Walking Dead" is that while the gritty, dirty kind of image that gets reproduced on 16mm film fits the series perfectly, it also means that there is an inconsistent softness to the image. Don't get me wrong, the show still looks spectacular, greatly improved from the rather terrible AMC HD broadcasts.  But don't go in expecting this production to look like "Avatar."  There's lots of fine detail on display here, and a very nice sheen of grain that gives the show a cool, film-like atmosphere.

Color reproduction is also excellent.  I noticed watching the show again on Blu-Ray that while the show employs a rather muted color scheme, the color green is quite well-saturated and vibrant.  It's an intriguing contrast: a green, fertile world populated mostly by the dead.  Well-done.

In terms of audio, the 5.1 surround track is very nice.  Again, it's not the track you'll find on a major motion picture, but for TV it does its job.  There are some nice surround effects utilized at the right moments, and deep booming bass when there needs to be.  Dialogue is always clear and easy to hear, which is important as this as a show with a lot of people talking. 

So even despite the lackluster special features, this is a set well worth owning.