Monday, September 15, 2014

'The Walking Dead' Season Four (2013)

Starring Andrew Lincoln, David Morrissey and Norman Reedus
Developed by Frank Darabont
Executive Producers Robert Kirkman, David Alpert, Scott Gimple, Greg Nicotero, Tom Luse and Gale Anne Hurd

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has settled into the quiet life of a farmer. He and his son Carl (Chandler Riggs) are now just citizens of a small community of survivors living inside a fortified prison. Inside the prison, danger is brewing. A strange sickness threatens everyone inside, and soon after two of their own are found murdered, one of which is Karen, Tyreese's girlfriend. The disease forces Tyreese (Chad Coleman), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Darryl (Norman Reedus) and Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) to seek out medicines at a veterinary college. Meanwhile, Rick decides he has to deal with the culprit - his close friend, Carol (Melissa McBride) - by expelling her from the prison before Tyreese returns and learns the truth.

Outside the fences, hordes of flesh-hungry undead wander the countryside. But they're not alone: The Governor (David Morrissey) survived his last encounter months earlier with Rick and the others, and has gathered a new group of supporters to his cause. These people are desperate. They are well-armed. And Rick has something they want: a strong fence.

Season Four of AMC's wildly popular zombie drama is difficult to synopsize. The show boasts a massive cast of more than a dozen main characters and probably twice as many supporting characters. It also normally sports several ongoing storylines at once - and this increases in the second half of the season, which sees much of the cast spread into the wind on a number of different journeys.

There's a lot to like about "The Walking Dead," but it is also a series with some serious flaws. The biggest, for me, is that the show has proven itself to be exceptionally good at buildup - the rising action and suspense on this show is first-rate. That is, until things come to a head and then the show more often than not falls flat on its face.

The pivotal, game-changing moment in this season is when the Governor storms the prison in episode 8. The problem is that while the lead-up to this episode is enormous, the episode itself is a frustrating mess. The Governor's threat feels overstated, and Rick cowers before the man and practically begs. This whole pivotal scene deflates, with the Governor coming off as a madman, none of his people seeming to notice that this is a problem, and Rick not even bothering to try and convince them of the man's dark history. It's absurd, and it's frustratingly stupid. The action sequence that follows is meant to feel tragic, but it mostly comes across as long and pointless considering the inciting moment is so dumb.

Even worse, Rick's people who have become so good at shooting zombies in the head suddenly lose all their ability to aim and are easily overcome.

And that's kind of the other problem with this show; for all the wonderful character drama it often manages to create, for all the thought and effort put into coming up with new and gloriously gory ways to kill zombies, it often falls upon tired tropes and convenient gimping to artificially inflate the danger. Characters will get their foot stuck, or allow zombies to sneak up from behind them while walking backward, or just suddenly not be able to get a zombie in the head when in a previous episode they were a crack shot. It can make the show's zombie-killing sequences, which are on a technical level absolutely terrific, sometimes feel absolutely frustrating. It's as though the writers sometimes know they need to insert an action sequence to keep things moving but they aren't sure how to do it so they just make it happen, regardless.

Still, there are a number of episodes in this collection that are absolutely enthralling, particularly in the second half. A storyline involving Carol, Tyreese and two girls named Mika (Kyla Kennedy) and Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) is absolutely fascinating, and one of the few times that the payoff equals the buildup. It's also one of the show's darker moments, and in a show full of so much death and tragedy, that means something. Likewise, separate storylines about Glenn (Steven Yuen) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) trying to find each other are very satisfying, as is another story about Darryl and Maggie's sister Beth (Emily Kinney).

For fans, Season Four of "The Walking Dead" should be very pleasing. My qualms about the pivotal prison assault episode aside, much of this season is quite gripping and the show's technical production remains top notch. I find some of the storytelling choices suspect; too often, something happens for reasons I think are utterly stupid, or characters make obviously bone-headed decisions.

...And yet, I can't seem to stop watching.