It took some getting to. I don’t have Sky or Digital or Freesat or any other means of accessing FX, the channel on which The Walking Dead was originally broadcast over here. My Granddad did have Sky but decided to get rid of it just as the show was starting. And just for the sake of Sod’s Law, my uncle decided to get Sky just as it was ending (although he did have go without it in the end so nyer).
A couple of months ago The Walking Dead finally came to terrestrial. On Channel 5. For those of you outside the UK, when Channel 5 was launched in 1997 you could count on one hand the number of households able to tune into it. Fourteen years later and there are still a lot of rural and semi-rural areas that can’t. Barnoldswick being one of them. Luckily, Channel 5 has a web player. And five episodes in I figured out that if you leave it a few days you can watch the show without advert breaks. Hooray!
It needs to be said, I’m not the world’s biggest Frank Darabont fan but I do have a predisposition to love anything with zombies so I was hardly going to let it go unwatched. It wasn’t until about halfway through episode two that I started to enjoy The Walking Dead but when I did… well let’s just say I’m now more inclined to blame Stephen King for my dislike of certain other Darabont works.
OK, let’s just get this out of the way. Episode one was boring as hell. Nothing much really happens and what does happen has a very heavy and forced feel to it. Besides a couple of additional scenes introducing the rest of the cast early and an expansion of Morgan and Duane’s story, what we have is essentially a carbon copy of the first issue and a half of the comic. That’s roughly thirty, largely dialogue-free, pages stretched out to fill an hour slot and had the show followed the same format for the other five episodes I probably wouldn’t have seen the season through to the end. Credit where it’s due, the DP here did an amazing job recreating various panels but the narrative was all too thin.
As well as the stretched story, there was the addition of the line “I’m sorry this happened to you” to the zombie euthanasia. It was corny and unnecessary, completely undermining any emotional depth the scene could have had and Andrew Lincoln’s delivery was just horrible. He looked embarrassed to be saying it. Shame on you Darabont, shame on you.
So yeah, episode one didn’t really grab me until Rick was trapped in the tank. Which wasn’t in the comic so the show has that going for it at least.
Thankfully, from episode two onwards we see a welcome change in format, with the comic now being adapted rather than copied. New material and characters have been added while the comic is followed structurally with individual content being altered and shifted around to better suit the medium.
That said, Episode Two didn’t get off to the best start thanks to Antagonist Without a Cause, Merle Dixon (which I’ll cover in a moment) and the live action interpretation of Andrea. Now, comic Andrea may not be the most interesting of characters but she’s likeable enough and handy with a firearm. TV Andrea is… not. TV Andrea screams a lot, she cries a lot, she declares all hope is lost a lot and she only has one facial expression:
But hey, at least she can fish.
So back to Merle. If there’s one horror cliché that I’d gladly make a kneecapping offence it’s conflict for the sake of making human nature the real horror; fighting amongst yourselves is more dangerous than the undead trying to eat your brains and all that bullshit. In this case, Merle pulls a gun on his companions and declares that he’s now in charge. Why? Because he’s a redneck stereotype of course! And then he gets handcuffed to a pipe.
So far, so contrived but then along comes the excellent second half to make up for it.
With Merle out of the picture and Andrea no longer screaming (possibly because she’s knackered her vocal chords and can’t) things really pick up. The second half feels much shorter than the first and the early addition of the use of rotting zombie parts as scent camouflage was brilliantly enacted and extra gory. Way more gory than in the comic and all the better for it. And the part where they all just run away and leave Merle cuffed without so much as a backward glance (the noble but clumsy T-Dog excepted) was pretty hilarious.
Afterwards, the decision to go back for Merle and the guns Rick left by the tank in episode one, based on an event that only takes up a couple of pages in the comic, is expanded into a two episode story arc and this time it works thanks to the addition of some new and interesting characters. On screen, Merle may be nothing but a stereotype but off he’s fascinating – we never see his escape, neither from the handcuffs nor the city, we just see the evidence he’s left behind and that’s when he becomes engaging – while the discovery of a group of inner city youths who have set up camp in a nursing home in order to care for the residents who were too sick or old to escape adds a tremendous depth of humanity without being sentimental or moralising.
Interestingly, my favourite character in the show is Merle’s brother, Daryl. Even though he seems to have all the personality flaws of his brother, he’s much better written and thus is elevated above a mere caricature. And he’s funny. Coming in at a close second is Dr. Jenner, the lone scientist still working at the Center for Disease Control and it’s a shame they wasted such a compelling character on only two episodes. It should perhaps also be noted that neither of these characters appears in the comic although I hear Robert Kirkman liked Daryl so much he plans to add him in.
In addition, there is some nice expansion of existing characters and of Glenn and Shane in particular. More is made of just how brave Glenn is and Shane’s descent into madness appears to have been given a degree of credibility notably lacking in the original story. He’s no longer a man who shags his best friend’s wife (when they both believe he’s dead let’s not forget) then goes batshit because she doesn’t want to enter into a relationship with him; they are in a relationship which upon the discovery that Rick is still alive, she decides he tricked her into and she’s an absolute bitch towards him from then on. Huge kudos should be given to Jon Bernthal for his performance in the role – it takes some powerful acting to make you sympathise with a (admittedly half-arsed) drunken, borderline rape attempt.
However, while the characterisation of the men is by and large an improvement over the comic, the women fare pretty poorly and as a result what could have been one of the most shocking an tragic scenes in the show – the death of Andrea’s sister, Amy – was completely botched. Besides the laboured establishing shots of zombies sneaking into the camp eliminating any chance of the attack taking the audience by surprise, the writers relied exclusively on it being her birthday to create tragedy while, like all the women in the show who aren’t Jacqui, her character was never developed beyond useless and annoying (she’s so useless she just stands there and lets the zombies bite her. At least in the comic the first bite came from behind!). Amy may not have been quite as annoying as her sister but I’d still sooner face the Zombie Apocalypse with Ashley Graham.
I also have issues with the finale. While the episode as a whole was very good and the escape from the exploding CDC building was undeniably awesome, the decision of some of the characters to stay behind and get incinerated bugged me. Firstly, there was no real reason for it beyond a need to prune out a few of the cast that were invented just for the show but worse still is the reaction of the other characters: they’re more than happy to let the scientist who’s been studying the cause of the zombie apocalypse stay and die and are easily talked into letting Jacqui the cool headed pragmatist stay and die – i.e the two people who could actually be of some use – while Dale risks his life to persuade Andrea – the girl who could only be useful if you threw her into the path of the zombie hoard to buy yourself time to escape – to come with them. Seriously WTF?!!
OK, rant over.
Overall, despite the show being deeply flawed I did like it. I don’t believe for a second that it would have been met with the same levels of acclaim it has without Frank Darabont’s name attached and similarly I suspect without Darabont’s name some of the female oriented genre sites out there would have had something to say about the division of gender roles in a crisis – men fight, women cry and flail – and the characterisation of the women in general but all the same, I’ll definitely be awaiting Season 2 with interest.
Despite the bad start, I’m dying to see what’s become of Merle and hoping like hell Michael Rooker’s talents aren’t wasted on the antagonistic, redneck cliché he started out as. And if Shane does ultimately meet the same fate as his graphic counterpart it looks like there will at least be a much more believable build up to it. Personally I’m hoping they let Shane live and kill Andrea instead. But that’s just me.