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Seeing as how AMC's The Walking Dead premieres this Sunday and that I will be doing the recaps for the upcoming season, I figured I'd give my personal history with the show.
I came into my first viewing of The Walking Dead expecting a fairly quality drama. After AMC had such critical successes as Mad Men (the best show on TV for five years running) and Breaking Bad (with a great first and fourth seasons and pretty good middle seasons), I figured The Walking Dead would be watchable at worst. And it far exceeded expectations.
Now, I’m not really a fan of the horror genre. Not just the recent trend of having the most gruesome and bloody deaths imaginable, but many of the older films. I’m just not a big fan. So when The Walking Dead was announced I came into it hoping it wouldn’t be the typical zombie survivor story, where each person gets picked off one by one until they finally make some daring escape and somehow live on, despite the town being completely overrun by infected people. Nor did I want a TV series that was basically a Resident Evil video game with the band of survivors always funneling down some improperly lit corridor or some crumbling once-luxurious hotel every week. I had no prior knowledge of the comic book upon which the TV show was based, but I had kept my very slim hope that it wouldn’t be the tried and true zombie apocalypse story.
The first season was incredible. Maybe due to it only having six episodes and, therefore, having a very tight story arc for the entirety of the season. But The Walking Dead combined intense looming dread, which never felt too campy or ridiculous, with utter determination and even slim hope from the characters of a survival with some quality of life. The Walking Dead created an environment that was fraught with danger but wasn’t completely hopeless until the final episode. The traveling plotlines created a strong sense of the show always moving, even if they were doing it methodically. Whether it was Rick’s trek to find his family or his assuming a leadership role within the camp of survivors and convincing them to go to the CDC in search of answers, The Walking Dead never felt as though it stalled, even though there wasn’t as much action as one might suspect from a zombie thriller. Once the group arrived at the CDC, looking for solace and finally being told there was none, there was an intense conclusion that stamped out the few remaining glowing embers of hope.
The way The Walking Dead managed to always have a zombie attack lurking on the periphery (after Rick’s arrival and escape from Atlanta) kept the mood always on edge. These were survivors with very limited supplies and they had to think of other ways to get through zombies (i.e. covering themselves in zombie entrails so the zombies couldn’t smell the living). The action was usually quick and exciting and always whet the palate without overloading the senses.
Most of the actors were solid as well. The performances weren’t earth shattering but the chemistry between Andrew Lincoln and Jon Berthnal was evident (Rick and Shane) and, for the most part, the very specific role everyone was given was performed more than adequately (although the characters of T-Dogg and Merle Dixon were pretty weak from the onset). Perhaps the best performance came from Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon. The tough, world-weary Daryl always sewed the seeds of doubt as to what his alliances really were while usually offering up some excitement and thought behind his actions. Reedus as Daryl has continued to be the standout of the series.
After being excited and wanting more of The Walking Dead, my expectations were, of course, considerably heightened. But then news started coming out regarding AMC really crimping the budget for the show and their growing schism between AMC and the showrunner, and relative Hollywood big-wig, Frank Darabont. Soon an assistant showrunner was hired by AMC in Glen Mazzara and days later Darabont quit. The entire season was up in flux. Eventually The Walking Dead would become a tale of two seasons, the first half would be the last from Darabont and the second half would become Mazzara’s. Clearly this is not an ideal situation for any TV show, let alone a show that had received both critical and audience attention.
Then season 2 finally hit, and it was perhaps one of the most boring and disappointing things I had seen in a long while. After what was an awesome first episode, introducing the fact that there were other survivors (I remember being incredibly excited at the time) everything went downhill. Hershel and his bevy of women were all uninteresting and the intensity and thrilling tone of the first season was almost instantly traded for plodding personal plotlines. What might have been a very poignant story as our band of survivors find an idyllic farm and try to build a life there, only for it to be shattered, was completely lost in the relative low-quality The Walking Dead delivered.
The infighting and the Rick-Lori-Shane love triangle. Shane declaring that Rick, “Can’t keep Lori and Carl safe” seemed to crop up every half hour. Equally as annoying were Dale and Andrea, their father-daughter relationship apparently having hit the adolescent stage for the entire season. Had it not been hammered into the ground, and had Dale’s character actually seemed more loving towards Andrea, this could have been a powerful storyline, but unfortunately its constant annoyance far outweighed anything else. The budding relationship between Glenn and Maggie was almost as disappointing, just because they had no onscreen chemistry whatsoever. The fact that they are trying/tried to find love in this desolate world could have been interesting but seemed more dull than anything. And of course the constant “debating” between Rick and Hershel about whether to let the group stay or not induced a groan every time it reappeared on screen.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the Darabont half season were the seeming ever changing zombie rules and general idiocy of the previously competent survivors. Once they couldn’t find Sophia after the second episode there was no way she would turn up, and yet they continued the search. There were moments that included Daryl going off on his own, zombie pawing at his boot (somehow it just couldn’t reach its leg!?), and the very next scene Daryl would have some crazy tracking skill that was previously unannounced. Maybe the fact that Rick and company thought they could find Sophia was most disappointing of all, once the audience realizes it isn’t going to happen it makes it even worse when a storyline continues on for another four episodes. By the end of the first half I was just waiting for everyone to get off that farm, and it seemed that once the zombie barn was busted open and Hershel’s wishes were completely ignored, the second half would give me what I wanted. Instead it was even worse.
Mazzara’s half showed the new direction the show would be taking. Instead of constant fear of zombie attacks it become an action-horror video game. Any of the nuanced dread that remained in Darabont’s first half was traded in for zombie onslaughts and their gory and “exciting” deaths. Worse yet they stayed on the stinking farm! Sure, they did take a few trips off the reservation to find supplies or drop off a kidnapped survivor, but the story remained on the farm. There was no forward momentum to the show, stuck treading in the sludge of the farm’s constant Hershel and Rick back and forth. Sure, Shane went crazy (and then dead, and then zombified, and then back to dead) and Lori got dumb, but none of these things needed to happen on the farm, they could have easily happened on the road.
The final episode represented the most action packed episode of television not named Game of Thrones. Zombies finally overran the farm and the survivors realized that they could never have actually settled on the farm, regardless of what Hershel allowed. There were lots of random deaths, there was frenetic energy that was supposed to be take place of Season 1’s tense thrills. The group was separated, albeit Andrea was the only one not to reunite (still sort of ridiculous they all met back up).
At the end of the Season 2 finale, the themes for Season 3 were set. Rick would now lead with a despot’s fist instead of the democratic style from before and they would quickly find the huge prison behind them. Again, the overall theme of the show is trying to find some security and comfort in their new lives, so expect that to be another main sticking point throughout this season (hopefully to better effect than in Season 2). The Walking Dead will complete its transformation from the Darabont moodiness to the Mazzara action. Hopefully a happy balance can be found, but I don’t expect it. The mysterious Michonne was also introduced as she has taken Andrea captive or is helping her, one or the other. Hopefully Andrea will be kept away from the rest of the group for the bulk of Season 3 in order to break up the storylines so that the same monotony from Season 2 doesn’t plague Season 3.
The Walking Dead would be best served if it became about Carl and not the adult survivors. If Mazzara and company were smart, Season 3 would represent a transition to the upbringing and formation of Carl as a person in this new, terrifying world. Carl represents a new future and if the focus was shifted more on him it could create some added poignancy and urgency that the show lacked in Season 2. Season 3 shouldn’t be just about Carl, but his growing into an adult could become the most interesting aspect of the show for years to come.
The Walking Dead Season 3 premieres on AMC Sunday 14 at 9 PM EST.