Appropriately enough for this series, I was late to discover Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, though not by much. I think it was issue four or five that I idly picked up during my weekly jaunt to my local comic book store back in 2004, but I was hooked straight away. A zombie apocalypse story that promised to never end? What’s not to love? A lot of people did, which made the comics I’d missed already expensive on the after-market. I had to wait for the first trade paperback to catch up.
That premise – what happens after the disaster, and after that, and after that – remained interesting to me for a long time. I was a confirmed subscriber for many years before the story began noticeably running on fumes. The story became familiarly cyclical, the deaths ceased to be shocking. The often-bandied concept that “no one is safe” had been thrown out of the window years before. Kirkman’s obviously didn’t want to kill off his main character, Rick. For me at least, the series would have greatly benefited from his death after a certain point, and knowing he was untouchable seriously impacted my interest.
I kept reading mostly out of habit, having at the time a healthy amount of disposable income to spend on collecting comics. My breaking point was issue 100, one of the most disgusting items of media I’ve ever consumed. It was nothing more than torture porn done for the sake of the centenary. If you read it yourself when it came out, I’m sure who had strong feelings one way or another. It was polarising to say the least, and I was done forever.
I forgot about the series, only paying attention when Kirkman unexpectedly decided to end it with issue 193 in 2019. The 500th issue alien invasion spectacular so often joked about in the letters page was to never happen.
This Late To The Party is about the TV show, though, so enough of all that.
Looking back, I’m not precisely sure why I wasn’t interested in watching the television adaptation, but it was likely because of the book fatigue I was already experiencing. My friends were excited to watch it, but they weren’t comic readers, so the concept was fresh to them. Another reason was probably that the show was only available on a premium subscription channel here in the United Kingdom. Without easy access, it was easy for me to miss at the time.
So, twelve years later, season one of AMC’s Walking Dead: let’s do it to it, shall we?
Episode one starts with an effective stretch of silence, and a ballsy opening gambit of the first zombie we meet being a little blonde teddybear-clutching girl, swiftly dispatched with a bullet by Andrew Lincoln’s Rick, the show’s point-of-view character and lead, just like in the books.
Frank Darabont – executive producer, show-runner and writer of four episodes of the season – looms large over the episodes, and not just because of the number of his favourite actors show up, including Laurie Holden and Jeffery DeMunn. I was surprised to read that Darabont pitched Thomas Jane for the role of Rick, too. That’s an interesting “What If?”.
There are other interesting casting choices too; Jon Bernthal is his partner Shane; I knew him from a small but memorable part in Sicario before his character-defining turn as Frank Castle (seriously – Disney had better not recast The Punisher. Bernthal just fits). After the flashback that explains Rick’s coma and provides a convenient way for the audience to be led into the world, we’re treated to an excellent opening inside a disaster-strewn hospital and subsequent corpse-ridden car lot. It’s very reminiscent of 28 Days Later, which I’m sure was remarked upon to death in 2010.
By the conclusion of the first episode, Rick goes full cowboy and rides a horse into the impressively depicted desolation of Atlanta and an avenue full of zombies. Already his plot armour is pretty darn thick as he just shouldn’t survive this moment at all, even with his (and everyone else’s, for that matter) computer game weapons accuracy. Every shot is a dead on head-shot, sometimes without even looking.
Episode two, and suddenly Michael Rooker. Also suddenly, I remember why reading contemporary reviews gave me another reason not to watch: the original – awful – characters that are introduced. Rooker’s Merle Dixon, a Southern racist abusing his fellow survivors, is so vile and abrasive it’s difficult to understand why Rick just doesn’t shoot him at the close of the first scene he’s in, and even more difficult to understand why anyone thought we’d want to watch more of him at all. Then comes along his equally loathsome brother, and the idiotic T-Dog. Holy shit is the key falling down the drain pipe scene cartoon-level bad!
Meanwhile through episodes three and four, the plot bimbles along; the sequence where Rick and Glenn cover themselves in fresh gore to disguise themselves from the undead is a great one transposed from the comics. At least Rick is proving immediately why he’s going to be in charge soon enough. As the episodes progress we have meetings and reunions; Rick finds his wife and son along with his partner amongst a group of people gathered up outside Atlanta, and we learn Shane told Laurie Rick had died in the hospital! The men are all assholes or idiots in this show.
A whole episode is spent regaining a lost bag of guns and ammunition whilst confronting a terribly written gang – vatos with hearts of gold – with Mexican stand-offs that shuffle along slower than the actual dead. The walkers attack at night, as one person actually dreams, and for a spell there’s some effectively paranoia and despair amongst the survivors. Andrea’s sister keeps herself dead just long enough for a maudlin, boring farewell. We discover later that the resurrection time can vary, from three minutes to eight hours. Handy for plot shenanigans!
Oh hey, it’s Stan Beeman himself! Noah Emmerich is Dr Edward Jenner, another new character. The survivors arrive at the Centre for Disease Control and Exposition to find out what happens inside an infected person’s brain after they die, and then discover the devastating fact that there’s no one left, anywhere. This plot is also a departure from the comics, in which the actual cause of the zombie outbreak is never given (at least it wasn’t before I quit).
A terminally sad Jenner blows up the building in a fiery CGI explosion which I could only imagine would be incredibly unsafe and impractical in real life, and the season ends with our convoy of the living riding off to an uncertain future.
So what did I think? It was enjoyable enough, with some excellent zombie effects, but the season has its issues. Individual episodes vary wildly in terms of plot quality. Most if not all have interminably long and vacuous scenes that are frankly a chore to sit through.
Some characters are immediately improved from their comic book counterparts by sheer dint of the actor playing them – Bernthal’s Shane and Holden’s Andrea, certainly. On the other hand, Lincoln is serviceable but unremarkable as Rick, and Sarah Wayne Callies’ Laurie actively dulls up the screen every moment she appears. Carl barely registers as a person, let alone the hero’s son.
The characters created for the TV series are uniformly awful, with such go-away heat my teeth were on edge for the return of a one-handed Merle.
I think the problem is that the aftermath of the apocalypse just isn’t particularly interesting. It took a long time for the thinness of the premise to really become apparent in comic format, when the story could be delivered in twenty page portions a month at a time. On the screen, though? Even after only six episodes there’s not much interest left for me.
So … how many have they made since?
147?! With another 24 due before the series concludes?! AND a spin-off show?! Yeep!
I find that surprising. I can only imagine the writing and characterisation improved markedly? Frank Darabont was fired after the first season, despite its success – which might have been for the show’s overall benefit, considering its audience doubled by season three and reached a high point of almost sixteen million viewers during the fifth. All the better too, if it meant no more Merles.
Ah well. At least no one looked directly into the camera and screamed, “WE ARE THE WALKING DEAD!”