I’ve always done movie reviews and avoided talking about the Walking Dead TV show. It’s not that I don’t like it, more that with a long running show like this, despite each episode being like a movie, each piece is also a chapter in a much larger story. When you step back each season can be seen that way too. The more you look at the details of each episode the further you get from the big picture. And with a show like this my likes and dislikes go up and down each episode so it’s possible for my enjoyment of it to change in ways that it wouldn’t for a movie. A momentary disappointment in a film lasts several hours with a series as does the excitement. TWD has been on long enough though that I feel a bit more comfortable doing a few quick reviews of the seasons. I’ll likely stay away from individual episodes because frankly enough has been said about them already.
(And just a reminder I’m writing this from the point of view of viewers unfamiliar with the comics in order to focus on the show as it’s own animal. The comics are great and I’ll talk about them later.)
With the benefit of hindsight it’s easier to step back and see that the first season of TWD does exactly what a first season is meant to; it introduces us to the characters, sets the environment, gives us a sense of the consequences involved and tries to hook us with a reason to stick around either in story telling hooks or character development.
The first season follows Sherif Rick Grimes as he wakes up in the hospital to find the world has basically ended due to the dead walking the earth. He manages to get help, and begins his quest to find his family. As he moves through his dystopian surroundings we meet the rest of the survivors in turn as they scavenge for food. I like to call this the “Trailer Park Season,” as the survivors are trying to survive in a make-shift camp on the outskirts of town.
The production value is stellar: At just six episodes long it’s clear that AMC was hedging it’s bets on whether this show would make it or not but was also willing to sink a good-sized investment into the six episodes they made. Smart move.
They economized smartly:
With budget constraints an issue for any fledgling show the creators were able to save money by not needing a lot of fancy sets for the main story to repeatedly take place in like most other shows. In this case setting the story in a camp made it easier for the rest of the money to be spent on great locations like the CDC at the end of the season.
The story is self-contained:
If you only ever saw season one it would be a pity because it really gets better and better as time goes on but you could easily watch the first season alone and it would all make sense. It works like a film.
They answered the questions they raised:
One of the great hooks with a show like LOST was all the amazing questions they raised. And for a while that helped sustain that show. But there were so many questions left unanswered for so long and which were so poorly answered if at all that audiences became annoyed. (Even the hard core LOST fans like myself.) TWD managed to avoid that by raising questions and setting up obvious plot points and resolving them quickly. Rick finds his family right away, we get answers about the plague fairly early on, we find out that Shane wasn’t lying about thinking Rick was dead when he left him behind in the hospital. Things like that could have been drawn out in a poor way but we end up satisfied episode to episode.
The opening rips off 28 Days Later:
28 Days Later opens with the main character waking up in the hospital after having slept through the entire opening stages of the zombie outbreak. The Walking Dead comic and TV show start the exact same way and came out a bit after 28 Days Later and use the exact same opening. If this were just an homage to a great movie I wouldn’t be put off by it at all. If this happened to one character in the show, I think I would feel the same way. But for the whole series in both comics and television to reuse such a popular opening is a bit hard to swallow.
There are certain things that are bound to go off the rails a bit in the first season of any show as the production finds its way. There are fortunately very few of these things in TWD’s first season. One thing that always sort of put me off though was the psychic Jim. The character is interesting and the actor played him well but his story line suggested something about the writing that was a little unsatisfying. Jim seems to be a product of the time, that of the post-LOST television writing, a psychic whose very presence suggests that we might be getting a lot more supernatural story telling coming along other than the zombies everywhere. It just seemed all the more out of place because of how realistically set and played the rest of the show is and served as a distraction.
Similarities to LOST:
I’ve already mentioned this but considering the fact that we’re following a ragtag group of survivors it’s particularly important for the writers to be different from LOST yet I keep finding little similarities. One is Rick’s ability to lead being nearly as bad as Jack’s. It isn’t until the very end of season four that I start being satisfied with Rick’s leadership skills and it’s a hell of a journey getting there. But then again this show is all about the long haul. Later, in other seasons we start seeing flashbacks, dead characters showing up as ghosts? hallucinations? even a scene copied directly from LOST where the good looking bad guy and the cute girl play a drinking game of never have I ever. Sheesh.
At the end of the season we have an amazing summation giving us a peek at the larger world reaction to the apocalypse when the survivors make it to the CDC. In what I would describe as a shockingly unscientific scene where we see down to the neuron level of the brain in Fight Club-esque detail we get a clear understanding of what’s going on with the zombies. It plays well and makes us care about everything that’s going on again even if we’ve gotten desensitized to all the violence and heartbreak. But the whole CDC sequence is just so similar to the Hatch on LOST I found it distracting. In all this survival story there is this one little place that is still up and running with an impossible-to-open door and a mysterious light inside.
Have I just watched too much LOST!?
The Old Folks Home:
I swore not to nitpick individual episodes but one in particular put me off as the sort of “feel-good episode.” Rick and the guys run into a group of guys taking care of a lot of old people at an old folks home. It’s meant to give us a bit of hope but it played out more like a scene from a B cop movie.
They shot a kid:
As a parent this is now hard to watch. It’s hard to get the real gravity of some situations if we don’t relate to them. I thought this was a bold move at the time but now I feel it more. Right in the opening scene this show told us it wasn’t pulling any punches. Everyone was vulnerable. This is important since one of the main characters is a kid.
They said the word nigger and they meant it.
It’s offensive and it’s ugly and they used it in a completely realistic way. The character Merle Dixon is exactly what people think of when they hear someone is from the South. They think “Oh he’s a redneck, white trash racist.” And he is. (Keep in mind everyone else on the show is meant to be southern as well.)
This is brilliant writing because it stayed true to reality. It meant the characters on the show could react to Merle Dixon in a more meaningful way, and that the drama around this character was heightened. It also set up a longer and stronger character-development arc for Merle’s brother Daryl. Daryl starts out making a couple comments about the Korean character, Glenn. He calls him a Chinaman which seems a bit more Big Lebowski than anything. But Daryl’s love for his racist brother gives him a dark past to overcome. He’s the ultimate bad boy gone good.
They cut a woman in half.
Early in the first episode we are hit with a LARGE number of brutal images of dead bodies strewn everywhere. It’s pretty rough to see. The level of gore and brutality shown here would have been unimaginable prior to this show.
The effects team on the Walking Dead is doing an incredible job.
Maybe the most disturbing and popular image is that of bicycle girl. Her backstory in the AMC webisodes: Torn Apart, is also heartbreaking. For a lot of reasons fans really took to this woman, her gestures seem pleading and sorrowful the way other walkers don’t. The level of rot and devastation on her body is horrendous.
So, to sum it all up, six episodes of very well produced television makes this well worth checking out. If you aren’t hooked by the end, you’ll still have watched one of the best shows on television.