Friday, May 20, 2011

TV on DVD: The Walking Dead

Zombies are slow and dumb, but they have one significant advantage: sheer numbers. The dead are indeed re-animating and infecting the living in Robert Kirkman’s comic-books, which AMC has adapted for television with the first season of The Walking Dead, now available on DVD (promo here).

Sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes is a quiet, self-contained kind of guy. He would be handy to have around during the end of the world, but as fate would have it, he misses the initial cataclysm. Waking up from a coma in an abandoned hospital, much like opening of Day of the Triffids, Grimes sets out to find his family, encountering stray human survivors here and there.

There have been a number of criticisms leveled at Walking, which are somewhat off the mark. Much has been made of the racist white trash character Merle Dixon (presumably named after Merle Haggard) and his violent but useful brother Daryl (presumably named after his other brother Daryl), as representatives of red-state southerners writ large. (Of course, crisis situations bring out the worst in some people. Remember Ray Nagin hiding from his responsibilities on the top floor of the Hyatt Hotel during Katrina?)

However, the Brothers Dixon are not Walking’s only white male characters, besides Grimes. For instance, Dale Horvath, the RV widower, serves as something of a kindly surrogate father for the band of survivors Grimes encounters. Though he also definitely fits the preconceived Nascar demographic, the character of Jim is never depicted in unsavory terms. He is just socially awkward, which the zombie apocalypse is not likely to help.

Perhaps the biggest rap on Walking is there are not enough zombies. It is definitely talky, particularly by the standards of Romero’s franchise. Yet, Walking is most notable for its success setting the scene, creating a vivid sense of zombie-ravaged Atlanta and the surrounding environs. The production and set design work is top-notch all the way through.

The real drawback to Walking is the narrative flow. With just six installments, each chapter should build up the story-line in a logical progression. Instead, once Grimes has his big reunion early in episode three, the series becomes rather episodic. The survivors go into town, then return, only to go back again. Indeed, season one feels somewhat truncated. It leaves several supporting characters in precarious positions, but since it does not show their actual demises, audiences are primed for a late reappearance from somebody, but it never materializes.

While the cast rages from very strong to sufficient by genre standards, English actor Andrew Lincoln clearly stands out as Grimes. Though not exactly blessed with a standard leading man presence, he conveys the grit of someone who can be relied on during times of crisis. Controversies notwithstanding, Michael Rooker and Norman Reedus chew the scenery with relish as the Dixon brothers. Unfortunately, Walking has yet to develop a really good woman action figure to compliment the guys, like a Maggie Q.

Frankly, season one feels like set-up, having set the scene and established the back-stories quite effectively. However, there are scads of loose ends left dangling and no heavy pay-off at the end (there is a big explosion though). Still, there is some entertaining zombie killing and perhaps more importantly, it leaves viewers intrigued as to what the future holds for these characters. Now available on DVD, Walking is recommended for those who wish to invest the second season (coming this fall) as well.