Monday, November 08, 2010


I know Halloween was last week, but my Halloween movie watching has been a bit staggered recently. So: delayed horror ramblings?

I sat down to watch the first and second episodes of The Walking Dead over the weekend and I have to say that I am impressed. I never particularly cared for the series in comic form - which is not to say that I ever thought it was bad, just that whenever I caught an issue it never grabbed me. I believe from what I've heard other people say, it's one of those series that works better if you have the accumulated story at your fingertips - picking up bits and pieces here and there is bound to disappoint. But even though I admire it as a well-made book every time I read it I've never felt compelled to fill in the gaps of what I've missed, so there is that. I guess the best example of my ambivalence towards the series can best be summed up in the fact that when I read #75 (I have been following the last little storyline because of the book's raised profile) I was genuinely excited when I got to the color section at the end of the book, and believed very briefly that this was a genuine left-turn and that the book was going to switch-gears into sci-fi. I - of course - figured out in a couple pages it was an anniversary issue put-on, but my investment in the series is slight enough that I very briefly entertained the notion of following the book more seriously, and probably would have done so if the genre switch had been permanent. (I am just far more of a sci-fi guy than a horror or crime guy, but you probably know that by now.)

But I think that the series works for me a lot better on TV than it did on the page. People with more investment in the source material will undoubtedly say that it falls short in some way, but for television - even "edgy" basic cable Emmy-baiting drama fare - it's pretty intense. There were some serious white-knuckle moments peppered throughout both episodes. Survival horror has, at this point, some fairly solid conventions as a distinct genre, and even if we're familiar with these conventions from decades of genre films, books and comics, it's still pretty cool to see the genre get put through its paces on national television with good special effects and decent actors. You and I have seen Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later and maybe even Return of the Living Dead 3 - you know, the one with the cute cutter zombie girl - we know how this pans out. But I imagine for anyone only vaguely familiar with the genre, tuning in because it shares a timeslot with Madmen, it's probably something of a revelation.

That goes in general for all kinds of nerd media, though, when it's adapted correctly: stories that are intimately familiar to us because of their dependence on decades of accumulated convention and narrative technique can seem preternaturally efficient when translated into alien mediums, Moviegoers or viewers unfamiliar with the source genre have no idea that the reason these stories work so well is that thousands of people have been woodshedding every possible variation on the theme for decades, and we know what works and what doesn't. So a story like The Walking Dead that profits from Kirkman's deep understanding of the genre - which may seem unavoidably familiar to aficionados - takes on an entirely new life when placed in front of an audience who have never danced that tune before.

Any shortcomings the series may have are wholly contingent on the limitations of its medium. Most of the characters are drawn in broad strokes, but that's to be expected from episodic TV and, I think, fairly convincing as well. Anyone able to survive in this situation would naturally be a more extreme type of personality. So yeah, you've got a scowling redneck racist stereotype, but that makes sense because it's not hard to imagine that an inordinate amount of psychopaths and sociopaths would tend to thrive in any violent survival scenario. Life or death situations tend to efface subtlety very quickly.

If the show sticks to the trajectory of these first two episodes, it should become a pop culture mainstay in no time flat. I think if could do for horror on TV what The Sopranos did for crime - that is, disguise some very old cliches in new enough clothes in such a way as to inspire a number of subsequent, better variations on the theme. The difference is that while The Sopranos* somehow convinced people that it was more than a garden-variety mob show with rare touches of wit, The Walking Dead makes no bones about the fact that's its a gorey horror melodrama and, as such, can be far more effective and ruthless in its execution of genre convention. Madmen is shlock**, but it's worse for the fact that it pretends to be something more than historiploitation that exploits the audience's awareness of dramatic irony for cheap schadenfreude. The Walking Dead is schlock too, but proudly so, and as such is so far much more enjoyable than just about anything else on the tube.

* Not a blind criticism: I sat through every episode of The Sopranos waiting in vain for the vaunted "greatest show in TV history" to appear, only to be disappointed at almost every turn.
** I've watched the show off and on, and I've never been impressed, except for the fact that it hires pretty ladies. After discussing it with my mom I've come to the conclusion that the majority of people who really like Madmen must be people who aren't actually old enough to remember living through the sixties, because no one in their right mind would ever want to revisit that particular cul-de-sac of American history from that ghoulish perspective.