Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Review: THE WALKING DEAD, 2.1 - "What Lies Ahead"

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

AMC's adaptation of The Walking Dead comic-book debuted to great acclaim and record-breaking ratings last Halloween, but I was in the minority for finding its six-part run mostly underwhelming. It felt like people were just happy to see zombies on their TV screens every week, together with all the graphic violence a cable series can deploy. I was pleased to see some reassessment of the show this year, with quite a few people now admitting the show wasn't a home-run, and hoping season 2 will provide tastier drama with deeper characterization and more interesting stories.

Given my tepid reaction last year, I'm pleased to report that season 2 premiere "What Lies Ahead" definitely felt like an improvement in some respects. The survivors have become itinerant, which gets them away from their boring base camp, and the slobbering zombies were back en masse instead of being irregular boogiemen. Of course, last year's premiere was also chockfull of gruesome zombies, but the ensuing episodes avoided relying on them to sustain audience interested. That's a laudable creative decision to make, and one that I agree with, but The Walking Dead didn't have strong enough characters to make its zombie-less episode anything but a frustration to sit through. It remains to be seen if "What Lies Ahead" is indicative of what its title implies for this 13-part season, or if the writers have just suckered us into persevering for more hours of mawkish melodrama.

There remains a key problem at the heart of a show like The Walking Dead, of course. The basic arc of almost every zombie outbreak story (which this show is very derivative of) ends after a few hours of commitment because there's not actually much to say after awhile. Even George Romero's celebrated Dead saga kept reinventing itself with every sequel, instead of giving us a direct continuation with the same characters. A TV series about a zombie apocalypse has little choice but to be a protraction of the movies it's inspired by, so it's hard to see where the show can really go—beyond giving us new destinations to reach, survivors to meet, and zombie-slaying moments to savour. Perhaps the comic's readers are more tolerant about this, because for them a part of the The Walking Dead's appeal comes from seeing these characters and monochrome panels come to vivid life (something I can't take joy in, because I'm coming to it fresh). But it's nevertheless an issue I have with the idea of any zombie story taking hours, potentially years, to tell.

This episode itself was a good amount of fun, as we caught up with everyone after we last saw them fleeing the exploded CDC, which proved to be less of a sanctuary than expected. Now on the road heading out of Atlanta to Fort Benning, the story had limited but enjoyable concerns, as the group's RV ran into a road clogged with a "graveyard" of vehicles. And while the survivors set about siphoning fuel from the car wrecks, a large herd of "walkers" passed through the area, resulting in a brilliant sequence of people hiding from the undead in and around the discarded cars and trucks. A good amount of tension was squeezed from this situation, too, particularly from Andrea (Laurie Holden) fighting a lone zombie from inside a chemical toilet, and when two zombies went after little Sophia (Madison Lintz) under a car. This in turn resulted in Sophia getting lost while running away from the monsters, and the whole gang forming a search party out in the woods.

A search for a missing child in a zombie-infested countryside was really all there was to it this week, despite this being a "feature length" episode (well, 63-minutes without adverts). Zombie stories are reliant on characters getting through life-or-death situations, and "What Lies Ahead" went about its business delivering that in a solid hour. You can't fault it for succeeding in that basic aim, but it's a shame I've yet to really feel a connection to any of these people. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) gets less compelling as time ticks on, especially now he's united with his family; wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and her secret lover Shane (Jon Bernthal) keep coming across as slightly despicable to me; and almost everyone else just makes up the numbers (the tough black guy, the wiry Chinese kid, the emotional mother, blah, blah). The only three characters who get any kind of reaction from me are Andrea (especially now she's desperate to leave the group in the wake of her foiled suicide bid); Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) because he has a natural charm and believability to him; and redneck Daryl (Norman Reedus), because you can't go too far wrong with an anti-hero (although the writers appear to have smoothed his edges already, which may be a mistake).

The Walking Dead is perhaps just one of those shows that's going to divide people, unevenly. For me, it lacks originality and doesn't have characters I'd shed a tear for if they were turned into a zombie, and the show's whole promise of a serialized zombie epic that makes you care about the people involved just hasn't come to pass yet. The production's fantastic, the special effects are great, the set-pieces are well-executed, and this episode at least ended on a decent cliffhanger—with Rick's son Carl (Chandler Riggs) caught in the line of fire of someone shooting a wild deer—but I'll have to give it a few more weeks before deciding if this sophomore season's going to be closer to what I expected of the show to begin with.


  • This premiere was watched by 7.3 million people, making it the most-watched drama in US cable history. 4.8m were in the 18-49 demographic, with 4.2m in the 25-54 demographic. A total of 11 million people actually saw this premiere, when you include its two repeats. Those are astonishing figures. Clearly people love this show, or just love zombies.
  • This episode was written by the comic-book's creator Robert Kirkman and producer Frank Darabont (using the pseudonym Ardeth Bay). Darabont was fired by AMC earlier this year, halfway through production of Season 2, for vague reasons—but it appears to be an issue over Darabont's reluctance to work within an imposed budget cut by the network.
written by Ardeth Bey & Robert Kirkman / directed by Ernest Dickerson & Gwyneth Horder-Payton / starring Andrew Lincoln, Sarah Wayne Callies, Jon Bernthal, Laurie Holden & Jeffrey DeMunn / 16 October 2011 / AMC