Saturday, 8 December 2012

THE WALKING DEAD's third season: mid-year report

Saturday, 8 December 2012

"Seed" (***), "Sick" (**½), "Walk with Me" (**½), "Killer Within" (***½), "Say the Word" (**½), "Hounded" (**½), "When the Dead Come Knocking" (***) & "Made to Suffer" (***½)

Long-term readers will know I ragged on The Walking Dead during its first season, when everyone else was going nuts over it. I then enjoyed the first batch of season 2 episodes, so cut it some slack, before that season became a horrendous bore until the last few course-correcting hours. I tend to veer between love and hate with this show, but season 3's now halfway through a 16-episode run, on winter hiatus until February, and a few people have been asking for my opinion... so, I'll oblige...

The short answer: it's much better now. In fact, it's closer to what I expected from "a zombie television drama" from the beginning. Glen Mazzara inherited a slick production from the outgoing Frank Darabont and, partly because they've reached a popular part of the comic-book's storyline, it's a far more enjoyable experience every week. The characters were wisely split into two locations that each had merit (Rick's core group at the "impregnable" prison, Andrea at the haven town of Woodbury), there are more exciting characters involved (like scowling assassin Michonne and David Morrissey's privately psychotic Governor), the show's remembered its own past (Michael Rooker's Merle has returned after vanishing in season 1), the writers have ditched some of the least appealing characters (tedious T-Dog got eaten alive, boring and unlikable Lori died in childbirth), Rick's become more complex as a human being (now driven half-crazy by his experiences), and the show's budgetary concerns have abated (there are more zombies and inventive kills per episode than the entirety of the previous two seasons put together).

Is it perfect? No. I still struggle to find most of the regular characters all that interesting, but they're improving over time. Daryl (Norman Reedus) has charisma to burn, Glen (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) being tortured by Merle endeared them to me, Rick's more nuanced, Hershel (Scott Wilson) is very likeable, and the two prisoners who've been added have potential, although it's horribly embarrassing that one's so blatantly a straight replacement for T-Dog. Did someone just hate IronE Singleton as an actor?

The Walking Dead's pacing and gore has been given a considerable boost, too, which helps make its worst elements feel more tolerable. If you hate what's happening with Rick at the prison, five minutes later you're watching The Governor peruse his fish tank of zombie heads, or brush the hair of his zombified daughter. I've also been told by fans the story's tearing along compared to the comics, and you can tell the writers feel like there's more material to burn through.

Although this sometimes doesn't help various characters—like Michonne, who was hyped considerably before the season began by comic-book fans, but who isn't anything more than a stare with swords. But you can't get bored now, which is what was happening halfway through every previous season, so that's a huge relief and improvement. I've also really liked the way this season's dealt with opposing forces and their ideals: best exemplified with siblings Daryl and Merle, erstwhile companions Andrea and Michonne, and leaders Rick and The Governor.

The Walking Dead still isn't something I think has enough depth to warrant weekly reviews, but it's definitely a more entertaining show now than at any other point in its history. I just hope that once this storyline's exhausted, there's a place for the plot to go... because my bigger concerns is that The Walking Dead will go stale if every season's about the group finding impermanent sanctuaries (laboratory, farm, prison, town). However, it would be ridiculous to claim this third season hasn't been an amazing improvement, and easily the most confident and entertaining year yet. No wonder just under 11 million are tuning in every week in the US, which is phenomenal numbers for a cable network that would be content with 2 million.