4 Nov 2010

Screen Time: THE WALKING DEAD - EPISODE 1: “DAYS GONE BY”

THE WALKING DEAD - EPISODE 1: “DAYS GONE BY”
Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden Lennie James

Director: Frank Darabont


Matt C: US cable channel AMC really hit the ground running with their first original drama series, the peerless Mad Men, and followed it up with the excellent Breaking Bad and the under-appreciated Rubicon (there was a miniseries remake of The Prisoner, but that didn't go down too well with critics or audiences). As their next project they made an unexpected decision, but one that (based on early viewing figure estimates in the States) is likely to result in their most successful show yet, an adaptation of Robert Kirkman's acclaimed comic, The Walking Dead. Post-apocalyptic zombie fiction is a hell of long way from the boozing misogynist ad execs from Mad Men, but it shows that AMC are now in a position to give HBO a run for their money when it comes to making riveting, adult, zeitgeist-capturing television.

Stewart R: I’ve only just dug my way through half of the Walking Dead Compendium but having absorbed that much I have been anticipating the televisual adaptation with an almost zombie-like, slathering thirst. Could we be living in a time where a no-punches-held zombie comic could really find its way onto television screens around the globe and be a success? The first four minutes of The Walking Dead TV series quickly establish that this is certainly going to be a show that won't hold those punches, potentially shocking those new to the material and instantly pleasing the die-hard fans. It’s an eerily quiet scene, lonely, barren and powerful and it displays that, for this premiere at least, things are in the right hands.

Matt C: Masterminded by Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, the show generally stays close to Kirkman's original storyline, with slight tweaks and additions here and there. After that shocking, tone-setting flashforward sequence it zips back to its central character, Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincloln), in a pre-zombie world, where a shoot-out leaves him in a coma. He wakes weeks (months?) later to discover nightmarish scenes of devastation: dead bodies littering deserted streets where pockets of lumbering undead "walkers" roam, ready to pounce on anything with a pulse. The first thing the show really improves on from the source material is the stripping back of Kirkman's over-expository dialogue and upping the use of silence. Kirkman has a tendency to get his characters yapping away in exposition overload when he should be employing the 'less is more' approach. Darabont, conversely, utilizes long stretches where dialogue is at the bare minimum, and it’s far more effective at conveying a desolate new world than having someone on hand to spout verbal diarrhoea. Additionally, Darabont seems to be giving the characters a lot more time to breathe, the premier example of this being the time he allots to Morgan and his son, Duane. In the comic their appearance is very brief, but here Darabont allows ample opportunity to extract as much emotion from their predicament as he can. The comic is well paced, essentially asking us to get to know the characters on the fly, but the measured manner Darabont takes here allows for more nuance, giving the actors the space they need to really inhabit their roles.

Stewart R: While the dialogue has certainly been expanded upon in some areas and then tapered back efficiently in others, there’s never a time when what’s being said is unnecessary. Certainly the interaction between Rick, Morgan and Duane is tense and to the point, and it helps to elevate the feeling that these people are fighting day to day to survive in this rancid corpse of a world. While these subtle changes to mood and emphasis help to drive the episode on, it’s left to those recognisable scenes and details from the comic to provide the spectacle and they are as effective in live action as they were when Tony Moore - illustrator of the first chapter of the comic - committed them to paper. It’s testament to Kirkman and Moore that such moments have been translated almost lovingly to the screen. Darabont and the production team ensure that they’re as powerful as possible without being blown out of proportion and potentially ruining the very human feel that comes with the zombie-filled story.

Matt C: The majority of screen time is given over to Lincoln in the role of Rick, and while he's pretty much asked to react to what, for him, is an overnight change from normality to zombie-infested madness, he shows plenty of signs that playing this character will really put him on the map (he's certainly come along way from This Life!). Other members of the regular cast only really make an appearance in one scene, but it's an important one, and it shows that this will develop into an ensemble piece quite swiftly (albeit one where practically everyone is expendable).

Stewart R: The initial episode was always going to be Lincoln’s to sell as bewildered Rick waking in a world he no longer recognises and he delivers a leading performance in every scene. Because the early stages of the story are reasonably dialogue-lite, Lincoln manages to convey a host of emotions through physical presence alone and he helps to anchor things in the realm of vague believability. As far as the leading man goes I think we have nothing to worry about and the few supporting cast members that we have been introduced to so far seem to represent their comic book characters pretty well.

Matt C: Stepping behind the cameras, it's clear we're in safe hands, and the production values are more reminiscent of decently budgeted movie than your usual run-of-the-mill TV show. Darabont's direction is taut and assured, his use of gore is carefully managed, so when viscera does begin to fly it's startlingly effective. This isn't a show that interprets the definition of the horror genre as an excuse to endlessly focus on blood and guts, this is horror where the emphasis is on building the characters, so when something does happen to them the impact on the viewer is far more pronounced.

Stewart R: While The Walking Dead takes us to a world gone to hell, where hordes of zombies walk the lands, Darabont and co have followed Kirkman’s lead and kept their presence on the periphery, only bringing their shuffling, moaning threat out when absolutely required. When the formerly dead do grace the screen it’s clear that the make-up and CGI departments have thought long and hard about how these creatures should look and the visuals fall nicely between a classic B-movie feel and a modern day, Hollywood zombie romp. The location team should also be given credit for a job well done by providing lush green, deserted suburbs alongside desolate cityscapes. As with many TV series employing CGI we’ll have to see how sparingly and effectively it can be used and may have to hope that the budget doesn’t get spanked too early on potentially spoiling the visual spectacle further down the line. TV executives and producers seem to be working smarter AND harder these days, such is the need to deliver a hit and not break the bank, so hopefully that concern is unfounded.

Matt C: If you’ve read the comic you’ll have a pretty solid idea where this is heading (although Darabont is bound to ‘adjust’ things along the way), but the real appeal is seeing it translated to the screen by people who have an obvious understanding of the genre, and of what makes compelling television. Those coming to it fresh are in for a treat though, because it's a thoroughly addictive story that's clearly going to become a gripping, and immensely popular piece of televisual entertainment (and don’t worry, it’ll soon shed those 28 Days Later comparisons). Based on the success of the first episode in the States a second season is guaranteed, which means it looks like we're in for the long haul. This opener is resounding success, and one that hints that long running, non-spandex comic book series are ripe for translation to the small screen. The Walking Dead may be the first, but it's unlikely to be the last. 8/10

Stewart R: Whether a fan of the comic, a fan of zombie movies or someone who just likes fresh, quality television programming, there’s something in this show for practicality everyone (those of a squeamish disposition aside). Pilots and premieres always have to be the best that they can be or risk losing out before a loyal audience can even be established. Thankfully everyone involved has probably ensured that of the five million odd Stateside viewers from Sunday night, a healthy percentage will be back to see what unfolds in the second episode. Going by the quality woven throughout the first 60 minutes and the sheer enjoyment to be had from having this type of TV show on the screens, I'm hoping that we're lucky enough to get several series under out belts before too long. 8/10

The Walking Dead is broadcast in the UK on FX at 10pm from 5th November 2010.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good review Matt C,although obviously centered on the source material, a few nods to Romero's obvious influence and how Kirkman has taken this forward would have been good though.

Matt C said...

Hi Anonymous - who's this Romero you speak of?!?

Seriously though, I think it's taken as a given that all post Night Of The Living Dead zombie fiction is heavily influenced by Romero. I concentrated more on how they adapted Kirkman's comic and how it worked as a TV show rather than looking at its overall place in the genre. It's certainly worth commenting on, but maybe another time!