11 Dec 2010

Screen Time: THE WALKING DEAD - Season 1 Review

THE WALKING DEAD - Season 1 Review
Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden Lennie James, Steven Yuen, Jeffrey DeMunn

Matt C: The Walking Dead exceeded expectations by becoming a ratings smash across the globe and the critical response to the series has been generally positive, so based on that alone it's been a resounding success. Personally I've enjoyed it, but there are too many flaws for me to give it an unconditional seal of approval at this stage; my hope is that they'll be able to nip these in the bud by the time season two gets rolling. There's no question it came out strong out of the gate with the debut episode, but subsequent instalments have suggested that while Frank Darabont and his team are keen to differentiate the show from the comic, they aren't entirely confident what direction to take and how to handle the characters.

Stewart R: Adapting a long-running, successful comic book series about a world-altering plague of zombies and those few humans trying to survive in their midst into a TV show, and one that had to convince the viewing public quite quickly that it had potential, was always likely to be a risky venture. There’s the risk that audiences won’t tune in, that readers of the comic may not like the style of the adaptation, and that the cast may not be able to convince us that these characters really are living in the scarred world full of unknown threat and danger. That risk though seems to have paid off as Frank Darabont, Robert Kirkman and AMC seem to have something of a hit on their hands with The Walking Dead. Hitting the mark with a quite excellent premiere and sticking close to the source material for five of the six episodes is probably key to that success.

Matt C: Darabont has effectively created a post apocalyptic environment onscreen, and the TV-sized budget has been utilized well to convey the impression of a worldwide catastrophe. He's populated the cast with the main characters from the comic as well as making a few additions and deletions here and there, but it's the portrayal of all of these characters so far that is keeping The Walking Dead away from greatness. Andrew Lincoln's turn as Rick Grimes lacks the bad-ass gravitas required from the leader of the group of survivors; there are hints that he could evolve into the role, but at the moment he's not projecting the power and confidence to make you believe people would follow his lead willingly. John Bernthal as Shane, who's arc is taking a dramatic deviation from the comic, is a bit all over the place: he's a likeable individual, but the cracks in his psyche feel like their being forced rather than appearing naturally. Elsewhere, Steven Yeun as Glen delivers a great interpretation of his comic counterpart, but seems to have been pushed to the sidelines as the series has progressed. Norman Reedus as Daryl has been a nice, livewire addition, but will need to steer clear from clich├ęd hillbilly schtick to really convince. Michael Rooker as his deranged brother put in a brief but memorable appearance early on, but the fact that he's not been featured since has fans of the comic speculating wildly how exactly he'll be brought back in later on (and there shouldn't be any doubt that he will). The one actor really bringing humanity to the proceedings at this juncture is Jeffrey DeMunn as Dale, and the warmth he exudes is much needed at certain points.

Stewart R: I think the casting director should be applauded for assembling such a talented and varied bunch of actors to carry off these first six episodes, with barely a performing misjudgement in sight. Steven Yuen and Jeffrey DeMunn are possibly the biggest wins with the pair of actors accurately capturing the characters of Glenn and Dale with aplomb. Bernthal has also done a good job of portraying Shane as a man conflicted between his duty to protect and the desire to have a life forbidden to him. While I’ll agree that Andrew Lincoln’s Rick has come across as a little bit too ‘good and nice’ during this first series, a flick through the first TWD book shows a Rick who is also far removed from the hardened bad-ass who develops over time through the rest of the comic - in fact he smiles and cries an awful lot during that first arc looking back now! I personally think that Darabont and Co will be looking to Lincoln to really earn his acting chops as the show - and Rick’s story - continues, having seemingly elected to show him as the wholesome everyman that audiences get behind now with potential to get deeper and darker later on as the show grows. I think the only thing that hasn’t quite felt right so far is the relationship between Rick and Lori as I’ve noticed that the acting chemistry between Sarah Wayne Callies and Bernthal has felt more comfortable and natural, even when they’re forced to yell at each other.

Matt C: Pacing's been an issue too - while I don't have a problem with a focus on character instead of continuous zombie carnage, there does seem to be a certain amount of feet dragging when more momentum is required. Even taking into account the deviations away from the comic plotline, Kirkman knows how to pace his story, and managed to get to a similar point as we do with this series finale in a lot less time. Speaking of deviations, the CDC excursion felt largely pointless, not really advancing the plot or telling us anything particularly enlightening about the state of the world the survivors are living in. It' almost like it's there to simply say, "Check us out! We're doing stuff that's not in the comic!" rather than serving a purpose in the grand scheme of things. When you're dealing with a season only six episodes long certain things - like the CDC visit, like the OAP-protecting Mexican gangbangers - seem like nothing more than unnecessary padding. Sometimes you want everyone - the creative team and the characters - to just cut to the chase and stop dithering.

Stewart R: When making what has essentially been a pilot season of six episodes and deciding a) what needs to be translated from the comic, and b) what audiences are going to appreciate and remember, I think the creators have managed to pace things quite nicely and find a reasonable mix of old and new. Just as the book has fairly large periods where the Roamers are either not seen or simply drift out of focus to form part of the bleak landscape, so too has the show, and it’s allowed that all important character introduction and development to take place. While Kirkman took two brief and pointed occasions to introduce the camped survivors in the comic, the show has needed a more natural way of doing that and that’s been through various expanded scenes and sequences of intense interaction over the course of five episodes. I think the ‘Gangbangers’ addition to the plot was a good example of how the producers will bring new elements to this story and also fill the viewing time with interesting ideas that keep the audience guessing. It also helps to keep a bigger perspective of this event which perhaps a television viewership require rather than the more focused, intimate view that a comic can capture.

Matt C: It may sound like I'm being overly harsh on The Walking Dead, but while I think my criticisms are valid I can't deny that I have enjoyed the series a lot. It may not be in the same class as AMC's two other successes, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but it's a well made, frequently exciting piece of genre television. It just needs to work on its flaws as the potential is unquestionably there for it to develop into a truly great series, one that will be talked about for years to come. The recent news that Darabont's fired his writing staff and will be looking for new people to help tackle the second series is a positive sign in my opinion; he's aimed this series in the right direction, but it's not quite where he needs it to be yet. 7/10

Stewart R: Overall I’ve been very pleased with The Walking Dead through its first season of hopefully many. I’ll harp on about the first five shows again saying that they managed to find that sweet balance between action and character development that a show on a limited budget needs to find. Not only have the creators kept me happy as a fan of the comic by sticking close to source material but they’ve also been keeping me happy as a fan of television by offering up new ideas here and there to keep things interesting and tense. The visceral feel to the show has also been a success, choosing not to shy away from the gore that makes a zombie-fest what it is and I’m glad that they decided not to play it safe on that point. Save for highlighting the increasing tension between Lori and Shane and burgeoning friendship between Dale and Andrea the finale is completely throwaway and does offer a small amount of worry that this could turn into a mystery-solving exercise in similar vein to the likes of Lost and Flash Forward should that play well with audiences. I’m hoping it simply served to highlight that this small group really are on their own and that their journey from here is likely to be a hard and lonely one. Thankfully, ‘hard and lonely’ for them looks like being ‘thoroughly entertaining’ for us! 8/10

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