2 Dec 2011

Screen Time: THE WALKING DEAD - Season 2 Mid-season Review

THE WALKING DEAD - Season 2 Mid-season Review
Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden, Steven Yuen, Jeffrey DeMunn, Lauren Cohan, Scott Wilson

Stewart R: The first season of The Walking Dead flew past in a blur of burned out cars, desolate streets, staggering ‘Walkers’ and a small group of people trying to not let the cataclysmic events and imminent danger tear them apart...literally! In only 6 episodes - 5 of which stayed very close to the source material indeed - AMC knew that they had something of a hit series on their hands, the original comic creator Robert Kirkman was onboard as an executive producer and Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, was the main creative driving force responsible for a successful first season. News of a second series quickly broke and the long wait to October 2011 began.

The San Diego Comic Con came along with a good whirlwind of hype about the upcoming 13 episode run, with Darabont expressing that he was enjoying working in television and a generally good buzz surrounding those in attendance. Then, the following day he stepped down as showrunner. For a comic and TV show that prides itself on pretty much saying that no-one is safe and that anything can happen at a moment’s notice it was something of an ironic reminder that that manifesto runs to the very core of the show and the industry. Once the dust had settled and the positions and titles had been jiggled and reset, production carried on with Glen Mazzara - former writer and producer on The Shield who had been brought in by Darabont as second-in-command after season 1 wrapped - at the helm.

With the prospect of the longer series length, the pinch-pennies at AMC demanding that costs be brought down (it’s rumoured that the network suggested half the shooting time be conducted indoors to save money and that the zombies be heard on occasion and not seen to save on makeup!) and the lead showrunner responsible for the initial success the show had found departing, it could be argued that there were too many problems to deal with. I think the creators have done remarkably well to deliver seven tense and entertaining episodes, heavy on character work yet occasionally lacking on character progression, which still manage to maintain the mood and feel of the comic from which it was born and deliver a good dose of zombie madness from time to time.

Following the Walker-heavy debut instalment it has certainly been noticeable that the undead have been relatively conspicuous by their absence and that may not sit well with audiences who were returning to the show after a long Summer expecting the flesh-hungry hordes that stalked the streets of Atlanta. For me, as someone who has read Kirkman’s comic and enjoyed the pacing changes used there, the variation of beat and scenery has worked very well indeed and for the most part I think that first episode highlighted that the party of survivors can never be sure just when and where the next Walker might turn up and how many friends they might have in tow. With that threat looming, but possibly never arriving - and yes, we now realise that budget does play a small part in that - we get to share in the characters’ nervousness about lingering too long in any one place, even when it seems idyllic in comparison to the destruction that they have witnessed.

Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes continues to be the emotional and moral sprearhead around which the series hangs but thanks to some clever manipulation of one of the comic’s more shocking early plot threads, he ends up having to take something of a backseat for a while which allows others to start to shine...or fade into darker territory. Shane (Jon Bernthal) came across as the dependable but headstrong, fists-first opposite to Rick through the first series, but it soon becomes clear that the writers want this difference to really start to be felt as the show wears on and highlight that even when their lives depend upon it, this group may not be able to agree on matters of life and death. Bernthal does a fine job of portraying the inner conflict that Shane is going through, being tugged in several directions by what he wants, what he needs and what he fears he might become and it succeeds in adding a good deal of tension to the run so far, especially when the web of character attractions, secrets and conflicts is spun this tightly.

Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), Andrea (Laurie Holden) and of course Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) get a fair opportunity to get stuck into the ‘soap opera’ elements when they surface, while it’s left to Steven Yuen’s Glenn to play nice with the natives and develop a decent, tumultuous relationship with plucky, farmgirl newcomer Maggie - played with a delicious southern drawl by Lauren Cohan. Without the back and forth attraction/repulsion fun between Glenn and Maggie and what it helps to bring out in the story, I’ll admit that the latter episodes may have wanted for something extra, not least when we linger a little too long in places on Daryl’s woodland adventures and Carol’s continued ‘need to look fretful’ scenes - episodes Cherokee Rose and Chupacabra get a little bogged down with focus on these two. When everything is drawn together however it really does work well.

Certainly the introduction of patriarchal figurehead and religious man Hershel (Scott Wilson) has been something of a triumph. Much like Rick he’s a leader of people, but in clouded denial of the events that have transpired across the globe and certainly seems unprepared for the monsters that could end up on his doorstep...be they zombies or those with more of a pulse. That said the rest of Hershel’s small flock remain relatively nameless and faceless throughout, which doesn’t quite feel right considering the limited number of them and the fact that they’re clearly interacting with the other survivors. This may change as the series moves on and the story demands but it didn’t tend to work too well in Lost having people suddenly emerge from the nameless pack and with even less cast members here, that could feel a touch clunky should it happen.

As it stands at the midway point I’m very happy with what AMC, the creators and the actors have given us. Yes, it does have a generally slower feel when compared to those first six, condensed and explosive instalments that set the ball rolling over a year ago, but it’s clear that the producers are having to play the long game now, drawing more out of the cast, relying less on shocks to carry them through and ensuring that they carry the necessary, lingering weight when they do take us by surprise. While the pace has slowed, the dialogue has remained snappy and keen and much of the intrigue has come from watching how the politics within the group chop and change from one event to another. When we do get treated with the presence of the staggering, gurgling Walkers the panic and disgust escalates notably and that’s helped by decent makeup and physical acting by those extras brought in to capture the undead hunger and some fine camerawork and editting. Secrets and Pretty Much Dead Already stand out as the season highlights and, coming in at episodes 6 and 7 respectively, leave things on a high as we wait for the new year and the new adventures and dangers to come for Rick and the other survivors. It's evolving, involving television and it still remains unmissable. 8/10

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