Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock from a horde of hungry zombies, you already know that one of the best television series of the last year, possibly of the next decade, was the first, short season of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Frank Darabont, the genius behind Shawshank Redemption, assembled a pitch perfect cast to bring the popular Robert Kirkman comic book series to undead, hungry life.
Kirkman’s long-running series has long been a fan favorite. Combining strong writing with realistic, minimalist black and white art resulted in a narrative of the zombie apocalypse that was primarily character driven. Its already episodic, sequential style that followed the romances, struggles for life and frequent despair of a group of survivors (“the walking dead” of the title does not refer only to the zombies) promised an ideal TV series.
AMC delivered on that promise. Andrew Lincoln, doffing his British accent to play a Deep South Sheriff, brings Rick Grimes to life. The acting is substantial all the way down the line, while strong writing and scripting has eschewed horror conventions and shaped a uniformly satisfying narrative.
The photography, obviously not a strong point for television, has been amazingly beautiful, disturbing, and disturbingly beautiful. There are moments from the series that linger with you for days; nightmarish but the kind of nightmares that seem so rich with meaning that they make you believe in omens and portents. No one who has ever seen the series will be able to forget, just to give one example, that moment when Grimes shows mercy to a zombie’s remains as it pulls itself across a bucolic summer field. This is genre television transcending itself to become art before our terrified eyes.
The recently released series looks great on Blu-Ray and comes packed with special features that are generally satisfying. Outtakes from the Walking Dead Comic-con panel include most of the cast plus Kirkman and Darabont. An episode-by-episode introduction by actors and producers clarifies the first season’s themes. This deeply serious series also shows a willingness to have fun in the featurette by two make-up artists that tell us how to use basic make-up skills to become zombies for Halloween or for the numerous “Zombie crawls” that are becoming hugely popular at fan conventions and even as local events.
However, one real disappointment is the “Sneak Peak with Robert Kirkman”. This short feature is not, as one would have hoped, a discussion of the series and its themes with the influential comic creator. Its rather a brief and episodic description of the series that Kirkman introduces and then comes back at the end to comment on briefly. This seems like a missed opportunity given the legions of Kirkman fans that have been, for the most part, pleased with the direction the series has taken.
This is not to ignore some of the shocked reaction to the final episode in which the television iteration of The Walking Dead veers fairly far afield from the comics. Response to this has been mixed and the special features show that the show’s creators were expecting this reaction. The Comic-con panel has both Darabont and Kirkman addressing this question. They assure dedicated readers that the series will surprise anyone expecting a panel for panel reproduction of what happened in the comic.
As a devout follower of the series, my own view is that I don’t want to see an exact reproduction of narratives I am already familiar with. The comic already comes alive in the way the characters are represented and even in certain shots (the famous scene of Rick on horseback making his way into apocalyptic Atlanta is a good example). Kirkman created an extraordinary sandbox for Darabont to play in and he has done that, while always remaining faithful to the basic themes of the books.
The set also contains an excellent “Making of” featurette. Although not as technical as some fans might want, we get Frank Darabont reflecting on how much fun he is having making a zombie series and Andrew Lincoln describing what its like to inhabit a Gary Cooper-esque character like Rick Grimes. Darabont and the entire production staff talk about their surprise at how much freedom AMC has granted them in representing more gore than has ever appeared on basic cable.
It’s a measure of our contemporary fascination with the undead that David Ball’s True Blood and Darabont’s Walking Dead, two of the most popular, and two of the best series on television, concern themselves with vampires and zombies. This is not a recent phenomenon and is actually part of a long cultural arc dating to the ‘70s. Various explanations can be given for this fascination, ranging from anxiety over disease (both vampirism and zombification are essentially infections) and general fascination with the corruptibility of the body, as evidenced by American dieting culture and the cosmetic surgery revolution.
Darabont and Ball have created very different series in response to this fascination. The Walking Dead has none of the camp that True Blood revels in. Yet both offer their supernatural narratives as meditations on human experience. Ball uses his vampires to talk about sex and the perils of human interaction. Darabont and Kirkman’s zombies are obviously less fully realized monsters and the focus is instead on the “walking dead”, the human survivors who must live in a world that will never be the same. Like all the best monster narratives The Walking Deadposes questions about the human condition, specifically what it might mean, and what we might become, once the electricity goes off, the toilets stop flushing and the cable goes out…forever. The answers are not pretty and challenge not only our self-conception, but also our conception of the world.
If you want to see the very best television has to offer, you must watch this series.