First episode impressions: ‘The Walking Dead’ (TV review)

Here are my first episode impressions of “The Walking Dead,” which airs at 9 p.m. Central Sundays on AMC.

1. It looks like I’m in the minority on this one. “Walking Dead” is already a huge hit for AMC, and people seem to be loving it. It’s certainly not bad; it has that same stamp of capital-Q Quality that the network asks of all its shows. But it’s not notably good, either. It’s about a sheriff’s deputy who searches for his family even as zombies take over the planet (or at least the greater Atlanta area). “Walking Dead” is the first zombie-themed TV series, but the fresh medium hasn’t translated into a fresh take on the concept, at least not yet.

2. Another Matt, a regular contributor to these comment threads, is a big fan of the “Walking Dead” comic, and he was happy to see it adapted into a TV show, feeling that is the appropriate medium. I agree; I’ve always thought that books should become movies and comic books should become TV series. That’s part of why the “X-men” films leave me a bit cold, but if those yarns had been spread out over the course of a TV series, I probably would’ve dug it.

3. “Walking Dead” already has better (and more) zombies than last year’s disappointing, sort-of-comedic film “Zombieland.” The zombie effects might even be better than “28 Days Later” and “Shaun of the Dead.” Particularly impressive are a couple shots of a half-zombie crawling along with guts hanging out of what should be its lower half. “Walking Dead” doesn’t hide its effects under the cover of dim lighting; it often shows them off in broad daylight.

4. “Walking Dead” is completely bereft of humor. It plays it straight. There’s a scene where Rick looks in the mirror and mumbles “Is this really happening?” He doesn’t wake from a dream, his reflection keeps staring back at him and he knows it’s real — and we, as viewers, understand this is no “Shaun of the Dead” or “Zombieland.” The closer comparison would be “28 Days Later,” but that was relentlessly dark and stylized; “Walking Dead” wants to take place as much in reality as possible, and this includes hot, sunny days. The only sci-fi aspect is the zombies; everything else is on the straight and narrow.

5. I recognize a few faces. Lennie James from “Jericho” plays Morgan, Rick’s first ally after he wakes up. Sarah Wayne Callies from “Prison Break” plays Rick’s wife (in an odd choice, we don’t see the two of them together in the pilot, so I only know they are husband and wife from reading up on the show). Jeffrey DeMunn, a veteran of many Stephen King movies, is among the Atlanta encampment of survivors. And I see that Laurie Holden from “The X-Files” is a cast member, although I don’t remember her from the pilot.

6. “Walking Dead” is a deliberate character piece. In the hour-and-seven-minute pilot, we get to know Rick, then Morgan and his son, then — rather briefly — the Atlanta encampment. Even after such a long episode, it’s clear viewers will have to come back next week to get to know the key Atlanta players. The problem is that Rick’s and Morgan’s stories are such zombie-yarn clichés (Rick seeks his family; Morgan can’t bring himself to shoot his wife, who is now a zombie) that I’m not exactly hungering for more of this show’s idea of character development.

Verdict: I’ll try another episode or two because everyone keeps talking about how great this series is, and so I’ll having something to chat about with Another Matt. At least the standard zombie story exposition is out of the way, so I think I’ll like future episodes more than the pilot. However, I don’t see greatness yet. Sorry.

Comments

Another Matt's GravatarI see where your first impressions are coming from, and I acknowledge that my opinion of this show is colored by my love of both zombie fiction (as opposed to all the dry, historical zombie works out there) and the comic book series on which it is based, but I enjoyed the first two episodes because they show a lot of promise.

Without spoiling anything, I can say the pilot is primarily about establishing a setting and serving as a springboard for the series, which will deviate away from the more conventional, cliched elements of zombie media as it progresses. That said, the show seems to exhibit the already-common AMC production staple of slow pacing. That should serve the series well because, as you noted, the story will depend on viewers investing in the characters, but it means viewers will have to commit to staying with it from week to week to get the most out of it.

One note on the actors: I didn’t recognize a single one of them, but, since you mentioned one of the casting choices striking you as odd, I feel like I should point out that I found it eerie how similar some of them looked to their black-and-white, illustrated counterparts.

That brings me to my next thought; I’m still curious as to how faithful the show will try to be to the comics. Adaptations have to strike a careful balance, in my opinion, because you want to make the old fans happy without being handcuffed by the source material (eg: the Watchmen movie, which I still thought was OK). Based on the first two episodes, I’d say the creators here seem to be on the right track. The pilot was pretty faithful, although some things were revealed much earlier than they were in the comic. On the other hand, episode two varied pretty significantly from where I expected it to go, which is a great sign if they can explore new things while keeping the tone and characterization of the series intact.

If you are able to stick out the first season, which is only six episodes, I think more of the things that make the comic so special will show through and set The Walking Dead apart from other entries in the oversaturated zombie media market. If you make it that far and it still feels tired, the show probably just isn’t for you, unfortunately.

Even through just a couple of episodes, the production quality is clear, and I think as the series continues and is able to take advantage of the long-format television offers, it will become one of the best shows on TV. So while I thoroughly enjoyed the opening episodeso of the series, its potential to get even better is what has me most excited.

# Posted By Another Matt | 11/13/10 10:06 PM

John Hansen's GravatarAnother Matt–

Thanks for commenting. I’m going to watch episode two later tonight and then episode three tomorrow night. I’m guessing it will have to deviate from standard zombie cliches, just because there aren’t many long-format zombie stories. But what direction will it go in? If it goes in an interesting direction, and if I start liking the characters, I’ll stay on board. You are hinting that the comic does indeed go in fresh directions, so I am looking forward to these next couple episodes.

# Posted By John Hansen | 11/13/10 10:26 PM
John Hansen's GravatarEpisode two held my attention as it introduced more characters, including Laurie Holden and the entertaining Michael Rooker as the redneck a******. But I still don’t really understand why I’m watching the show. Does a larger point to the story emerge eventually (they find a cure, or they find a way to wipe out the zombies efficiently and restart society, or something better than those cliched concepts), or is it just a big, ongoing chase story? I guess I’m the type who prefers for a show to have an overarching structure to it, and I don’t see that yet from this show. Maybe it’s just meant to be a big chase show, and the enjoyment simply comes from seeing that concept executed well. If that’s the case, I say it’s good for what it is, but it’s not for me.
# Posted By John Hansen | 11/14/10 4:07 AM
trev's GravatarI don’t think the show has much new to offer, but I like zombies so I’ll keep on watching. But I still don’t understand why people don’t hole up in a Wal-Mart.
# Posted By trev | 11/14/10 2:32 PM

John Hansen's GravatarTrevor–

You make an interesting point. A pretty decent film (with a terrible ending) where humans did hole up in a grocery store during a monster invasion was Stephen King’s “The Mist.” So maybe they didn’t want to rip that off. Maybe in the long run, the survivors felt they’d be better off out in nature where they could set up a commune of sorts. A Wal-Mart could only be a temporary base. Maybe downtown Atlanta doesn’t have Wal-Marts. And if they needed to be in downtown Atlanta to rescue people, then maybe the clothing store was their best option. But, yeah, obviously a Wal-Mart would be a great temporary base; maybe we’ll meet a Wal-Mart encampment later in the series. I’m guessing the world has millions of human survivors, extrapolating from how many we’ve seen in a small area.

# Posted By John Hansen | 11/14/10 2:55 PM
John Hansen's GravatarEpisode three was a step up from the first two. Characters are starting to have some layers. Most notable is Shane, who cares for Rick’s wife and son, but is now shunned by Rick’s wife. You can’t totally blame her, because he told her Rick was dead. But still, I find Shane to be a character worth rooting for. The writers further manipulate us into that feeling by showing Shane beat the crap out of a cliched wife-beater at the camp. Another somewhat interesting person is Merle’s brother, who is a complete jerk, except that he also loves his brother, and that humanizes him. It’s using standard tricks of the trade, but “TWD” is starting to make me care a little bit about these people. I am starting to see what Another Matt mentioned: The show’s potential for getting better each week.
# Posted By John Hansen | 11/15/10 5:20 AM
John Hansen's GravatarI think episode four is the best so far. They handled the zombie attack at the end nicely. The kills had meaning because we had gotten to know the characters who were killed. Also, zombie attacks in general are more interesting to look at than, say, a shootout, because we only really have to focus on what the humans are doing. The zombies just wander in straight lines. So it’s easier to follow the geography of the action. Next week’s looks interesting because we’ll get to see the process of a human becoming a zombie, and the requisite emotional scene of the older sister having to “kill” the younger sister.
# Posted By John Hansen | 11/22/10 1:33 AM

Another Matt's GravatarI thought the episode was pretty good as well. I was always more interested in what was going on back at the camp, and I felt they spent a little too much time with the group in Atlanta, but the payoff for the Atlanta storyline was pretty great.

The most interesting conversations, in my opinion, were about how much some of the people had changed since the outbreak, while others held on to old habits.

After Glenn came up with the scheme for getting the guns out of the street, Daryl asked him what he had done before, like he was expecting him to have been a military strategist or something, and Glenn was like, “I delivered pizzas. Why?” Then at the clinic, the head of the group was an ex-janitor.

But while some of the survivors have turned over a new leaf in their post-apocalyptic lives, others like Shane or Merle still cling to their old cop/criminal roles. And Dale gets teased by the group for continuing to diligently wind his watch everyday.

It’s difficult to read Rick at this point in the show; on one hand, he clearly embraces the leadership/authority figure role (even going out of his way to get his sheriff’s hat back), but as he’s negotiating for Glenn’s return, he makes it clear he’s not there to play cop or arrest anybody.

Aside from that stuff and other interesting character development business, there was also plenty of “awesome” moments in the fourth episode, including pretty much everything Merle-related and the surprise attack at the end.

# Posted By Another Matt | 11/22/10 12:47 PM
John Hansen's GravatarAnother Matt —
Good point about the characters. It’s like we have our roles in society — “journalist,” “blogger,” “TV watcher,” “geek.” But then when society is wiped out, we fall into roles based on what the new, fledgling society requires of us. I couldn’t really be any of those four roles if society didn’t exist as it is. What role would I fall into in a “Walking Dead” society? I’m guessing I’d take some sort of helper role as a sidekick to a trusted leader. I don’t have enough leadership skills to be Rick or Shane, but maybe I could be like Dale, trusted to watch from atop the van. Although that sounds like of boring. Interestingly, there might not be a perfect fit for me in a new society, just as there wasn’t an ideal fit for the pizza guy or the janitor in the old society. That’s why I find the idea of an apocalypse unappealing, stressful and frightening whereas some people might see it as an exciting opportunity to redefine themselves.
# Posted By John Hansen | 11/22/10 1:56 PM