AMC sent me the first two episodes of The Walking Dead in advance, the second of which was not the final air version. After watching both several times, here’s my spoiler-free review.
There aren’t too many new shows that can get me to jump onto them right away. It took me two seasons to give True Blood a try and I still haven’t seen Lost. But don’t misunderstand — I love television shows, but as my DVR can attest, I just don’t usually like to watch them as they air. But every so often a new series comes along that I feel I just have to be there at the beginning of it all, and one such series is The Walking Dead, developed for AMC by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist).
The Walking Dead is based on the comic book series of the same name created by writer Robert Kirkman, and it’s anything but mild. It’s a serious tale of a group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse, and there’s blood and gore and death galore. Unlike cable networks like HBO and ShowTime that can air R-rated content, AMC has to adhere to stricter television guidelines, which if handled poorly, could be the downfall of the series. Luckily, from what I’ve seen of the first two episodes, the network and the show’s creative team have managed to skirt the rules and give us what looks to be the best new television series of the season.
In the 90-minute pilot episode, we meet small town sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who we learn early on is having martial troubles with his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and this is something that’s plaguing him. He confides in his best friend and partner Shane (Jon Bernthal) about his issues and expresses his worries on how these issues are affecting his young son Carl (Chandler Riggs). As Shane tries to give advice to his partner, the duo are called in on a crime in progress and race off to answer the call. What happens next changes Rick’s life forever — and that’s before a zombie even appears! The scene not only establishes the trust between these two friends, but also lets us in on Rick’s state of mind, as well as what his home life is like. At first I assumed that this interchange would be all the character depth we’d ever get, but as the world around Rick begins to change, and people are faced with trying to survive the end of civilization as we know it, it’s apparent that while the zombies might be the draw for this series, this is really a human interest story that just happens to have zombies in it.
The pilot focuses mainly on Rick. After we see him in action at work prior to the zombie apocalypse, we then follow his struggle after the virus has already spread. I enjoyed the entire segment that was mainly the story of “one man’s journey,” as Rick tries to find out what’s happened and where his family is. Unlike other apocalyptic tales like The Road and The Book Of Eli, the natural setting is beautiful. The Sun still shines, the sky is still blue, and the grass is still green. There’s a peacefulness as Rick walks along the road, as there’s hardly a sound. It’s so calm that you forget that it’s that way because nearly everyone is dead, and it’s only when our attention is diverted by an attacking Walker that we’re jarred awake from the serenity.
While nature is still holding up nicely, there’s the aftermath of horror to be found around each corner. There’s one captivating segment where Rick is walking through a park and it’s here that he has his first zombie encounter with a character the creators have dubbed “Bicycle Girl.” The creature had been a woman, but is now infected, her bottom half missing, yet she continues to exist. Her face is pitiful, contorted in agony. She pulls herself towards Rick, her decaying hand outstretched in what could be construed as a cry for help, but is most likely an attempt to grab Rick and feed on him. It’s obvious she’s starving and suffering, as her current state leaves her with little chance of getting sustenance. At this point, Rick is so shocked by the turn of events, he grabs a nearby bicycle and rides off. It’s here that the zombies are made to be more than just typical horror creatures out to kill. Just like the survivors of the virus are tasked with living in fear of attack and getting by on what little they have, so too are the infected suffering.
A major task for the show’s creators was how to take a long-running comic book series and adapt it for television with a short first season of only five hour-long episodes, plus the 90-minute pilot. What they did was take the main plot of the comic and change it up a bit so that existing fans wouldn’t feel like they already knew everything that was going to happen. There’s also the creation of a lot of new characters, with the promise of their own storylines, and of course, you won’t know if they’ll eventually die. In these first two episodes, you don’t really get to know that many of the characters outside of Rick and his immediately group, as well as a father and son he meets at the beginning. What you do see are some very real human interactions. Early on in the comic book, it seems like every time a new survivor enters the picture, everyone gets along and there’s never any real difficulties integrating, which seems unrealistic. The television show jumps right into the hostilities — though everyone is just trying to survive each day, it can’t be easy for total strangers to get along, especially in close quarters, or for previous prejudices to just disappear overnight. In Episode 2 in particular there’s an entire exchange between two characters that was uncomfortable to watch. My immediate reaction was to question why the writers had to “go there,” but after a while I realized that they went there because it’s true to life. I’m sure this exchange would take place in this scenario; it’s much more believable than another scene where two characters just can’t keep their hands off one another (yeah, I’m sure six weeks without showering really makes you hot and bothered).
At its heart, The Walking Dead is a drama. Matter of fact, if your Nana can get beyond the rotting virus-filled corpses feasting on guts and brains, I’d bet she’d love the hell out of this show. There’s no cheesy jokes and these are not dim witted zombies to laugh at. This is no B-movie — this is some serious shit. But don’t let the word ‘drama’ scare off all you zombie lovers. The quotient of blood, guts, and violence is high, especially for your average television network show. The humans still have to defend themselves, so there’s plenty of shots to the head with splattered brains. While the zombies themselves aren’t the focal point of the series (meaning, there’s no ‘…and now back at Zombie Headquarters, here’s what Zombie Bicycle Girl is working on with Zombie Nightgown Lady’), they are the backdrop here and they obviously play a major role — and trust me, there are lots of zombies, known here as “Walkers.” The Walkers might be slow and seemingly harmless at a distance, but if they so much as get a nibble out of you, it won’t be long before you’re one of them; and you don’t even want to know what happens if a crowd of them converge. No, no, not good at all — and when I say that, I mean that when someone bites it on The Walking Dead, they really bite it, and you, the viewer, will get quite the sight.
The Walking Dead is definitely a show to watch, and whether you’re a fan of the comics or new to the story, there’s something for everyone to enjoy, even Nana.
The Walking Dead premieres on AMC on Halloween night, Sunday, October 31 at 10/9c., and will premiere globally on Fox International Channels a few hours after the U.S. premiere.