TV Series: The Walking Dead

June 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Let’s face it, zombies aren’t exactly full of sparking dialogue. Maybe someday there will be a show with zombie intellectuals breaking through windows to debate the value of literature, but for now they’re a neutral force: they remove some characters and leave others, the same way a regular series of floods would kill off various characters and leave survivors. There are a number of easily applied metaphors for zombies: they represent our dull consumer-driven lives, or a lack of compassion in our society. They signal that we should really be vegetarians, or force us to confront our own mortality. Take your pick, because it all applies to a narrative device as broad and sweeping as this. Beyond that, they’re only interesting for feeling so fundamentally wrong and weird.

Frequently, the really interesting thing is what the survivors do — or don’t do — in the pockets of society that remain. Do you have enough compassion to keep the weakest person when they can slow you down and cost you your own life? Is there are artist in the bunch, and what happens to the level of discussion if there isn’t? As a new six episode TV series based on a series of graphic novels, The Walking Dead gets some of the various elements right and others very wrong. The special effects are certainly effective and well done, even as various grainy images and poor music make it look low-budget. The acting ranges from quite good to soap-opera poor, and some of the startling, unpredictable moments are balanced by obvious ones, or puzzling moments that don’t feel right — someone commits suicide by shotgun blast, but is also able to write “God forgive us” on the wall in their own blood with paint-brush neatness. Clearly, some things we wouldn’t question in a graphic novel don’t quite translate to television.

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is a wounded police deputy who wakes up in a hospital — in a quick transition that suddenly switches his bedside flowers to dead ones, capturing how quickly time passed for him — to find the world in chaos. He wanders through the hospital to find barred doors that are spray-painted with “Don’t Open, Dead Inside” (in a way that could just as easily be read as “Don’t Dead, Open Inside”) and finds his way to various other survivors in the search for his wife and son.

The show is good bad TV, in that it’s riddled with cliches, but manages to be really entertaining (George Orwell talks about good bad books, poorly written but entertaining). As unelected leader, Grimes ends up in charge of a particular microcosm of society that includes a few too many stereotypes: the handsome and noble cop, a tough and ugly racist, and so on. At the same time, I quite liked a character named Dale (played by veteran actor Jeffrey DeMunn), an older man who is more or less the artist of the group. Thankfully, it isn’t spelled out that he’s an artist, but he sits around the campfire describing words as “paltry, failing things,” and getting replies from the children along the lines of “You’re weird.” He stands on top of the RV keeping watch, quite literally seeing further than the others. He isn’t the strongest one in the bunch, but if anyone represents hope, it’s him. In the final episode, his moments are the only truly interesting ones.

It should also be said, The Walking Dead is seriously gross. I watched it with a kind of look-at-the-traffic-accident fascination. I think people are taking about it at least partly because it represents a new high (or new low) in what can be shown on TV, including zombie children getting shot in the head. If The Walking Dead takes the emphasis off slow-motion flying brains and works to perfect the characters, it stands of chance of becoming a show people are talking about for deeper reasons, not just shock-value, and thrill ride fun. Without having read the graphic novels, I don’t know the direction it will go, but the potential is certainly there.


TV Series: Babylon 5

September 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Long before the remake of Battlestar Galactica was enjoying wide appeal for being a drama first and science-fiction show second, Babylon 5 (beginning in 1993) managed a similar accomplishment, as well as the ongoing narrative threads now expected in mature television. Essentially the story of a space station that acts as a United Nations of sorts, it manages to make statements about war, prejudice, corruption, religion and addiction.

The special-effects are good, though somewhat dated as they’re all early CGI, and the acting ranges from outstanding to remarkably awkward. But the real star here is the writing. Creator J. Michael Straczynski has a talent for giving characters quirks that make them seem very real, and a talent for dialogue:

A character about to time-travel quips “Can I bring you back anything from the future? Some bagels? Fresh milk?” Another character sighs and comments “Perhaps it was something I said,” and gets the reply, “Perhaps it is everything you say.”

There are a number of reliably good actors in the main cast, but the standout performance is from the late Andreas Katsulas as one of the alien ambassadors, G’kar. He’s in several layers of makeup, but conveys a changing and maturing character, enduring a great deal as gracefully as possible and getting some of the best speeches along the way. In fact, his character literally goes from petulant egomaniac to spiritual leader. Peter Jurasik is also worth special mention. As another alien ambassador, he’s a combination of Bela Lugosi and a peacock.  Stick with Babylon 5 through a somewhat clunky first season (and really, most shows have some establishing groundwork to do in the first season) and the rewards arrive more and more frequently.

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