Sunday, October 14, 2012

Five minute impressions: The Walking Dead, season 3, ep. 1

1. I only read Kirkman's first story arc. It was OK.
2. I am not a zombie guy, despite being very much a post-apoc guy.
3. My standards for watchable TV are admittedly kind of high.

I'm a huge fan of some of AMC's offerings but it took me a while to get there. I watched the first episode of Mad Men when it premiered, but wasn't taken by it and never watched another until last fall, when a friend suggested that I was missing out and should take advantage of the series on Netflix (other people had suggested this before; this time, I listened.) I immediately realized that I should have been more patient with it, watched seasons 1-4 quite quickly, and was on track for season 5 this past spring. Likewise, I hadn't bothered to pay attention to Breaking Bad but had always put it on my "someday" schedule. After learning that season five would be airing this past summer, I once again hit Netflix for as much as was available and then watched the rest on DVD and the new season with a group of friends that had also caught up rapidly. Both series are brilliantly written and I haven't regretted one second of the time I've sat in front of them. I've often said that the best thing ever put on TV was The Wire, but Breaking Bad is a very close second, at this point.

Determined that I would not be left behind again, I began to watch some of AMC's more recent offerings from the beginning; specifically, The Walking Dead and Hell on Wheels. Unfortunately, both have been much more uneven than either of the aforementioned series. I wasn't even sure that I'd watch the second season of Hell on Wheels and am still uncertain about the third season, despite its steps toward improvement, script-wise, in the recently concluded episodes. I had the same issue with Walking Dead in its second season, as the storyline seemed to stagnate and the characters other than Daryl were two-dimensional in their motivation and hollow in their actions. Hell on Wheels improved because of a creative change in which the brothers Gayton were removed as the writers. Walking Dead also underwent a fairly dramatic change in the off-season, in which the tempestuous Frank Darabont left the project and a new showrunner, Glen Mazzara, stepped in. It was with that in mind that I decided I'd give it one more try.

I knew a lot about what was coming in this season as I've accumulated information from AMC's promotions, talk on the Web, and friends who are dedicated fans. I know that they're still loosely following Kirkman's story and that the events at the prison and the introduction of Michonne are key developments here. So, it was gratifying to see them dive right into it within the first few minutes of the opening. I was under the impression that, having seen the prison so nearby in season 2's finale, the story would reopen relatively soon after that close. A quick glimpse of Lori's distended belly and Herschel's thick beard put the lie to that and it was clear that we were seeing the group a few months post-season 2. With a new writing team and direction, I think that's fine. It gives the new team a chance to jump right into their versions of the characters and it's not jarring for the fans to see them moving as a coordinated unit when dealing with the walkers. It also gave rise to good character moments, such as Carol attempting to joke about screwing around with Daryl. It's left uncertain as to whether their relationship has taken that next step or whether they're still sorting it out, which is a good tease for the viewers.

On the one hand, having seen the prison so close in the season 2 finale, there's room to question how they could have failed to stumble across it for several months. Of course, one has to consider just how easy it is to run in circles in the countryside without modern communication and the activity of other humans to follow, so I have no issue with that. I think Rick's demonstration of disdain and anger with Lori is a sign of the writers having moved him past the angst-filled "nice guy" to a genuine survivalist in the Daryl mode. What made Daryl the only really decent character in the first two seasons was the fact that he actually matured in respect to his surroundings. He was still the callous survivor, but it was clear that he was also touched by the group actually desiring his presence and the fact that his particular code of ethics (concern for others' well-being not only as a survival method but also because that's how humans generally act in crisis) was particularly well-suited to the circumstances. If that's the direction that Rick is going, so much the better, as it will reduce the level of guilt/angst/general caterwauling that often brought things to a grinding halt in season 2. Obviously, Rick is also being set up to be too callous and cold, but I can live with that kind of development as long as it doesn't become rote "redemption of the hero."

There were a lot of ways that introducing Michonne could have been an abject failure. She's the most fanciful of Kirkman's characters to appear and it could easily disintegrate into the Roger Corman arena if she's not handled carefully. I think it was well done here, showing a bit more of her sword work and her pet zombies, but staying away from exposition and allowing her to retain an air of mystery for a while longer. I'm especially interested in seeing a bit more of her style with the weapon. On the one hand, there are different ways to use it. OTOH, in the picture above, she's holding it like a baseball bat, which is not the way a katana would be wielded whether you're doing iaido, kendo, or some kind of koryū. I really hope they paid attention to some of the riddles of steel, as it were. Unfortunately, there continues to be no riddle whatsoever about T-Dog, who keeps running his two season marathon of following orders and generally not contributing anything to the conversation. Likewise, it seems pretty unusual that Glenn and Maggie would still be that wooden with each other with another few months of life under their relationship belts.

That said, I think this was probably the best episode of the series so far. The script was well-paced and no one said anything glaringly stupid or annoying. The action scenes were more suspenseful, especially since the zombie action is moving back into enclosed spaces inside the prison, rather than outdoors in the sunlight where they're much less threatening. It's still not hitting the high points of Mad Men or Breaking Bad and likely never will, given the greater room for thoughtful subtlety afforded to those mostly-"real life" stories (yes, even including the blue meth.) But I felt actually intrigued by this episode and not left thinking that I shouldn't be watching so much TV. It's also the closest I'll ever get to seeing something like Gamma World, where mundane facilities like prisons are highly valued for the trove of stuff that could be inside...

I do have to say that, if AMC does much more of this mini-season split crap, where a series is shown eight episodes at a time, separated by several months, I may just give up even on things that I enjoy. It's ridiculous that we're waiting another year after only 8 episodes of Breaking Bad and having a multi-month split in between the two halves of season 3 of Walking Dead is possibly even worse. There is a point where you piss off your loyal viewers and, IMO, AMC is reaching it.


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