The Walking Dead television series premiere
“Days Gone By”
Director/writer: Frank Darabont
Actors: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey DeMunn, Laurie Holden, Chandler Riggs, Sarah Wayne Callies, Lennie James & Adrian Kali Turner
Network: AMC TV
Halloweek comes to an end in the early-morning hours of the day after Halloween. The reason: I didn’t have access to this review subject until the end of the day Oct. 31. I’ve been looking forward to the series debut of The Walking Dead more than any other new show to hit the air this fall. In fact, there were surprisingly few new shows that caught my interest this fall season. My interest in this new AMC series stems not from the network’s solid track record with original shows. I don’t watch Mad Men, Breaking Bad or Rubicon despite all of the positive buzz that’s arisen and the awards they’ve earned. The only other original AMC show I tried was the remake of The Prisoner, and I found it dreadfully dull (not that I’m suggesting the cable channel’s other fare is). But The Walking Dead, penned by Robert Kirkman, is one of my favorite ongoing comic titles these days, and I believed it would translate incredibly well to the small screen.
After watching the series premiere Halloween night, I was struck by how closely it followed the first issue of the comic series (which I reread that day online to refresh my memory) and by how much series developer Frank Darabont has diverged from the source material. Sometimes those choices serve the story and this property’s new medium well, and sometimes they don’t. I wasn’t as blown away by the first hour and a half of this televised incarnation of the ongoing zombie drama, but I was also drawn in by key moments. I’ve still got a standing Sunday-night couch reservation with AMC, but I’m approaching it with cautious optimism from now on rather than the unrestrained exuberance that preceded this inaugural episode.
After being shot during an armed standoff, sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes awakens in a hospital after weeks in a coma, only to find the facility abandoned, devoid of life. He finds clues as to some horrific violence, and once he stumbles onto the street as he makes his way to his house in this small Georgia town, he discovers something monstrous has happened to the world. Once he encounters another survivor and his son, Rick realizes his wife and son fled their home alive, and he sets out to find them in the nearest safe haven, Atlanta. Unfortunately, the city doesn’t provide the answers or the security he’s looking for.
Aside from an opening flash forward that establishes the genre, the real opening scene is one between Rick (portrayed by Andrew Lincoln) and his partner Shane (Jon Bernthal). This conversational scene is one of those divergences to which I referred earlier. I’m not sure what Darabont was trying to establish with that scene, but it was the wrong way to open the series. It painted both Shane and Rick as contemptuous jerks (especially Shane). Their complaints about women make for a distasteful, misogynist scene that really doesn’t contribute to the story. Maybe Darabont is planting the seeds for Shane’s emotional flaws down the road, but if The Walking Dead is about anything, it’s about how these inconceivable, horrific circumstances change people.
Furthermore, Lincoln’s casting as Grimes doesn’t quite work for him. Sure, his gaunt frame and sunken eyes add to Rick’s scenes in the hospital, but ultimately, I’ve always pictured the character as a good man who’s been hardened by the terrible but necessary choices he’s had to make. There’s little softness in Lincoln’s face. He has a harsh look about him already. Some might dismiss this as simply as the adaptation of an existing property simply not being in line with something I saw in my mind’s eye. But that’s the risk that other-media adaptations run; those crafting adaptations must contend with existing expectations, and Lincoln just didn’t meet mine for Rick.
On the other hand, other casting choices worked well. Sarah Wayne Callies seems like a good choice for Lori Grimes, and Chandler Riggs is the spitting image of Carl Grimes from the comics. But the best bit of casting in the premiere was the inclusion of Lennie James. The one-time Jericho cast member dominates every scene in which he appears as Morgan Jones in this episode. He brings the contrasting sides of the character to life incredibly well. Morgan is both a savvy survivor and a broken man who can’t bring himself to leave his undead wife behind (literally). He and Lincoln are also great in the scene in the police station as they revel in the simple pleasure of a hot shower.
If there’s one thing that a comparison between the TV show and the comic book is that an artist’s skill and imagination will beat the skills and resources of the best special-effects crew every time. Tony Moore, the original Walking Dead artist, and his successor Charlie Adlard manage to include a variety of zombie figures in the comic-book series. Sometimes, those figures look wholly inhuman, reduced to little but skin and bones. Some of their zombies couldn’t possibly be alive, there’s so little to them. The same can’t be said of these TV zombies. They also look human and always look whole (or mostly whole). Don’t get me wrong, though; they still boast horrific looks, and they made for some fun, creepy scenes. The zombie horde toward the end of the episode made for some truly tense moments, and this came despite the fact that I know how Rick’s quest for his family turns out.
I came away from the premiere episode feeling entertained and hopeful about what’s to follow (especially given the cliffhanger and preview of the next episode). Still, maybe the most encouraging thing to take away from this TV show is this: that comics can do some things better than other media. I enjoyed this small-screen debut, but it pales in comparison with what Kirkman and company accomplish in two dimensions with nothing more than ink and imagination. 6/10
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