What’s So Wonderful (and Horrible) about “The Walking Dead”

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I just watched episode 6, season 4 (“Mind Wars”), of “Falling Skies” and was left, as I often am after watching that series, with a kind of blank, empty feeling. During the scene when Matt, predictably, can’t pull the trigger on his dad’s kidnapper, I recalled writer/director Guillermo Del Toro talking in an interview about the fact that really bad stuff happens to kids in the real world. Fiction should reflect that, he argues, rather than continually portraying children as protected from the worst aspects of life, political, familial and personal. Ensuing from that thought, I found myself thinking about “The Walking Dead” t.v. series, and the truly horrific things that have happened to children therein: Sophia goes missing and after a long fruitless hunt to find her, is discovered as one of the turned captives in Hershel’s barn; Carl chooses to shoot his mother before she turns; Lizzie, out of utter confusion and frustration, stabs her sister to death, and Carol, who loves her, shoots her to protect baby Judith and others whom Lizzie might harm.

After describing the last scenario with Carol and the girls to my husband, who was not able to keep up with the series with me (but who, I should point out, got me hooked on it in the first place!) he declared he might not be able to watch it anymore. I will admit, “The Grove” was pretty over-the-top for me as well. And yet, as dismally bleak and heartbreaking as it was, there was also, in the terrific sadness of it, something satisfying. The satisfaction, for me, is in the realism of the show. Yes, it’s a show about zombies, but they are almost beside the point. The real point is to watch a group of people try to survive and make some sort of meaning out of a post-apocalyptic world, to redefine their humanity in the face of inhumane conditions. This is theoretically the same starting point as “Falling Skies” (just substitute alien invasion for zombie epidemic) but there is no comparison when it comes to realism. On “Falling Skies,” everyone looks pretty clean, well-rested and well-fed even while living in the alien-run “ghetto”; on “The Walking Dead” people generally look filthy, exhausted, and starving. On “Falling Skies” there is always a heroic plan (or several) underway that may at least partially succeed, and allies to assist; on “The Walking Dead” there is often no plan, allies frequently turn on you, literally and figuratively, and yes, important characters die. And die horribly. On “Falling Skies” the worst thing the badass tough-guy character does is hoard food; on “The Walking Dead” the latest badass orders people beaten to death, and children raped in front of their parents. Shudder.

Isn’t this all too much? Maybe. I may reach a point where I can’t endure the hopelessness, depravity and cruelty and have to stop watching too. Yet I have an emotional investment in these characters, and unlike “Falling Skies” where it feels like humanity’s survival is at stake, but not much is at stake for the main characters–you know they will come out o.k., and not changed in any substantial way–on “The Walking Dead” what’s at stake is each character’s very soul. I care for these characters, even in their darkest moments. Because of their darkest moments. Their bravery and heroism, when it surfaces, is so much more meaningful because of them. Who can forget Hershel’s magnanimous smile before he is beheaded? Glenn and Maggie’s reunion? Carol’s admission of guilt and Tyreese’s forgiveness of her? The real heart of the show is not the adrenaline rush, but the ensuing hush that begs the question: what would you have done, and what would it have cost you to do it?

So bravo, “Walking Dead,” for being both highly entertaining and deeply meaningful, so wonderful and horrible all at once. Bring on the new season!

Review of “Defiance,” (The T.V. Show): 4 out of 10 for Unremitting Predictability and Cookie Cutter Characters

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I’ll admit that in my own way I am kind of a film and T.V. show snob. OK, not kind of: Some would argue that I’m picky as hell. Not that I’m terribly sophisticated or anything. Really I’ve decided that my snobbishness when it comes to any kind of drama boils down to three factors: 1. how easily I can predict what’s going to happen; 2. how complex and interesting the characters are and finally; 3. whether or not there is any viable comic relief.  I can forgive some implausibility, less-than-clever dialogue, goofy costumes or makeup, oversights in continuity, etc. if a show or movie succeeds on at least two of these counts, or hits it out of the park with at least one.

Unfortunately “Defiance” failed for me on all three parameters with its premiere.  Let’s start with 3, and move backwards. I think the comedy was supposed to come mainly from the smart-ass alien doctor, but for me she wasn’t smart-ass enough, just uniformly cranky, and her complaints (“damned dead-beats,” or whatever she called Joshua and Irisa when they couldn’t pay her) and admonishments (“rush me and we all go BOOM!”) were not funny. I did find the beer-bellied wookie-like alien bodyguard chasing after his Jack Russell puppy somewhat amusingly bizarre, but I’m not sure that was what was intended.  Maybe Nolan’s half-hearted chauvinism towards the mayor is supposed to be funny, but it doesn’t work for me, not because I’m some sort of hyper PC watchdog, but because it helps to pigeon-hole the character into the ceaselessly copied Han-Solo type. Not that I didn’t appreciate Han-Solo. That’s just the point: no Han-Solo type I’ve encountered has ever come close to Harrison Ford’s Han-Solo, so show me something different already!

Which really brings us to 2. Sad to say but I feel like I’ve seen all these characters before, but done better: Irisa reminds me of Faith from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but she doesn’t appear to have the unflinching edge that made that character so compelling. The happy prostitute character Kenya harkens to Inara of “Firefly,” but she has none of the classy exotic flair, sophistication, or mystery of that character. The cranky doctor I suppose could be compared to Dr. Bones of Star Trek fame, but I’m guessing she will not live up to his level of sardonic cantankerousness. The hot-headed, work-obsessed, daughter over-protecting rich guy of the mining owner McCawley: yep, seen him before. The devious siren woman-behind-the-man of the Stahma character: ditto. The Mayor? She’s the familiar earnest, tough, but lacking-in-confidence leader that such shows like to employ. One of the better examples of this type was president Roslin from Battlestar Galactica, but whereas that character displayed interesting extremes of toughness and weakness, and was eminently intelligent, moral, and fallible, I’m getting the sense Defiance’s mayor Amanda is going to remain much more of an ingénue, who therefore won’t catch on to her mentor’s deceit until well into the series, when it’s predictably almost, but not quite, too late.

(Sidebar: Speaking of stuff we’ve seen before, why are so many alien alcoholic drinks neon blue??)

So that brings us to 1. Let me say this: To his alleged consternation, I have enjoined my fiancée in the sport of making in-progress movie and T.V. show predictions (he used to complain when I stopped a streaming show or movie, or whispered in his ear at the movie theatre to make a prediction; now he’s doing it himself. Ha!) and he made some great ones, including the type of little shaming speech that the Mayor would make to the rogue/vagabond/thief-with-a-heart-of-gold lead character Joshua Nolan when he was packing up to make his requisite callous exit before the grand battle. I think my newfound protégé’s predicted version of the speech was actually snappier than Amanda’s actual lackluster one, by the way.

The bottom line is that the two of us were predicting the whole way along: the just-add-water instant burgeoning romances, the inevitability of both Joshua and Irisa returning to help Defiance fight the Volge, the fact that the mayor’s assistant would turn out to be up to no good, and likewise the former Mayor, the fact that Nolan would, with reluctance of course, of necessity become new “lawkeeper” in town, the fact that the expensive orb Joshua and Irisa had scavenged would save the day. And the list goes on. Unlike what some other critics have proposed, for me this level of predictability does not amount to a pleasant familiarity that makes the unfamiliar setting more palatable: it just bores me, and no amount of oh-that’s-interesting alien aesthetics or politics, or unexplained backstory about what’s happened to earth will keep me watching if I know, essentially, just what’s going to happen, and if I can’t connect in a meaningful way with the characters.

By contrast, much as I’m neither really a zombie-horror fan, nor a fan of gore in general, I have a deep fealty for “The Walking Dead” because: 1. I can predict very little, specifically, about what will happen, other than, forgive my language, BAD SHIT! And; 2. The characters are, for me, as interestingly complex as real people are, and their actions, reactions, decisions and dilemmas reflect this without compromise. Throwing those characters into an apocalyptic scenario (any would probably suffice–the fact that it’s a zombie plague seems almost incidental) makes for one hell of a compelling show. I don’t think a lot of comic relief is appropriate given the nature of the show, so I don’t dock the writing on that count. Instead what we get are some little moments of tension relief when the characters share moments of reflection, affection, lust, grief and so on in the midst of chaos. Brilliant!

So maybe, come to think of it, 2 is more important than 1, because if you have as a foundation of a drama complex characters (i.e. multi-dimensional, somewhat ambiguous, imperfectly good or bad, morally conflicted, consistent yet harboring contradictions), it should not be that easy to predict what will happen, regardless of the specific genre of the show or film.

In sum, I’m going to give “Defiance” a few more tries, just in case it might be able to surprise me. I might want to at least find out what’s up with Datak’s bleached out steam-punk garb, or what sorts of alien sex might be bartered at the brothel. As you can tell I’m not holding out much hope, but I want to play fair. Meanwhile I’ll be on the lookout for any other prospects to satisfy my snobbish criteria for “worthwhile drama.” (Especially since “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” are done for the season.) Suggestions welcomed!