It used to be that television was a place for movie actors to retire. TV was considered “second-rate”; a far-away land where actors stood suspended in limbo, waiting to get called up into the big leagues. Now? We’re in the middle of a creative renaissance, where some of the best storytelling is playing out over long-form, serialized TV shows. The home to some of the best original work in the industry is AMC, and last fall the channel took a serious gamble with an expensive show about zombies that had little-to-no star power. And boy did it pay off.
The Walking Dead premiered last Halloween and became the most-watched cable television series in history in the coveted 18-49 demographic. Viewers were surprised to find that the show wasn’t really about zombies at all, but in actuality was a morality tale about the human condition. Any apprehension that The Walking Dead wouldn’t fit with AMC’s intense character dramas Mad Men and Breaking Bad was quickly subdued, and a horror/action/drama series about zombies proved to be a master feat of storytelling. My review of Season One of The Walking Dead on Blu-ray after the jump.
Based on the graphic novel series of the same name, The Walking Dead is a post-apocalyptic tale that follows a group of survivors in the aftermath a devastating virus outbreak that turns humans into “walkers”, or zombies for you straightforward folk. Instead of juggling a number of characters, switching from story-to-story, the pilot opens by focusing solely on our hero Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). A sheriff’s deputy in a small Georgia town, Grimes is shot on duty and falls into a coma. He awakes in an abandoned hospital to find an empty city crawling with emaciated corpses. Grimes sets out to find his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son, who turn out to have banded together with a small group of survivors in hiding outside the city. This group includes Grimes’ partner and best friend, Shane Walsh (Joe Bernthal), who has been acting as a substitute father and husband to Grimes’ family (in more ways than one) after Grimes is presumed dead.
Throughout the six episode-long first season, new characters are introduced, dynamics shifted, and exciting locations are explored. Each episode is a bit like a short film, covering a different genre and location every time. Shot on-location in Atlanta, the series looks incredible. The intense heat and isolation derived from shooting in open fields and abandoned streets truly instills a sense of hopelessness and seclusion in the viewer, making it all-the-more easy to connect with the characters’ feelings of desperation and uncertainty.
One of the most appealing qualities of The Walking Dead is the show’s confidence in exploring its characters. In different hands, one can imagine the series being nothing more than an action/horror-fest with zombie scene after zombie scene, filled with thinly drawn characters whose only purpose is to serve as reactionary plot devices in opposition to the re-animated corpses. Without the zombies, The Walking Dead would still be a perfectly intriguing character drama. At its heart, that’s what the show is. One quickly realizes that the title refers not to the zombies, but to the human survivors. Hopeless and alone, without direction or drive, our characters struggle to remain human in a world that’s become bleak and lifeless.
Central to the success of The Walking Dead is writer/director/showrunner Frank Darabont. While most were surprised to hear that the man behind The Shawshank Redemption was working on a TV show about zombies, anyone who’s seen an interview with Darabont knows the guy is a horror fanatic at heart. Behind the scenes, Darabont is joined by Robert Kirkland, the writer/creator of the graphic novel series, whose presence is absolutely evident throughout the series. Kirkland was central to the show’s first season, having written one of the episodes himself.
While the pilot kicks things into high-gear, with a heart-stopping end to the hourlong episode, the series is not without its slow spots. In ‘Tell it to the Frogs’, when Rick finally arrives at the camp and is reunited with his wife and son, I couldn’t help but groan at his insistence that he immediately head back into the city to rescue the stranded, and painfully unsympathetic, Merle. I was hit with a sinking feeling that the show would continue to stall or spend too much time dealing with the same plot set-up (ie. Rick and Co. go into the city for guns, Rick and Co. go into the city for food, etc.). The group’s side-tracking by a Mexican gang in ‘Vatos’ felt a bit unnecessary and contrived, and the penultimate episode ‘Wildfire’ plays out like one long, meandering set-up for the finale. Speaking of which, the final episode of the season features a number of bombshells and water-cooler scenes, with Noah Emmerich making a fantastic (and all too brief) appearance as the last remaining scientist at the CDC.
The Blu-ray of The Walking Dead features all six Season One episodes on two discs. Each episode is presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD surround sound. Unfortunately, none of the episodes feature a commentary. I would’ve loved to have heard Darabont talk in-depth about each episode, though it’s understandable given the man’s presumably busy schedule. Disc One features the first four episodes, while Disc Two includes the final two episodes of the season as well as the special features.
The Blu-ray is packed with bonus features, though a lot of them are leftover promotional material from AMCTV.com. “Making of ‘The Walking Dead’” is the most intriguing featurette included. Running almost 30 min. long, it includes interviews with the producers and cast, as well as a lot of footage from the on-location shooting. You get a real feel for Darabont’s train of thought during filming and how they pulled off some of the bigger action set pieces. Also include are “Inside ‘The Walking Dead’” mini-featurettes specific for each episode that appeared online after each airing. In addition, footage of the panel from last year’s Comic-Con is included.
The disc also features “A Sneak Peek With Robert Kirkman”, in which the graphic novel series creator gives a preview of Season One from the set. This, again, is leftover promotional material from the website. In “Behind the Scenes Make-up Tips,” the two main make-up artists for the show give viewers a home guide to zombie make-up, using normal items one can pick up at a local costume/hobby shop. The final bits of extra footage, which in actuality are small promotional videos, include “Zombie School”, “Bicycle Girl”, “On Set With Robert Kirkman”, “Hanging With Steven Yeun”, “Inside Dale’s RV” and “On Set With Andrew Lincoln.”
The Walking Dead is a fine addition to AMC’s pristine line-up of original programming. It is as much a character-driven drama as it is a horror-zombie survival series. At its core, Frank Darabont has crafted a meditation on the human condition. The desire, passion and struggle that make us who we are is taken to its limit when all hope seems to have faded, and the only thing left to do is survive. These inherently human emotions and instincts are brought to light and explored with masterful execution. The driving force behind this distinctively human story? That would be zombies.