Saturday, January 01, 2011

101 Things I Loved About TV This Year

Unfortunately I haven't gotten my top 10 shows list done yet, so in the mean time, here is a list of the 101 Things on TV I loved this year.  They can be anything from a specific moment to an episode or story arc.

Yes some of the videos are in reverse.  I don't know why.

24: Jack ambushing Logan’s motorcade
30 Rock: Tracy Jordan’s bloopers from his Boys and Girls Club PSA
30 Rock: Alec Baldwin, still one of the most dependable actors on TV
Breaking Bad: Proof that showrunners shouldn’t be afraid of making it up as they go along (so long as the writers are on the level of Breaking Bad’s)
Breaking Bad: The best cold opens on TV
Breaking Bad: The rest of the episodes were pretty astounding too
Breaking Bad: Bryan Cranston winning Best Actor at the Emmys for the third year straight and Aaron Paul getting his due
Breaking Bad: The climax of “One Minute” (capping off what may be their best episode, NSFW)
Breaking Bad: “Half Measures”
Chuck: “Chuck Vs. The Beard”
Community & Parks and Recreation: Seeing these two shows’ ensembles gel into two of the best comedic casts on TV
Community: “Modern Warfare”
Community: The “Layla” montage in “Contemporary American Poultry”
Community: “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” Watch episode on Hulu.
Community: That they had a subplot occur solely in the background in the “The Psychology of Letting Go”
Conan O’Brien: His farewell speech on The Tonight Show
Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler finally getting some Emmy love
Daria: Finally out on DVD
Doctor Who: The touching end to “Vincent and the Doctor”
Doctor Who: Using time travel for a clever spin on “A Christmas Carol”
Doctor Who: The smooth transition from the Tennant/Davies era to the Smith/Moffat one
Friday Night Lights: Realizing how much Tim Riggins has grown from the first season
Friday Night Lights: Seeing Michael B. Jordan on another great show
Friday Night Lights: That they were able to move on with a new cast of high school characters rather than shoehorning the old ones in unrealistic ways
Friday Night Lights: Zach Gilford delivering a devastating performance in “The Son”
Friday Night Lights: Buddy Garrity standing up to the arrogant Dillon Panther boosters
Fringe: Seeing Anna Torv blossom into a really talented actress
Fringe: Seeing John Noble continue to make Walter Bishop one of TV’s most fascinating characters
Fringe: The attention to detail in making every difference between “Over Here” and “Over There” even more special
Fringe: The alternate opening title sequences
glee: Burt Hummel, one of the best TV dads on now
glee: Kurt singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”
glee: The “Bohemian Rhapsody” sequence
How I Met Your Mother: “Natural History”
How I Met Your Mother: The creative rebound of the sixth season
How I Met Your Mother: The “Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit” song
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Three words: Lethal Weapon 5
Jeff Zucker’s Reign of Terror at NBC coming to an end
Jimmy Kimmel calling out Leno on his nonsense
Justified: The writing cartwheels they took to keep Walton Goggins around
Live Tweeting Awards shows
Lost: Jack’s epic jumping punch
Lost: The final scene
Lost: The moments of realization when the characters connected in the flash sideways, in particular Charlie, Kate & Claire and Juliet & Sawyer
Louie & Party Down: Proof that you can make something great even on a microscopic budget
Louie: The heckler throw down (NSFW)
Mad Men: How Kiernan Shipka went from a non-entity in season one to a fully realized character now
Mad Men: The art design of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce
Mad Men: The shot of Peggy riding the bicycle in the empty studio
Mad Men: That Betty Draper’s role was significantly reduced this year
Netflix: The continued expansion of their “Watch Instant” library
Parks and Recreation: Ron Swanson.  Enough said.
Party Down: “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday”
Party Down: Kyle’s band Karma Rocket unfortunate song choice for a Jewish wedding (NSFWish)
Saturday Night Live: “I Just Had Sex”, the best digital short since “Motherlover” (NSFW, but not as much as some of the videos here)
Saturday Night Live: Kanye West’s performance of “Power”
Saturday Night Live: Backlash be damned, Betty White hosting
South Park: The dozens of call backs crammed into their 200th episode two parter
South Park: How the excessive censorship by the network in the 201st episode unintentionally made their point better than they planned.
Supernatural: The Winchester’s Chevy Impala
Supernatural: Bobby, the guy you want having your back
Supernatural: The classic rock soundtrack
Terriers: That killer theme song
Terriers: “Quid Pro Quo”
The Good Guys: The nerdy lab tech Samantha
The In-Betweeners: Jay’s foul mouth (Very NSFW)
The In-Betweeners: “Thorpe Park
The Office: The writers keeping Jim and Pam together
The Office: Andy’s disastrous Sweeney Todd performance
The Simpsons: The controversial opening designed by Banksy
The Venture Bros.: Hank going film noir in “Everybody Comes to Hank’s”
The Venture Bros.: Henchman 21’s character arc
The Venture Bros.: Steven Rattazzi’s line reading as Dr. Orpheus (below is th music usually accompanying the more dramatic quotes).
The Venture Bros.: The multiple interpretations of what a “Rusty Venture” is (way, way, way, NSFW)
The Venture Bros.: “Operation: P.R.O.M.”
The Walking Dead: One of the best pilots in years
The week of May 2-May 8

The shows I caught up with or am catching up with
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Doctor Who
How I Met Your Mother
Parks and Recreation
Sons of Anarchy
The Venture Bros.

Non-romantic pairs:
Troy and Abed (Community)
Sam and Dean (Supernatural)
The Doctor and Amy (Doctor Who)
Walter and Jesse (Breaking Bad)
Don and Peggy (Mad Men)
Britt and Hank (Terriers)
Pete White and Billy Quizboy (Venture Bros.)

Romantic pairs:
Henry and Casey (Party Down)
Eric and Tami (Friday Night Lights)
Marshall and Lily (How I Met Your Mother)
Britt and Katie (Terriers)
The Monarch and Dr. Mrs. The Monarch (Venture Bros.)
Jim and Pam (The Office)
Liz and Jack (The Good Guys)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 5 Review: Wildfire

Original Airdate: November 28, 2010
Writer: Glen Mazzara
Ernest Dickerson

Of course the massacre would be a turning point of the season, one thing from the comic that needed to stay for the show.  Besides establishing how dangerous this world is, it puts the Shane and Rick conflict to a near boil.  Although Rick believes that the weapons he retrieved kept the zombies from killing everyone, taking four strong people away from camp left them vulnerable to the attack in the first place.  He knows it and the loss of those people on top of not being able to help Jim informs his desperation in the end, slamming on the door in hopes that anyone inside will let them in.  Shane isn’t letting Rick off easy, but Rick’s growing influence in the group is wearing him down to where he contemplates killing Rick in a “hunting accident” before Dale busts him.

Also important to the episode is how the survivors treat the dead and undead after an attack.  It’s seems out of character for Rick not to take issue with the idea that the zombies get burned while the killed survivors get buried.  As Rick made them take note, the zombies were once people and eventually they all will become zombies themselves.  That lesson seems short lived, but maybe this just represents the theory Rick presents doesn’t work when it practice these former people slaughtered a ton of your newly formed family.

Then comes the issue of what they do with those killed by zombies or just bitten and quickly falling apart from it.  For this no one is affected more than Andrea, who spends most of the episode holding a vigil for Amy.  This really nails the hard toll the zombie apocalypse takes on a person.  How do you react when someone you love dies and you know they will come back?  Can you stand by while a guy drives a pick axe through their skull?  What if you wait and they come back, can you do what’s necessary or will grief and guilt override it?  I also liked how they handled Amy’s reanimation.  Instead of her awaking at full strength and pulling Andrea’s neck to her mouth, it’s like she’s waking up.

During the clean up Carol has a good character developing moment, cathartically pulverizing her abusive husband’s skull to a point where it made the guy who is doing this for fun uncomfortable.  I still like to think the excessive skull bashing and the torn apart corpse was more for his character being terribly written and serving no purpose.  Of the comic characters, she and Sophia are the least defined in the series, so maybe they’ll go in a different direction if they’re around for season two.  Besides seeing the live action version of the comic, an adaptation can be a fun was to explore an untraveled route.

As the bodies are being taken care of, Rick and Shane quarrel about what to do next.  It’s between Shane’s idea of Fort Benning, 100 miles away and the likelier safe spot or Rick’s of the CDC headquarters, closer and possibly a place to find out more about what happened.  Rick wins the argument as fuel is low and the Winnebago is falling apart without the hose the van had and just further eats at Shane.

Before the exodus, Morales and his family decide to go their own way in hopes of finding their family.  Considering how minor a character Morales and especially his family was, I’m not too frustrated that they went nowhere, but for a season that only had six episodes, why bother introducing so many characters that did little to nothing for the season arc?

Also dispatched is poor Jim, who was bit during the attack, but kept it secret until the morning after.  Thankfully they spare us the “survivor hiding a zombie bite” story seen in a lot of zombie movies and address it head on, where it becomes another part of the episode’s theme of how the survivors deal with the dead or soon to be dead.  Daryl’s ready to put him down before he so much as dies as preventative measure, but Rick sees hope in getting him to the CDC where he could be cured.  Instead, Jim decides that he won’t be able to make it and asks to be left behind.  While true to the comics, I wonder why no one brings up the idea that when he comes back he could be a threat to others.  Then again, at this point, there isn’t as much for him to go for.

The last act switches things up with the introduction of Dr. Jenner, a scientist who has been studying the zombie outbreak alone in the CDC’s bunker.  Being the last survivor in the facility, it’s a lonely and hard life.  For all intents and purposes, he is The Walking Dead’s Desmond Hume.  When Dr. Jenner is at his lowest, ready to get smashed and kill himself, the survivors come pounding on his door, just like Desmond when Locke slammed the hatch door.  In fact, it’s hard not to compare the final shot of this episode with the ending of Lost.

The stage setter for the finale, “Wildfire” does a good job reminding us of the stakes, thinning down the massive cast and getting the survivors to what should be an interesting stage for the season finale.  The last act feels a little like this episode ran short and the finale ran long, another symptom of cramming storylines from a 12 episode season to a 6 episode one.  Hopefully this is another thing that’ll be fixed when they get a full season.

Overall Score: 8/10

DON'T READ, SPOILERS BELOW (Highlight if you've read the comics)
Purists have probably not liked most of the first season as far as fidelity is concerned.  Outside of the first episode, extensive liberties have been taken bringing the show to a TV format.  Now they’re introducing the government’s last gasp of a response.  This is something the comics have chosen to ignore completely because without the systems of communication in place, how are they to know what happened?  That lack of knowledge helps drive the comic’s reality.  Giving the TV survivors insight into the chaos is a risky move, but could be interesting, and I doubt they’ll be there for long.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 4: Vatos

Original Airdate: November 21, 2010
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Director: Johan Renck

In a series that’s gotten a lot of buzz, this episode may have been the most anticipated since the pilot.  Written by comics creator Robert Kirkman, it’s another piece of the never ending debate over how much fidelity an adaptation should have to its source material.  While the series to date has captured the tone of the comics and many of its key themes, plot wise they’ve taken liberties for better or worse.  In fact, almost everything save for this episode’s ending is wildly divergent.  It’s an important piece of the show creating its identity separate from the comics, but what happens after the man responsible for the source dips his toes into the new waters?  The result is an episode that respects the idea that the show going its way and by doing so endorses the show runners to make the show they want to make.

After finding Merle’s severed hand, the rescue team goes about figuring out what he did next.  Finding another (conveniently never mentioned before) stairway, they surmise that he was able to cauterize the wound and escape.  Merle’s status in the episode sets him up to be one of the wild cards of the final two episodes, with him being the likeliest culprit in the van’s theft.  He’s not with the vatos and he could’ve easily gotten back to the camp, but isn’t there when the zombies arrive.  So where did he go?

With Merle’s location unknown, they head to the street to retrieve the guns.  The mission goes off without a hitch until a teenager sneaks up on Daryl.  In the resulting panic Glenn is taken by the kid’s friends while the rescue team takes the kid, Miguel, as their hostage.  The AV Club questioned whether this hostage standoff and the vatos storyline were entirely necessary for the episode.  While it probably will have little impact on the series as a whole, for the episode it was a nice break from the grim situation, something we’ll likely see less of as the series continues.

Considering the shallow at best characterization of Merle and Ed, I went into the vatos storyline not expecting much.: they’re thugs, the end.  However, this subplot thankfully surprised me as it revealed the vatos, run by former janitor Guillermo and nurse Felipe, have taken refuge in an elderly care facility.  As time passed they’ve assembled a crew of the patients’ loved ones and created a nice sanctuary for themselves, but are still tough to those who threaten it.  Though I don’t expect to see them again, I wonder how this camp will change in even a few months as the medicine supplies continue their inevitable decline.  What about their plan to evacuate with the vehicles they’re working on?  What’s going to happen when the reality sets in that moving the old people out of Atlanta will be nearly impossible?  It’s a good idea to have a story like this so near the opening, as it can serve as a good contrast for later seasons.  Maybe this is something Kirkman had wanted to do in the comics, but couldn’t or didn’t think of it until later.

At the camp things are tense with Jim digging several graves on a nearby hilltop.  He gets some good characterization in this episode, as a man watched zombies eat his family, sorrowfully explaining that the only reason he got away was because they were busy eating them.  All the survivors have some major loss like that, like Andrea and Amy worrying about their parents and Andrea later mourning the death of her sister, but it has taken a particularly hard toll on him.  It helps to humanize him.  As much as we’d like to think that we’d be the dashing hero laying zombies to waste, really most of us would be in shock after losing people we loved in the most horrific way.

The episode ends with a major set piece for both this season and the first trade it’s based on: the zombies invade the main camp and lay all the redshirts to waste.  They do the audience a big favor by dispatching the one note Ed, whose presence was so brief it’s puzzling as to why they even bothered putting him on the show aside from the “I’m glad he died first” guy.  Maybe this was another result of condensing storylines for a shorter season.

Besides that being part of the comic’s story, they had to kill someone we were sympathetic to and that was Amy.  It was telegraphed from the episode’s opening, as she and Andrea pondered their parents’ fate in Florida and Andrea preparing to surprise Amy with the mermaid, not to mention that despite the fact that conventional employment is obsolete and Amy’s age, she was just two days away from retirement.

Amy’s death is the first, and certainly far from last, death of a major character this series will see.  The comic is like the series 24, which was similarly ruthless in offing characters regardless of how long they were around or how much fans loved them.  Both series’ willingness to kill characters serves a purpose to the narrative: no one is safe and that the stakes are almost unbearably high.  In The Walking Dead world where consequences and responsibility are of the utmost importance, death has to be omnipresent to justify it.

The one part of the end that didn’t work for me was Jim’s line about why he dug the graves.  Maybe it’s just from watching other supernatural shows and movies, but that line came off as if they want us to believe Jim is psychic.  There was a better way to convey the idea that Jim’s PTSD mindset manifesting the idea that he thinks they’re all dead anyway.  That’s one of the appeals to Walking Dead: it’s set in a world not far removed from ours.

The gore of the first four episodes proved this is not one for the squeamish, but the first slaughter of actual characters shows how dangerous this world can be.  It’s a show all about high stakes and grave consequences, so the body count will need to be high.  With that comes the risk of alienating viewers, but shows like 24 and Lost have been able to dispatch characters without hurting the show’s momentum (well, less so for the former).  When the show gets to season two and doesn’t have to condense the story to accommodate a shorter order, it’ll be interesting to see how far it goes.

Overall Score: 9/10 Abuelas

(Spoilers for the comics are below, do not read if you plan on reading them or want to go through the TV series with an unspoiled perspective.  Highlight to read.)

In my “Guts” review, I wondered if they were going to try to make Andrea a piece of a potential love quadrangle between her, Rick, Lori and Shane.  Instead here we get a hint that they will be going ahead with their original plan of the Andrea/Dale coupling.  This relationship I’m interesting in seeing if they can pull it off more than the more gruesome moments.  They shrunk the age gap by about ten years (to see if they could pull it off with Emma Bell or someone her age would be even more impressive).  So far so good: it’s not much, but Jeffrey DeMunn and Laurie Holden have some good chemistry.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gobble This: Top 12 TV Turkeys of 2010

Another year of TV is almost done, and for the most part (at least the first half) shaped up to be one of the best in recent years.  However, there is always something disappointing or downright bad in TV, so here are 12 things that let me down, made me mad or had me reaching for the remote.

12. 3D TV –Not to say 3D is always bad, there is a place for it and 3D gaming sounds like a good use for the technology but it has a long way to go before being a worthy addition to the living room.  Between the dearth of 3D programming and the expensive glasses you need for it to work, 3D TV’s just come off as something used by doofuses with too much money.
11. The Office’s “The Banker” episode – No doubt even hardcore fans of The Office have to acknowledge the show has fallen from its glory days of the second and third seasons, but I don’t think they thought the writers would be this desperate to do an unapologetic clip show in 2010.  The Office’s audience is hip enough to dismiss that instantly, especially when shows like The Simpsons did post-modern clip shows 15 years ago or their own fans make better montages and put them on YouTube.  They could’ve done something clever or meta with a clip show, considering the long-forgotten-but-still-used-as-the-show’s-narrative-foundation documentary conceit.

10. Snubbing Jay Pharoah on SNL – Judging by how much airtime the new cast members of Saturday Night Live get, you’d assume the break out star was Vanessa Bayer, who is fine, but those watching the show know the true break out is Jay Pharoah.  Pharoah is perhaps the best impressionist the show has seen since Darrell Hammond, uncannily mimicking Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Jay-Z.  Unfortunately he is barely on the show outside of a bit on Weekend Update.  This guy needs a “Lazy Sunday” style breakout.

9. The pacing of the final season of Lost – Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the final season, and its finale was extremely satisfying, but man, it was the least consistent of the seasons at a time when it needed to be.  The first half was slow, testing the patience of fans over a controversial subplot that felt like a waste of valuable time, then with a third or so left, the pace kicked in and suddenly big character moments, some of which were building for seasons, took a backseat to momentum.  That’s not even counting that about a quarter of the regular characters were given nothing to do (what exactly was Ilana’s purpose anyway?)  For a show that prided itself in its character development this was a disappointment.  Luckily they pulled it together, but I can’t help but wonder what the season would’ve been if they tightened the pacing of the first two thirds, had the Desmond episode earlier or maybe had an episode or two in the end to give those later character moments time to breathe. 

8. Caprica – Call it a swing and a miss. The show had a great pedigree from talented writers, stellar production values and a top notch cast. It had interesting ideas about social networking and our online identity. So why was it so boring? Fans expected something like Battlestar Galactica, but instead got was a scattershot of subplots that had little in common and wound up thrown together in an awkward fashion. Moore and company are trying again with Blood and Chrome which while may be fan service hopefully can deliver on the captivating drama Caprica lacked.

7. Chuck and Sarah on Chuck – Chuck, the cult action-spy-comedy, has quickly fallen out of favor with me. There are several reasons, from the revolving door of indistinguishable, boring antagonists to the show’s need to change but never willing to stray too far off the status quo. Most annoying, is how they completely botched the romance between leads Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski. The two have great chemistry, but ultimately have fallen into the same pratfalls that happen to many TV romances, often straining believability. They weren’t intimate because…the writers didn’t want them to and when they got together, they had them bicker because that’s how the will they or won’t they cycle works. The Jim and Pam romance on The Office is proof that you can write a romance that develops over time without a bunch of ridiculous drama and it still be compelling (The Office’s diminishing returns stem elsewhere). If only Chuck’s writers would be willing to challenge themselves to find the story in them being together and happy.

6. glee’s tribute episodes – Like any good musical, when the numbers on the increasingly erratic glee are in service of story or character, it works. However, the show’s growing use of tribute episodes, featuring songs centered around an artist or musical, throw any sense of character or story continuity out the window in pursuit of sucking up to the specific artist. The Madonna episode was serviceable to be fair, but the Britney Spears episode was the epitome of lazy writing, using the same device to set up shot for shot do overs of Spears’ music videos. Then there was the Rocky Horror episode, which tried to tie in to the show’s theme of the outsider, then backpedaling over a major reason why one of Rocky Horror’s characters was an outsider.

5. V – Had I seen Outsourced or $#!+ My Dad Says, I probably would count them, but I can’t judge stuff I haven’t seen. So I have to go with the show I watched every episode of, the horrendous reboot of the cult 80s alien invasion saga. Like every failed Lost clone, the characters were morons in service of lazy writing, the character development was paper thin and the cast was at best worthy of much better material (poor Elizabeth Mitchell). Somehow they avoided the axe, but when it comes back—whenever that may be—how can they fix it, and will anyone be watching if they do?

4. The 2010 Academy Awards – I’m sure I could do a whole list for the snubs the Emmy’s committed, but instead I’ll focus on the other lame awards show I watched. This year’s Oscars proved to be especially useless outside of commentary on Twitter. On top of the interpretive dances they can’t seem to understand no one likes (which cut Best Original Song performances, a far better use of airtime), there was the blatant pandering to tweens, that rude woman who interrupted her co-winner because they hate each other and meaningless montages. The most egregious infraction was barely acknowledging the achievements of Lauren Bacall, Roger Corman and Gordon Willis, who were among the winners of various lifetime achievement awards, making them stand in the audience and bow rather than take the stage. Besides the stupidity of not having at least Corman and Bacall give speeches, the Academy created some unintentional irony: celebrating cinema’s rich history, but snubbing those who made it so.

3. Dana Walsh on 24 – While some may go with the amnesia plot or the cougar, this character’s storyline is without a doubt the worst thing the show has ever done. Her story, involving a fake identity, a redneck ex-boyfriend trying to rob something or other, took up so much time and went nowhere. What makes it the worst is how it wasted Katee Sackhoff, fresh of Battlestar Galactica. She deserved so much better. At least she got a couple paychecks for her trouble.

2. The fall 2010 season – It may be the worst season since the strike season of 2007-2008, with non-starters like The Event & Undercovers, mediocre McShows like Hawaii 5-0 that became huge hits and gems like Terriers or the quickly yanked Lone Star that go unwatched. It’s hard to believe a year ago there were two break out hits in Modern Family and glee. If there is any silver lining, it’s that some great, but under watched shows like Community are getting a pass when they would probably be cancelled in a more competitive year.
1. Jay Leno and NBC – A complete disaster for nearly everyone involved: The Tonight Show as a franchise means nothing to anyone under 35, Jay Leno took a guy’s dream job and wrecked a network’s schedule all in one season and NBC, once a dominating force in TV, is in a distant fourth among network TV stations. How could it not be number one?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 3: Tell It to the Frogs

Tell It to the Frogs
Original Airdate: November 14, 2010
Writer: Frank Darabont, Charles H. Eglee and Jack LoGiudice
Gwyneth Horder-Payton

During almost every season of 24 the writers, struggling to keep up with writing a story on the fly, would usually give the CTU agent who has had little to do to that point a crazy family member or friend who would inevitably show up in CTU and cause a bunch of chaos in an already chaotic day.  These subplots were often the worst part of the show.  It added nothing to the main story and wasted valuable screen time that could’ve been used to have Jack Bauer throat punch dudes.  Three episodes into The Walking Dead and it seems that it is suffering from a similar problem.  They’ve introduced two characters who are behaving in a way no one would in this situation.  First it was Merle the hot headed racist, now we have misogynist Ed, Carol’s husband.  What is it about this group and their ability to attract one note heavies?  One of the important pieces of The Walking Dead is taking a group of strangers who never would interact otherwise and make them build a new society, but that can come naturally from their differences, not someone acting hostile because the show needs drama.  Don’t get me or my choice to open with a long rant wrong, the show is very good, but they can do better.

The episode opens proper with the reunion of Rick and his family.  Of course, this means Shane’s time playing house with Lori and Carl is over.  Through their fast paced affair, there’s no doubt Shane fell in love with Lori.  He also grew close to Carl, acting like a father to him.  He knows he has to step aside because she is Rick’s wife, but that isn’t easy.  It comes to a head when Shane takes Carl out to catch frogs and has an angry confrontation with Lori.  He is unable to cope with it and with no healthy outlet, he pulverizes Ed’s face when Ed slaps his wife.

Shane and Lori’s relationship has put their likeability in question.  Did they get involved too soon after Rick “died”?  The Walking Dead world is so heightened that it’s hard to judge them based on that.  Considering all the death and destruction they’ve witnessed, who wouldn’t find comfort with a friend and sex would be one of the few pleasures they have left.  Those who don’t buy that think they were involved before the fall, considering the marital problems Rick and Lori were having.  There is also discussion that Lori used her sexuality to garner special treatment from Shane.  The latter of those two seems ridiculous unless Shane acts like Ed when he’s of camera.  What is harder to sympathize with is Shane’s decision to lie to Lori about Rick’s fate.  She naturally feels guilty, but know she got involved because of a lie makes it even worse.  Not to let Shane off the hook, but perhaps he lied about Rick’s fate because that was the only way he could get her and Carl to safety and it snowballed from there.  Obviously it isn’t going to be easily forgotten or forgiven.

The second issue of the episode is if Rick should return to Atlanta to rescue Merle, who has quickly gone insane from exposure and the trauma of being left alone, and retrieve Rick’s supplies from the tank.  Rick feels responsible for leaving him there, as does T-Dog for dropping the key.  While consequences are important on this show, so is the idea of personal responsibility.  It’s crucial to survival, but can also stick you in a dangerous position.

This decision is also informed by the point in the story they are in.  Rick is still new to this world, and makes decisions he would as someone sworn to serve and protect would and not one in a world filled constantly asking you to make greater sacrifices for your survival.  It’ll be interesting to see, if it goes that long, what season five Rick would do in a similar situation, something they’ve addressed in the books.

Even if that’s not what he intends, Rick’s mission is the first step in a shift of the camp’s leadership.  An episode earlier Shane butted heads with Amy when he refused to send more people to Atlanta to help the original search party; here Rick gets to head back to find Merle and the bag of guns.  Shane is a tough leader, but he needs to be because the stakes are so high.  However, zombie world novice Rick still feels the value of human life, even of a bad guy, is worth risking it all.  He’s also earning points in the camp, appreciating Carol’s ironing and accepting Glenn’s input while navigating Atlanta.

On the rescue team is Merle’s brother Daryl (Norman Reedus of Boondock Saints fame).  It may be another broad character, but Daryl is far better written than Merle, even if Michael Rooker is a better actor.  Unlike Merle and Ed, he has valid reasons to be angry.  First a zombie/omen of doom snacks on the deer he killed, leaving them to snack on squirrels and frogs (among other things zombies have presumably done to him).  Then he finds out his brother was left behind and almost everyone is content with leaving him to rot.

They return to the scene to find the rooftop abandoned, save for one hand, a nearby saw and a surprising dearth of blood, setting up the story for the next episode.  Since the chains weren’t broken and no zombies were on the roof, it’d be safe to assume that Merle has not been eaten or turned.  This cliffhanger reminded me a little of 24, down to the hacksaw.

Halfway through this abbreviated first season, the show has become a phenomenon, garnering AMC its highest ratings for original programming on top of a lot of critical praise from fans new and old.  However, the new characters and some really clunky dialogue are keeping the show from joining the ranks of Breaking Bad and Mad Men.  The established characters are integrated well, so maybe this is just the result of a condensed first season and them having to be a little broader.  AMC will no doubt let them give them a longer leash next year, and hopefully they can make the most of it.

Overall Score: 8/10 Crossbows


Although the Rick-Lori-Shane triangle is one of the few elements from the book intact from the source material, they have taken a few liberties that change the stage for viewers only as well as the comics fans.  The biggest of which is that we didn’t see Lori and Carl until Rick did in the books.  Doing it that way kept us in the dark like Rick, making his desperation to find them more palpable.  Showing them alive and well in the camp for two episodes instead makes it about the audience knowing of Lori and Shane’s romance long before Rick.  That changes the impact of the reunion scene.  Originally, it would be seen as touching, a glimmer of hope among people who could really use some.  While that element is still there, it’s more the old status quo crashing into the new.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 2 Review: Guts

Original Airdate: November 7, 2010
Writer: Frank Darabont
Director: Michelle Maxwell MacLaren

In the first episode review, I touched briefly upon the debate over how faithful an adaptation needs to be.  This issue is particularly heated among the comic book community, who are very protective of the books they love because they’ve seen so many ruined when made by people who “don’t get” what the original is about, leaving the main stream to jump to the wrong conclusions because the adaptation did the original a disservice.  Some demand complete fidelity to the source material, a feat that often makes for a forgettable adaptation.  Ultimately, a good adaptation should get the spirit of the original, but be free to take liberties.  What works on the page doesn’t always work in another medium.  The on going narrative of TV, much like a monthly comic narrative, should be about keeping what works and jettisoning or changing what doesn’t.  They have a great guide for stories for the next seven seasons if they went that long, but they shouldn’t be married to the material.  Take another show that’s based of a series of books, albeit non-comic, Dexter.  To be fair, I haven’t read those books, but the plot summaries for them sound like bad fan fiction.  Dexter knew when to go in a unique direction and the series benefited.  Walking Dead can do that too.  The pilot’s changes benefited the show, developing the characters in a way that would’ve been too time-consuming on the page, but one change feels awkward and may need to be reworked if it’s going to be a part of the series in the long run.

After the prologue, the episode picks up where last week’s left off, with Rick awaiting another message from the guy on the other line.  The guy is none other than Glenn, who is with a group of survivors from Shane’s camp looking for supplies in the city (Glenn was alone in the comic, a change remarked upon briefly before they go in the sewers).  Rick has a window of escape, as the horde are busy feasting on the horse and most on the tank have left him to feed on something not in a can.  He starts off with a handy shovel, baretta and a last resort grenade to help him get to Glenn.  Unfortunately he drops the shovel and, knowing he can’t go back like he couldn’t for the weapons bag, shoots every zombie in his path to Glenn, “ringing the dinner bell” for the undead nearby.  Consequences continue to be important to the show, as Rick’s 20 second run creates a problem he spends the rest of the episode trying to solve.

The group, also including Andrea and four new characters, wind up stuck a department store.  It’s like Dawn of the Dead, except those zombies aren’t waiting for bikers to break in.  Slowly but surely they’re using rocks to break the glass doors, creating a ticking clock scenario.  Through a process of elimination, Rick decides he and Glenn will head to a construction site, swipe one of the trucks, and use the loading dock to get the survivors to safety.  Before that, however, they are going to smear the remains of a zombie all over them to cloak their scent, something done in the comics.

Although it is part of the zombie narrative, usually not much thought is given to the idea that the zombies were once people unless a main character becomes one.  It makes sense because that sobering fact ruins the fun of a good zombie kill.  This episode deals with it head on, and it’s refreshing to see it done so frankly.  Before going through with the brutal act, he finds the man’s wallet.  Finding out whom this guy was, giving him a personality besides a token “geek” is followed by Rick hacking him to pieces while the rest gather the eponymous guts to create his new ensemble.  While Rick tries to remind people of what they’ve lost, The Walking Dead is no place for sentimentality.

The attempt works swimmingly until nature intervenes, showering the streets and washing away Glenn and Rick’s security blankets.  They manage to make it to the lot with a few good axe kills along the way.  While the pilot was sparse in its action, this episode makes up for it.  The chase scenes are very intense, especially considering the high stakes the world has set up.  While it’s a close call, Glenn manages to create a distraction driving a car whose alarm is blaring.  Rick’s plan redeems himself and all but one survivor makes it on the truck.

The big misfire of the episode was Merle Dixon, a character not in the comics and the one left behind.  Nothing against Michael Rooker, who did a great job, but the writing was ham fisted most of the episode.  His racial epithets and Mel Gibson inspired lines came off so awkwardly, you wonder why anyone in the search party would ever allow this guy to go with them picking berries, much less an expedition into zombie central.  It’s an interesting idea to have the survivors deal with someone in the group who is going to be trouble, as well as the notion that even in the direst of circumstances, some people can’t let go of their hatred.  However, it was so over the top that it felt like an easy choice.  A good character is in there—a combination of Lost’s Sawyer and Justified’s Boyd—they just need to develop him better, assuming he isn’t zombie chow next week.

His psychotic behavior putts him in the penalty box, as Rick handcuffs him to a pipe on the roof.  While they never discuss what they’re going to do, the question of what they’re going to do with a maniac like him runs throughout.  This is a guy who is ready to pulverize someone over a fight he instigates over very little.  Regardless, T-Dog tries to get him out of the handcuff, but his clumsiness and a slippery roof sends the key down a drain.  The emphasis on the tool bag seems a little much for something that won’t be followed up on, and may be important in the next episode.

So with the liberties what do we have?  It’s still a very entertaining episode with good action and suspense.  Although Merle’s characterization is stereotypical, I’m willing to forgive it if they can develop him further and explain why he’s in the red at all times.  One of the great things about long form story-telling, writers and performers can fine tune the character and find something that works, even if they start on the wrong foot.

Overall Score: 8/10 Zombie smeared coats

This is the segment that includes SPOILERS for the comics, so if you’re new to Walking Dead and are intending to read them later or keep a fresh perspective not affected by its events, stop reading here.

Another change in the series is making Andrea older (Andrea and Amy were twins in the book), and it seems like they’re setting up a romance between Andrea and Rick, something that seems a little controversial among fans considering how important the Andrea/Dale relationship is to the comics.  I guess they want to increase romantic tension, as things between Lori and Shane are getting hot and heavy.  They seem to be telegraphing it with the intense introduction as Andrea threatened to kill Rick for the problems he made for them and later them exchanging small talk as Andrea wanted to take the mermaid jewelry for her sister.  Perhaps I’m over reading it, but it’s something seen in a lot of relationship stories.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

NEW SERIES: The Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 1 Review: Days Gone Bye

Days Gone Bye
Original Airdate: October 31, 2010
Writer: Frank Darabont
Based on Material by: Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard & Tony Moore
Director: Frank Darabont

Since Danny Boyle’s 2003 film 28 Days Later (which, despite the intense debate among the zombie fandom, will be considered a zombie film), zombies have invaded popular culture like vampires have.  From films, video games, books and even board games, the fans of the undead have had no shortage of entertainment.  Then we have The Walking Dead, a monthly comic series that started in 2003.  What separates Walking Dead from other zombie fiction is its interest in the long term circumstances of survivors of the zombie apocalypse.  The fact that zombie movies had to end always bothered Robert Kirkman.  Whoever is left escapes the horde, but where do they go from there?  The zombies are still there, the world is still over.  What happens next?  Walking Dead seeks to answer that question.

While it could’ve been a good film or series of films, creator Robert Kirkman took the wise route of bringing it to TV.  TV has been the place for writers to craft a long form visual story, especially in the past decade.  A movie would be a difficult place to convey the book’s sense of long term survival.  Enter AMC, which has been able to overcome the fact that they don’t play a lot of classic films anymore with their amazing original programming.  The first two shows they green lit, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, are two of the best shows on TV, garnering tons of critical raves as well as many awards.  So the bar is set really high and judging by the pilot, Walking Dead may meet it.

Before going further, a note: I’ve read the comics (through trade #12).  However, to accommodate those new to Walking Dead, any comments I have that would be considered spoilers I’ll try to place out of the range of the main review, past the episode’s score.

It starts off on the right note, as Rick shoots a zombie girl in the head.  Killing a child, even one who is no longer human, isn’t easy to watch.  That they showed the hit and the gore effectively sets the show’s mood.  The survivors are in a brutal, unforgiving world, and they need to do whatever is necessary to survive, including stomach churning moments like this one.  In a few minutes it shows us what type of show it’s going to be, and if you don’t like it, they gave you a perfect window to tune out.

Unlike a lot of pilots, which get bogged down in exposition introducing every character to the point where it becomes a blur, this episode focuses heavily on one, small town sheriff’s deputy Rick.  He has to carry the show, and Andrew Lincoln did a great job with that, especially in the long stretches of the episode where he’s alone.  We see him on his last day of work, making small talk with his partner Shane before they get word of a high speed chase.  This scene expands upon the comic’s introduction, which had to be short because the comic didn’t have enough room for a lengthy scene before the zombies showed up.  It is a slower scene after the prologue, but it also introduces us to Rick and Shane, as well as the trouble in Rick and Lori’s marriage.  It’s important to set that up because the sense that Rick and Shane were friends before compounds the impact of when inevitably Rick finds them and learns of their relationship.

Much like Jim in 28 Days Later, Rick misses the apocalypse because he’s in the hospital (In Rick’s case he’s recovering from a gunshot wound) so he serves as the audience’s proxy too.  There is no timeline as to how long Rick has been under, nor how long since the dead rose and destroyed society.  We’re in the dark almost as much as Rick is until he comes across a father and son squatting in his former neighbor’s home, who initially confused him for a zombie.

Morgan (played by Jericho favorite Lennie James) and son Duane get Rick caught up as to what happened.  We learn the rules about zombies, which while not divergent from conventional zombie mythology, is important to introduce in the beginning.  One of the biggest dilemmas of supernatural fiction is setting up the rules, sticking to them, and not making the rules sound like a lecture, and luckily Walking Dead does them well.  The execution works because it is so closely connected to the character.  Morgan lost his wife to the zombie plague, and now has to deal with the mother of his child wandering the neighborhood they’re now living in.  Morgan knows he should’ve put her down, but can’t muster up the courage when she sees him as he peers through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Walking Dead is about pushing regular people past the breaking point into a life filled with impossible choices that range from horrible to slightly less horrible.  So it makes sense to have a law man at the center of the series.  Rick’s life before the fall was probably black and white: he upheld the law and didn’t have much outside of his marriage that didn’t make sense to him.  Now he has to adjust his moral code to figure his way among this devastating landscape.  It’s exemplified in the scene where he comes across the horrifying image of the leg less zombie.  He initially runs away, but after learning the truth, returns to her to put her down.  The old way of doing things is obsolete, and now Rick has to find a new way.

This is perhaps the best example of a show fully showing what the stakes for the characters are since Lost.  As Rick and Morgan tell Duane, every bullet counts, and they have to mean it when they pull the trigger.  Besides the lack of consistent ammo delivery, a gunshot brings forth throngs of the undead.  Consequences matter on this show.  A false move, something not checked, and you’re dead.  Take the ballad of Leon, the deputy from the beginning.  No doubt what made not have his gun ready at the stand off ultimately killed him when faced with the zombie menace.  While Rick knows the importance of being careful, he still has a lot to learn in this world.  Going into Atlanta on an easily spooked horse got him ambushed and trapped in a tank, away from his bag of guns.  Then without thinking, he shoots the zombie soldier, temporarily stunning him.

Rick is in Atlanta in hopes of finding his wife and son, who he has reason to believe may be alive.   Unfortunately when his car radio picks up the transceiver in the camp his wife and son happen to be in, he can’t hear their side of the conversation warning him not to go there.  This leads to the image of Rick on horseback heading to Atlanta used in the ads and the ending set piece, the ambush as he is in a tank surrounded by zombies, who no doubt aren’t full from that ill fated horse.

There’s a glimmer of hope, as a young man reaches the tank’s communication system and talks to Rick.  Fans of the comic know who this guy is, and I’ll refrain from saying.  That’s another thing worth talking about: the show has put the spotlight on the comic, exposing it to people who have never picked up a comic book in their lives.  Most of the reaction I’ve heard is from the hard core fans or people who’ve at least read the books, but as the show goes on, I want to hear more from those new to Walking Dead about what happens next without the bias of knowing where the comic’s story goes next.

AMC deserves a lot of credit for the production value of their shows.  Mad Men and Breaking Bad look amazing, and Walking Dead is no exception.  From the wrecked cars to dilapidated buildings, the apocalypse looks vivid in a way you may not expect on a basic cable budget, as amazing as some of those shows can be.  It wouldn’t be a surprise if the pilot had a bigger budget than a regular episode, and I wonder how they will maintain this sense of devastation.  No discussion of this show would be complete without discussing the amazing make up work.  These are some of the best looking zombies I’ve ever seen, so to speak.  They put a lot of work into showing zombies, from freshly dead to long rotting, with horrifying detail.

One small problem I had with the show, the CGI used to increase the gore (or flies).  The gore done by make up and props looks amazing, and AMC deserves serious credit for letting them go this far, but some of those effects, like the leg less girl’s execution, had distracting post production splatter thrown in.  Clearly they want to up the gore to reinforce the high stakes the characters are in, but this feels like explicit gore to enhance controversy or to compensate for something, which considering the wealth of the material and quality of this pilot, is unnecessary at best.

Something they should be commended on is how they know how to generate good, well earned scares.  They could’ve gone for some startling moments, like a zombie appearing before Rick as he went down the stairway in the dark, but instead they go for situations, like Morgan’s wife staring into the peephole, jiggling the doorknob as Rick watches the outside, to generate unease.  Every frame of this show is filled with dread.  Making the audience jump is easy and a little bit cheap; making them squirm is a lot harder.

This is one of the most impressive pilots I’ve seen in a while.  The world, its hero and the stakes are superbly established.  The writing is confident and Darabont knows the right balance of fidelity to the source material and freedom to pursue what works in the new medium, an important piece of any adaptation.  It gets the spirit of the books right, and hopefully that will continue throughout this six episode run and the possible future.

Overall Score: 9/10 Headshots