October 17, 2011

THE SKED REVIEW: The Return of The Walking (and Talking) Dead

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Since we last saw our rag-tag band of survivors, they’ve had to endure the loss of their leader, the man most responsible for mapping out their initial strategies and saving them along the way from all manner of deadly predators…  
Oh, wait.  That’s THE WALKING DEAD series itself, where the vanished hero is Series Creator/Showrunner Frank Darabont (he’s still credited as an Executive Producer, but that seems to be a contractually-required formalism).  Darabont was reportedly unhappy with AMC’s treating their one genuine hit (MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD are Emmy magnets, but their ratings are mid-level) by cutting its budget, as well as other network strictures, and so he’s walked away, leaving control of the series in the hands of Executive Producer Glen Mazzara.

In truth, and despite Darabont’s shiny screenwriting reputation, Walking Dead wasn’t known for the pithy wit of its writing, and the show doesn’t seem to have suffered at all in his absence.  Tonight’s Season 2 premiere, oddly credited to 2 writers on separate title cards (Ardeth Bey and original graphic novel creator/EP Robert Kirkwood), and also to 2 directors (Ernest Dickerson and Gwyneth Horder-Payton), was, despite its supersized 90-minute length, quite compact in scope, and as effective as the show has ever been.  
Our characters who survived the death trap that the CDC in Atlanta turned out to be have a new goal:  Fort Benning, 125 miles away.  But as they start to make their way down the highway, they encounter an impassable jam of crashed cars and trucks, a faulty radiator on the RV, and something new:  a “herd” of zombie Walkers, dozens of them all looking for human flesh.  Luckily, they’re still none-too-smart and none-too-fast (and their sense of smell seems to have disappeared), so they’re mostly avoided or dispensed with.  But one does go after young Sophia (Madison Lintz), and Sheriff Rick (Andrew Lincoln) goes after her.  When Rick has to dispatch a couple of Walkers, Sophia is lost, and the next day most of the group combines in search of her.  Meanwhile, the characters deal a bit with the aftereffects of last season’s storylines:  Andrea (Laurie Holden) is furious that Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) didn’t let her self-immolate at the CDC as she wanted to, while Shane (Jon Bernthal) decides he’s going to split off from the group, rather than co-exist with Rick’s wife and his former lover Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies).
Among TV’s horror series, Walking Dead is unusual for its relatively simplistic plot–since zombies, unlike vampires, witches and other supernatural beings, can’t handle much more than lurching and chewing–and also for a tone that relies more on suspense and sheer grossness than narrative thrills.  (Tonight’s “yecch” sequence had Rick and Norman Reedus’s Daryl cutting open the belly of a Walker to see if any of Sophia’s body parts were in there.)  Things bogged down a bit when the group came to an abandoned church and we got not one but two agonized monologues directed to its statue of a crucified Jesus, but the episode did have a strong, and unexpected, cliffhanger ending that should bring people back next week.
AMC also launched something new and different tonight:  THE TALKING DEAD, a weekly half-hour talk-show that will follow every episode of Walking and try to keep fans from changing the channel  It’s modeled after the highly successful Watch What Happens series on Bravo (Lifetime has also gotten into the game, with a follow-up to each week’s Project Runway), but this is the first time it’s been tried in conjunction with a scripted series.  The initial episode, unfortunately, was formatted within an inch of its life and had no substance at all.  Instead of allowing host Chris Hardwick and guests Patton Oswalt and James Gunn (he wrote the script for the Dawn of the Dead remake) to talk with any depth or insight about tonight’s episode or the series, they were just permitted to deliver a few one-liners while the show bounced from viewer poll to tweeted question to behind-the-scenes featurette to jokey death count to jokier murder montage.  A brief satellite appearance from Kirkwood was also nothing more than the most superficial kind of celebrity Q&A.  The post-game recap show for a series with committed fans is an idea with real potential, but right now it’s as empty of meaningful content as a Walker’s brain.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."