Tag Archives: The Walking Dead

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2014 Edition: 35-32

4 Feb

One first year show, two second year shows, and one extremely popular cable show now in its fifth season. Let’s take a look.

Intro here and 43-40 here and 39-36 here.

35. Masters of Sex – 2013: 22

Masters of Sex

Masters of Sex, one of 2013’s most promising debuts, took a step back in its sophomore season. Still a generally enjoyable show, the delights rested even more heavily on the substantial acting talents of Michael Sheen and Lizzie Kaplan. Lack of focus was the critical issue; the plot darted back and forth and couldn’t make up its mind about any direction for the season. This included a bizarre several year time jump in the middle of the season that didn’t add a whole lot while being needlessly confusing and incongruous. Poor Caitlin Fitzgerald, as Masters’ long-neglected wife is stuck with will-intended side plots that don’t completely fail but also don’t work as well as the show wants them to. There are certainly positives to be found here; the pleasant surprise of the season was the coupling of Masters and Johnson cameraman Lester with an equally damaged new character Barbara played by Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt. Overall I don’t feel the same enthusiasm I felt after the first season and am not recommending the show as thoroughly. That said, there’s hope; there’s no plot or character bridge that’s been crossed that should irreparably damage the show going forwards. It’s time for the writers to sit back, take stock, and really think the next season through before moving forwards.

34. AMC’s The Walking Dead – 2013: 35

AMC's The Walking Dead

AMC’s The Walking Dead is one of the more inconsistent shows on television – so much so that it’s inconsistently inconsistent. There’s a good half season, then a terrible episode, then a good two episodes, then a bad six episodes, a good A plot, a terrible B plot, and then a great C plot. To their credit, after a predictably wildly uneven second half of the fourth season, which dedicated whole episodes to different groups of characters separated for a period of time after the destruction of their prison home, the first half of the fifth season may have been the best block of episodes in the show’s run. It’s, unsurprisingly, not perfect, but the characters are better developed. Early seasons featured Rick and a bunch of thinly drawn compatriots. Now, nearly a dozen characters feel like they have distinct personalities and motivations. Even when the messaging is occasionally mind-numbingly unsubtle, the characters have at least earned a greater sense of investment. You still never know when AMC’s The Walking Dead will lay an egg, and the midseason finale left something to be desired, but overall, I look forward to the show more than I have in a couple of years.

33. The Affair – 2013: Not eligible

The Affair

Showtime’s The Affair is a solid new entrant into the premium cable universe. It’s a show that I watch and will watch again when it comes back but which I’m not quite sold on enough going forwards to freely recommend it to others. The unusual format and lack of traditional genre are the show’s two strongest selling points. We get to see a series of events from both the male and female protagonists’ perspective. These are Noah and Alison, the two participating in the titular affair, and the show deftly plays with memory and point of view. Both recount the events of their summer affair on Long Island differently in sometimes small but telling ways. Smartly, it’s not just plot and dialogue that change between the two accounts, but rather the entire look and feel. The Affair is both a character study and a murder mystery. While I spent much of the first few episodes trying to pin down what the show was trying to be, I’m not sure I even know at this point, but the unusual genre combination actually works. The weaker points of The Affair are the characters themselves; they lack depth and their motivation is often murky and not always entirely believable. Ruth Wilson has that accent that no actually American person has that some foreigners put on. The Affair is intriguing and I enjoy it, but it’s a few steps from greatness.

32. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D – 2013: 44

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I was just about ready to give up on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. last spring, especially when I had to take a sabbatical from the show because, in both an ingenious and an incredibly irritating bit of Marvel Cinematic Universe synergy, you had to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier to follow along past a certain point in the first season. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have come back to the show at all, which I was completely and thoroughly sick of, if not for the prodding of a couple of friends who assured me that the show picked up after the crossover. Calling me skeptical was an understatement. I was willing to believe the show got better, because that was a low bar, but I found it hard to believe the show could improve to the point I could be really interested in it again. I was wrong though. The events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier presaged a fundamental shift in the premise of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which basically changed the show in every way for the better. While it’s not Breaking Bad or The Wire level of quality, it’s surprisingly hard to overstate just how much better the show has been since that crossover. The show has finally become a fun watch, in the vein of the better Marvel Cinematic Universe properties, and I hope it continues to grow in this direction.

End of Season Report: Walking Dead, Season 4, Part 2

31 Mar


The second half of the fourth season of The Walking Dead (or as I like to call it, because AMC addresses it as such, AMC’s The Walking Dead) tried a new tack. After the characters’ home at the prison gets blown apart by the Governor’s invasion, because we know the main characters can’t be at any one place for too long, the remaining living characters are divided into five groups, each of which is unaware of the location of any of the other groups, or whether anyone else even made it out alive. The groups never all appear in the same episode and some entire episodes feature single groups and just a couple of characters. Full episodes featured only Rick, Michonne and Carl, only Daryl and Beth, and only Tyreese, Carol, Lizzie, and Mika (and Judith technically, though she’s not much of a character at this stage in her life).

Theoretically the idea was admirable and ambitious; there could have been something to be gained by laying out the characters as separate entities and lingering on their stories without letting different mindsets or moods interrupt singular narratives. In practice, however, the organizational device led to an epic slowdown of a show that’s had serious pacing problems over the years and which is better when it keeps moving at a hardy pace. The Walking Dead can’t pull off the epic slowness and deliberateness of True Detective or Rectify, for example. Instead, the episodes just feel needlessly stretched out.

I’m not a Walking Dead hater, but I do think The Walking Dead is the most uneven show on television. No current show has constantly produced powerful moments and at the same time undercut them with miserable pacing, poor characterization, and strange plot choices. This half-season would have really benefited from shrinking the length of many of these episodes, or, since every episode is forty minutes, more realistically from more cross-cutting in the episodes between the various groups of survivors. For example, the Beth and Daryl-centric episode in which Beth had her first alcoholic drink did have its share of warm character moments and bonding between two character who had previously not had a whole lot to do with one another, but it certainly didn’t need to be forty minutes. There was a whole lot of extra time spent that didn’t provide any additional punch.

On the whole, assuming we’re resigning ourselves to these general storylines and groupings, these eight episodes could probably have taken place in the space of four or five episodes without any noticeable loss.

There are serious continuing issues with The Walking Dead aside from its poor pacing, which are occasionally remedied but keep popping up. Characters can be remarkably slow on the uptake, making decisions that seem counter to everything we know about the universe in which they live, and the show can be painfully on the nose.

For example, even without hindsight, viewers could tell Lizzie was obviously unbalanced. Tyreese and Carol didn’t notice at all, and left her alone with baby Judith, which is hard to believe. In fact, The Walking Dead’s ability to be so on the nose with how off Lizzie makes it even stranger that Tyreese and Carol had no suspicions. This isn’t to say they could have expected her to kill her sister by any means, but not leaving her alone with a baby seems like sound and fairly clear advice.

The season finale contained entirely unnecessary flashbacks of Hershel convincing Rick to farm instead of fighting walkers to show Carl a better path. I love Hershel; he was one of my favorite characters and the moral center of the show. But, come on. We get it. We don’t need the reminder to know that Rick is now finding he has to behave savagely again to keep his son safe. The Walking Dead is consistently afraid to give its audience enough credit to figure out what’s going on. I’m not sure what they talk about on The Talking Dead; The Walking Dead provides more explanation than anyone could possibly need.

Too often it feels like The Walking Dead wants to make sure you know it’s about big ideas and not just zombies, and that takes away from both the power of the ideas and the plot itself; tell an interesting story in this lawless zombie-ridden universe, and the ideas will take care of themselves.

That said, there’s still something here worth watching even if The Walking Dead only really shows its best side in some of the episodes some of the time. Nothing that has happened has made me think that The Walking Dead doesn’t have the power in it to be as compelling as it is in its best moments more often, and no doors have been closed off through the direction of the show that would end any chance at improvement. The show just continues to meander back and forth from powerful moment to strange decision, from action packed zombie battle to walking on train tracks for forty minutes with nothing much happening.

Those powerful moments really do exist. Finding Lizzie with her dead sister was startlingly creepy, so shocking because even as relatively desensitized viewers have become to gruesome violence, this is still such a stunning act. Watching Rick rip the head gang leader’s  throat out in the finale was powerful; much more than anything gained through the flashback, that one single moment epitomized Rick’s new attitude and his willingness to get his hands (and mouth) dirty. When Carol lays the fact that she killed Karen on the table, and Tyreese forgives her, it was moving and actually made sense within the greater context of the episode; it would have taken something major to change Tyreese’s viewpoint around to that reaction, but the events in that episode qualified.

Also, no season long recap should go without at least quickly noting that the zombies are as always remarkably gross and well-rendered, and the people behind them seem to come up with more disgusting types of zombies every season which is impressive. The set piece zombie battles are still pretty damn cool.

So, another season ends, and I’m still in the same place I was after midseason, and after last season. The Walking Dead is a show with big, powerful moments that finds itself frequently somewhat lost between those moments. There’s still a lot of potential, and the world continues to be a promising and fruitful one, but it remains endlessly frustrating that the writers can’t put it all together for one really great season of television.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 36-33

6 Jan

We start off our next chunk of four with a couple of dramas, followed by a couple of comedies part of a very close group that moves into the next four.

36. Black Mirror

Holding on to Black Mirror

Black Mirror is a British science fiction anthology series, similar thematically to The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits with hour long episodes focusing on the challenges of modern technology. Because it’s British there are just three episodes a season, and two seasons, the second which aired last year. Occasionally the episodes can be a little bit on the nose in terms of the danger technology poses, but there’s generally at least enough of a twist or unexpected plot directions to ensure the episodes remain interesting and fulfilling. Particularly, in the second episode of the most recent season, the episode appears to be going in a predictable and overdone direction between a reveal dramatically changes the point of view.

35. The Walking Dead

Rick and Friend

I consider myself, and I’m still surprised by this, a relative supporter of The Walking Dead at this point in the show’s life span. It’s been an incredibly rocky road, up and down, with some peaks, and some deep valleys. The second season was a slow, poorly-paced affair, punctuated by a couple of high spots but the show has improved, if in a three steps forward, two steps back fashion, since then. The season half of the third season had more good episodes than bad, as did the first half of the fourth season, with the biggest downside in both being the writers decisions to overplay their use of the Governor, a good villain with limitations the show didn’t choose to see. The show still has issues. It can be on the nose, and many of the characters aren’t as richly constructed as they should be, a problem a show that cycles through hcaracters as quickly as The Walking Dead does is bound to have. Still, I’m still watching which I wasn’t sure I would be at times in the second season.

34. Wilfred

Wilfred and Ryan

Elijah Wood stars in this relatively under-the-radar FX show based on an Australian show of the same name about a man who sees his neighbor’s talk as a man in a dog suit who talks. There’s a lot of different ways to go with that premise, but Wilfred mostly sticks to the lighter side, going for humorously absurdist rather than dark. One or two episodes a year attempt to examine the darker implications of the fact that Wood sees a dog as a human, and those episodes have a very mixed record. The third season was largely on the same level as the first. The episodes can get somewhat repetitive and there’s a formula, in which the dog is kind of a manic pixie dream dog who screws up Wood’s life but often ends up advising him for the better. Still, it works decently well, and the occasional super out there episodes hit at a higher percentage than the others.

33. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

The Gang

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia just reached 100 episodes last fall in its ninth season, an amount of seasons still hard for me to fathom. The show has long since become a hit and then faded somewhat into the background between newer, hotter shows, but it’s still churning out its brand of comedy, setting all its characters against one another for some stupid non-consequential reason, or against innocent Philadelphians. It’s a concept that could easily run out of ideas, and it’s impressive that the writers have done as good as job as they have, although it does occasionally feel like it’s retreating the same ground. It was a very hit or miss season with the best episode possibly being “Mac Day” where Mac got to control everything the gang did for the day.

Mid-season Report: The Walking Dead, Season 4

2 Dec

Rick is Back

After writing it, I noticed that this review has become a bit of a compliment sandwich. First, as befits said sandwich, we’ll start off with some compliments which the first half of the fourth season of The Walking Dead richly deserves. It has been the best and perhaps most importantly, most consistent half-season in a show that has been riddled throughout its run with inconsistency, offering jaw dropping moments before and after slow, plodding episodes. Pacing problems which swamped the show, particularly the second system, were not nearly as present, and new showrunner Scott Gimple found a way to mix character building, overarching themes about survival and humanity and relative and absolute morality with action, plot movement, and, as always, super disgusting zombies. Compliments to the chef.

My biggest problem with this half season was my biggest problem with last season’s finale: the governor, and his continuing, at least up to the mid-season finale, survival. The writers decided to give the Governor two episodes starring no other main character towards the end of the season rather than cross-cutting the Governor’s plot with the crew in the prison. I ‘m not sure that was the right decision, but I can see the advantages once they had decided what their story was and were just deciding how to tell it, The real problem, though, was bringing the Governor back at all.

The Governor’s arc was finished at the end of season three. If the character had been written differently, and I”ll get back to that, I don’t think the character had to be done, but because of how he was written, there wasn’t much left to do with him. Rather than prove me wrong, the writers unintentionally endorsed my view by basically repeating the Governor’s third season plot in two and a half episodes.

This re-telling may have been a superior version of the Governor’s story, and it almost felt like the writers thought the Governor was a good enough character that deserved a better end and they wanted to honor him. If this season had been the only experience we had with the governor, there might have been a chance to forge a new character and the episodes would have been a lot more captivating. But it’s not and it wasn’t.

Aside from the repetition, it felt like the first Governor episode was a fake out to make us believe that the Governor had changed. It could have worked, had the events of the third season gone differently, but because of how they did go I never believed in the new, non-murderous governor for a second. The character was simply too far gone, too morally compromised, to, forget root for, but even believe in and take seriously at all.

The writers proved that theory correct when the Governor went back to his playbook in his second episode, murdering the leaders of his new group to take control himself, ostensibly in the name of survival, but really for personal gain and revenge.

And therein lies my problem with the execution of the govnernor (not his dying at the hands of Michonne; that was great, rather how his character was written). There’s a version of this character that’s really interesting in this world. A character who has seen so many dark things that he takes a cold and utilitarian view of group survival. He decides he needs leaders who are willing to cut bait to save the most number of people, and that his group’s survival may mean others’ deaths, but he needs to be in it for his group first and foremost. That’s a valid worldview in these end times, and while it may not be one that the viewers support, it’s one that’s coherent and can make sense in a world where death is always around the corner.

The problem is the Governor is a perversion of that worldview who is impossible to sympathize with. Sure, he believes those things, and acts in those ways, but he has personal motives and a huge ego which don’t allow the viewers to really spend time on the fascinating themes that character can present.

I love that in The Walking Dead any character can die at any time. But for the reasons I described above, if the Governor killed Rick, I’m not sure I’d be able to continue to watch the show. I certainly didn’t think it was going to happen, but, while I normally reward the unpredictable, if the Governor didn’t die in that very episode, there would have been a critical problem in a show that has had its share of problems.

I had to spend so much time on my least favorite part of a season that was overall quite enjoyable, but it’s on my mind in particular because it occurred in the most recent episodes. Let’s talk about the good though, the bottom half of this compliment sandwich.

It’s always a challenge on The Walking Dead to build up new characters, so that they mean something if and when they get killed off, as there’s always a churn of characters working their way through. The Walking Dead did enough to add some real depth to characters Tyrese, Sasha, and Bob with a limited amount of time to devote to each which really helped bring up the overall cast. This stands in stark contrast to the trouble the show had making major characters feel like, well, characters, in the early seasons.

The Walking Dead thrives when it positions different views for how to deal with the apocalypse against one another, with Rick as the heart, trying to figure out what’s right. Carol and Hershel did an excellent job really building into two potential worldviews, each of which has value and reason behind it, and while I understood how this show works, it was awfully sad to see Hershel go as he has become the moral soul of The Walking Dead.

The disease that ravaged the prison in the first segment of the season was much more interesting than the Governor conflict in the second segment. It was a human conflict that forced the prisoners to make difficult choices, and while sometimes the choices were smoothed over, it led to some really interesting consequences like Carol’s burning of the bodies. We tend to side with Rick, but even while we may not agree with Carol, it’s easy to understand where she’s coming from and also understand that she’s taking action for the survival of the prisoners. Unlike with the Governor, Carol’s motivation is legitimately to help her group overall

All told, I’m encouraged by the direction of this season, especially now that the Governor’s gone and the crew is on the move again, I’m excited to see where show runner Scott Gimle can take the show, which has struggled to find its way on a consistent basis over four seasons, despite its massive popularity.

TV’s Golden Age Not Necessarily Over Just Yet

8 Nov

The Four PIllars

Andy Greenwald wrote an article on Grantland which probably wasn’t intended to be trolling, but it came off that way to me, and I felt the need to refute it, particularly because people constantly make arguments like this, if not as specific as this in particular. His argument in short is that television’s “Golden Age” is over. I’m very skeptical of the concept of a “Golden Ages” in general; it reeks of nostalgia for times that weren’t necessarily any better or worse than any other, but seem that way in memory, but I’ll follow along. I willing to accept in principle that certain eras aren’t necessarily as good as others, and that all seasons of television are not equal. However, I think both that his argument in broad strokes is wrong and that the claims he makes to get there are wrong a swell. I’ll break it down in further depth below, but quickly, the biggest issue is that his judgment of the entire previous golden era is particularly rendered less valuable because he’s only judging by using the shows at the very top. He then goes out to knock the “medium-level” shows he calls them in this era, without naming the examples of medium level shows that made the Golden Age great.

He uses what I like to call, or will probably start calling after this, the Four Pillars of TV Greatness (TM). These four are in order of airing: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. They’re four undeniable great shows, and if you asked for the greatest dramas of all time, there’s a better than even chance they’d finish as the top four of any poll of enough critics or knowledgeable TV viewers. He talks about a Golden Age, but to be clear, he’s talking about these four shows.  He speaks as if he means to cover a greater swath, as if those four just provided cover and inspiration for a flourishing run of good-but-not-as-good shows beneath their wings, but not a single other show is named after the those four, and while there are others that could easily qualify (Deadwood and Six Feet Under, at the least), I think it’s important to mention that these are the ONLY FOUR he mentions to represent what he describes as the Golden Age.

Greenwald then goes off and reels off several current shows that don’t meet his standard for Golden Age inclusion, whether because they’re simply not as good (Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Homeland, and outside of Homeland’s legitimately brilliant world-class first season, you’ll get no argument there from me) or much more strangely because they are great but they’re genre show, in the case of Game of Thrones (and to a lesser extent Orphan Black), which somehow don’t qualify as Golden Age-worthy because they contribute to other negative trends in television, regardless of their own quality.

The show he most associates with this gilded age of television is The Walking Dead, which he backhandedly notes that even though he’s not a fan, he acknowledges it’s the most important and influential show of the past five years. Without speaking on the quality of the show, on which I stand somewhere in the middle, I disagree strongly with his assertion. While that same statement may yet be true in five years, it really isn’t; Walking Dead’s influence is only beginning to be felt as we still wade our way out of the Age of the Antihero, which still, though waning, dominates television (three of the Four Pillars are antihero shows – The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, along with Boardwalk Empire, Justified, House of Cards, Sons of Anarchy, and plenty of lesser fare). Honestly, whether true or not, this is really off-topic from the central argument so we’ll move back in that direction.

Greenwald goes on to talk about how networks aren’t taking chances anymore, and that’s surely true, but that was also very much true five or ten years ago. None of the Four Pillars were network shows. Four shows got through the cracks and struck gold. He claims it’s systematic failure that as many quality shows aren’t coming through the pipeline, but I’d claim it’s just odds and not enough time.

Let’s not forget as well that one of the Four Pillars is still on, with two seasons to go, and one ended a mere month and a half ago. Game of Thrones is an admittedly great show, and I’m not sure why it’s a knock that it’s a genre show or that it’s based on source material, especially just because in influences other less good shows (first, something every new and interesting show does, second – is it a knock on Pearl Jam that so many lousy bands were influenced by it?). Shows come in waves, and influence of the biggest and best play a large part, for better or worse. Mad Men was very much influenced by The Sopranos. Greenwald complains about a prestige mad libs, and he’s by no means incorrect, but that’s also exactly what Mad Men was. You can give Mad Men credit for inventing that formula, but as mentioned, it stole plenty from The Sopranos.

Logical complaints aside, I’d argue that he’s not looking closely enough to find the good stuff. Last Spring alone saw the debut of four new dramas, each with the potential to be great, and although the odds are against any of them becoming an all-time great, that’s true for any show, and promise is really all you can ask for.

Rectify, the best, airs on Sundance channel, and stands in particular contradiction to Greenwald’s claims as it doesn’t fit into any of the boxes Greenwald is complaining about. Rectify is about a man exonerated from death row after twenty years imprisoned back into the small Georgia town in which he grew up. It’s a small show in the way Game of Thrones and Walking Dead are big, and it’s exceptionally, moving, human, beautiful and heartbreaking in different degrees.

The Americans admittedly kind of fits Greenwald’s prestige formula, but it transcends it, and even Greenwald acknowledging The Americans as the best new series of last year.

Orphan Black, Greenwald already acknowledged as well as an excellent show, and, though it’s a genre show, it certainly doesn’t fit into either the prestige or the bigger is better formula.

Hannibal, admittedly, it less new and interesting than the other three, and probably will end up as good and not great, but it’s especially notable for its gorgeous cinematography and its compelling psychological battling between protagonists Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter which elevate a cop show above the norm.

Remember, if we’re to match his Golden Age, we only need four. My point is not that these four shows are great and replacements for the Four Pillars, but that if even one of them can become great, than really all we need is one new great show each year. I could name lots of good but flawed shows a la Boardwalk Empire from the Golden Age – Lost, Alias, The West Wing, True Blood, 24, and more but it doesn’t matter, because there were some great ones. Now, some people may like some of the good ones better than others, but that’s always the case. Additionally, people will and have always copied successful shows. Lost spawned a thousand attempts at supernatural mystery shows, not one of which has really become successful (Heroes was the closest) and The Sopranos has directly led to Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and less directly many others.

There’s no reason to believe that the Golden Age is over because there are a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. There are always a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. All there have to be is a couple great ones. There are, and there’s no systematic reason that a few more won’t appear in the coming years.

End of Season Report: Season 3 of The Walking Dead

1 Apr

The Big Four

The end of Walking Dead season 3 was okay overall; the finale was frustrating in some ways but not terrible.   I’m going to spend most of this entry talking about two problematic points, so I want to get it out of the way early that I thought the season was pretty solid overall, and much better than the second season.

In fact, I’ll talk first about the aspects I liked in the finale.  Andrea dying; hooray.  We had gotten everything we were going to get out of this character and her internal struggles, and I liked how the show took a situation in which often in TV the character would make it out alive after a close call, and had her not make it instead.  It was a solid death scene all around.  Second, I like the situation Carl put his father in, shooting a man about to hand over his weapon. Our first instinct is to side with Rick, and I think with good reason, but it’s understandable why Carl doesn’t feel that way, and I like when situations like these put Rick, our protagonist, back on difficult footing.  Rick, not surprisingly, has generally been the strongest character in the show, and it’s constant challenges like these, that keep his character moving and evolving.

Now, the finale’s one major misstep: the extremely anticlimactic temporary ending to the Governor.  There’s no huge battle, nor is he finished; he lost for now, but they’re keeping him alive so he can do harm later.  This was a bad call, following bad calls tv shows have made time and again.  As often happens, TV writers believe they’ve stumbled onto a genius villain who is charismatic and whom the audience loves to hate.  While maybe at one time they planned to kill him or her, they decide this villain is too good to lose, and then have to keep finding unlikely and implausible ways in the story for the villain to not be killed or jailed by the protagonists. My two best examples for this are Sylar in Heroes and Ben in Lost (many would disagree with me there, but they’re wrong, why any character listened to Ben in the last two or three seasons is ridiculous), and there are many others.  Characters like this are not built to last; once you try to extend them, you ruin the great moment they added.  These villains are not complex enough to keep around for season after season.  Just kill ’em off and be done with it rather than ruin the characters and screw with the show.

I also want to talk a little bit about my disappointment in the promise of the Governor as a villain.  First, though, a diversionary explanation before we get back to Walking Dead.  For purposes of this entry, I’m gong to divide all villains in all forms of media into two major types.  There’s the more or less irredeemably evil villain; think Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, or even more extreme, Sauron from Lord of the Rings, who is essentially the embodiment of evil and corporeal only as a giant eye.  The second type is a villain who has some level of plausible and understandable motivation.  Rarely is this enough to actually root for the villain, but there’s some definable reason why he or her is antagonizing our protagonists that make some level of sense beyond just that he or she is a bad guy or girl.  One of the best examples of this type is Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale in The Wire; they’re drug dealers, but we understand to an extent that it’s just business in the world they’re in.

There’s absolutely nothing intrinsically wrong with the pure evil type of villain, and many of our most memorable villains lie in that category.  The Emperor was one. A more recent example is The Joker in Dark Knight.  He’s at heart just a crazy person; there’s no real rationale for his actions, but within the movie, that’s not called for, and he’s fantastic at being crazy.

That said, it’s harder to create the second type of villain.  It’s easy to say someone’s just evil as a reason, and often attempts at creating the second type descend into crazy/evil instead because the reason simple isn’t close to being plausible.    It’s not often easy to find real plausible reasons for someone the audience is largely supposed to be rooting against to be doing whatever bad thing he’s doing.

Getting to how this is related to The Walking Dead, the Governor was a villain who had potential to be in the second category, but eventually moved clearly to the first, and that’s kind of a shame.  There’s another potential telling of the battle between Rick’s gang and the Governor where the Governor is harsh, and maybe even a bit eccentric, but due to a history which has led him to believe that this is the only way he can keep his people alive.  Watching the show, I believed we were headed in that direction, possibly with a big explanatory episode, showing the Governor’s past in flashbacks, or having him issue a long monologue to Andrea or Milton or Rick explaining why he acts the way he does, at least to some extent.  There’s pretty much no way to make him the good guy, but there’s definitely room, in a world where undead savages threaten to overrun everyone without united action, and thirst and starvation and shelte, are serious concerns as well, to come up with reasons why strict top-down control and stern punishment would be one route towards survival.

Walking Dead doesn’t go this route, though.  In fact, it slowly moves in the opposite direction.  The Governor is most understandable very early on, but this breaks quickly when his men fire on some armed service personnel for no apparent reason.  I was waiting for some sort of explanation, either why these men posed a thread, or even just saying that in this cold hard landscape, the town needed the resources more.  But it was just a shitty thing to do, and that was that I suppose.  Moving forward from there, the governor got more and more deranged and unreasonable, making you wonder eventually how he was such a competent leader to begin with.  Soon, it was torture, and he basically ended his run for now with the totally batshit insane killing of all his own people, which, if he hadn’t already been well set into my first category above (which he had), those couple of minutes would have done it in and of itself in any circumstance.

Again, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with evil/crazy villains, as long as we’re not supposed to have any pathos for them.  Still, when you have a chance to contract a plausible, rational villain and it fits perfectly into the story, you almost always should take it, and The Walking Dead missed a big opportunity here.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2012 edition: 18-16

13 Feb

Three more on my list of the best shows I watched in 2012 – the rules to be included are here, and 18, 17,  and 16 are below.

18.  Homeland

Brody and Carrie

I never thought I’d see the day when The Walking Dead would be a mere one slot below Homeland, and if we’re just using the last few weeks of 2012, Homeland would be behind.  Homeland is somewhat the victim of bad timing; the show aired too late to be considered in my first ranking the summer of 2011, and if I had conducted a ranking this time last year, I was prepared to select Homeland #4 overall.  The first season really was that good; I can remember very few first seasons which have knocked my socks off like Homeland’s did, just about stem to stern.  In fact the most serious problem with the season was just that the writers had, due to events towards the end of the first season, put themselves in a potentially very difficult place to go out and write a second season as strong.  That’s pretty much what happened; the second season had some great parts and great episodes but was seriously flawed, especially in the second half, enough so for the show to continue to be worth watching, but no longer a member of the elite.  I ranted and raved some thoughts about the second season in a longer entry, but suffice to say by the second half the show runners had dug themselves into a hole which they could never quite figure a way out of, leaving the main plot threads of the second season to end in disappointingly unsatisfying ways.  The show changed its focus and veered way too far into 24 action hero territory.  The second half of the season seriously made me question whether the first season was merely incidentally stumbled upon by everything going right, making it unrepeatable.  Homeland at least put itself in a place where the slate is much cleaner than it was starting the second season, and hopefully, at least behind the scenes, the writers realize the predicament they put themselves in last year, and plan better now to avoid it, especially now that they know they’re likely to get a fourth and a fifth season.

17.  The Walking Dead

Rick and Crew

As Homeland goes one way, The Walking Dead goes the other.  No show has improved its fortunes more in the past calendar year, or, really, in the last four months of 2012, than The Walking Dead, which moved from an incredibly problematic second season into a much-improved third season.  This was accomplished largely by much better pacing but also by adding new characters and subtracting old ones who were running out of material.  The second half of the second season which aired in the spring of 2012 featured a lot of the problems of the first half; absolutely terrible pacing and too much time spent on less interesting characters.  Even the second season had moments which made it seem like the show could be a lot better, such as a tense situation in which Rick and a couple of other characters are looting an abandoned bar and run into some other strangers who may be either friend or foe. Rick is forced to make a quick decision about how to deal with them, and these interesting situations about how to deal with issues of trust and the value of humanity in the post-zombie world are gripping.  There were a handful of these powerful scenes but they’d couldn’t obscure the wasted episodes that came in between them.  The third scenes basically scrapped this formula and moved much quicker. It also killed off characters without abandon, leading to a situation in which it feels like no one but Rick is truly safe and the same interactions amongst the same personalities were less stale.  The addition of a second location, the Governor’s town, was interesting in and of itself and likely improved the pacing because of the back and forth.  The Walking Dead hasn’t always had character compelling enough, Rick aside, to get by on mere constant personality squabbles, working much better when those squabbles are forced by external circumstances, and there were simply more of those circumstances in the third season.

16.  30 Rock


I’ve occupied a strange position in regards to 30 Rock over the last few years, but really ever since the show started.  Once I caught up, while the show was in its second season, I was an ardent supporter but always felt it was wrongly cited as the best comedy on TV, especially while The Office was having some of its best seasons, and then later on, when Parks and Recreation and Community emerged as gems.  Particularly, I had been down on 30 Rock more recently, calling the show out not for being terrible by any means, but for seeming to make a bit of a slip from its peak years.  I’ve had a change in attitude.  I could chalk this down to some combination of this season making a marked comeback in quality, but maybe also to the fact it’s the show’s last and I’m appreciating it in light of its impending end.  As much as I have liked 30 Rock over the years, and I have, I thought I was ready for the show to end, but only now, after really enjoying the final episodes did I realize that I’m actually going to miss it when it’s gone.  While The Office, a great show over the run of its life, bumbles its way to the finish line, 30 Rock goes out in high style, and there’s something to be said for that, but also for giving 30 Rock its due in the canon, where, while maybe never the best comedy at any given time, was always worth watching, and that’s worth a lot.

Mid-season Report: The Walking Dead

19 Dec

Welcome, Michone

I’ve been harsh on this show at times.  Many times.  In fact, throughout much of the second season, when I felt like this show constantly didn’t live up to its full potential.  That’s what made it so frustrating for me; while so many TV shows have no chance at greatness from arrival, The Walking Dead constantly seemed like a case study in potential only realized in spurts, like a naturally talented athlete who gets by on talent alone, but could be a star if he hit the gym more often.  There were a number of different issues, but there two stood out the most (at least that are occurring to me now).  First, the pacing was terrible; the show consisted of absolutely epic moments sandwiched between long periods of inactivity or activity that no one cared about.  Second, half the characters were either boring, incredibly irritating, or not fleshed out at all.  I posted this at last season’s midseason, and these problems remained throughout the season; there were always just enough glimpses of what the show could be to keep me watching, but also enough problems to make watching frustrating and occasionally exasperating.

This season, I’m happy to say, was a revelation.  By far the best season yet of The Walking Dead, the third season mostly dispensed with the least interesting aspects of the show, and moved at a far brisker pace than the second season; as much occurred in the first half of the third season as happened in the entire second season.

I haven’t read the comics, though I’m considering it, and thus, I don’t know how much is taken from the source material, and how much is original for TV, but either way a series of smart decisions were made along the way towards assembling this season.  An important part of a show like The Walking Dead is keeping fresh blood (brains?) coming in in terms of new characters; since there aren’t 20 major characters like in Lost, if characters die, they need to be replaced, or we’d be down to 3 characters in no time.  Thought of in a different way, the advent of new characters allows the creators freedom to kill off whichever characters they believe are the least interesting, have become irrelevant due to storylines, or would just provide the most punch, plot-wise.  This character refreshening was achieved smartly with the death of Laurie; Laurie had become of limited usefulness as she descended into depression over her inability to have Rick forgive her.  Her death packed a huge emotional punch, and also led to difficult reckonings for her son Carl, who, even I must admit, has become far less irritating than he was in season 2, growing up to become, dare I say, somewhat competent, as well as Rick, for whom Laurie’s death put him off his game more than any other time previously in the show.  In addition, I liked the new characters who were added, mainly Michonne, the Governor, and his cronies, including Merle and his scientist Milton, who have all helped keep the show interesting.

Having the two storylines (the prison and the governor’s town) side by side completely worked.  The multiple locations probably played a role in the much improved pacing, since the show could dance back and forth, and it paved the way for the eventual central conflict of the half season.  Although the governor was and is clearly evil, because, hey, it’s TV, and it would have been a shock if he wasn’t, he’s definitely seemed like a more of a real kind of complex person than I thought he might.  I think this could possibly be done even more deftly, with making him a slight bit less evil, but David Morrissey has certainly handled it well enough that it feels like the Governor is a regular guy turned hard ass, rather than a mere psychopath bent on the destruction of those who stand against him.

I thought for sure it would take us an entire season for Rick’s gang and the Governor’s to meet but was extremely pleasantly surprised to see that it happened within half a season, with major events and reveals seemingly occurring in every single episode.

I’ve already commented on its similarities to Lost, and many of the questions The Walking Dead deals with – how far is it right to go to protect certain remnants of society from surviving – what civility, and what rules are left in a crumbling society, are similar to those handled by Lost at its best.

Overall, I feel as energized about this show as I ever have, and I’m glad to report that I’m actually really excited for the second half of the season to begin, an outcome I hoped for at various points during the second season but began to stop expecting.

The Walking Dead’s Passing Resemblance to Lost

27 Nov


Warning:  Walking Dead and Lost spoilers ahead.

It dawned on me while watching the last couple of episodes of The Walking Dead, that the current situation in the show bears a striking resemblance to certain periods of Lost.  These similarities are not necessarily one for one, but rather in overall feel as well as certainly matching elements of both shows.  Granted, I’m stretching a little bit here and there, but just follow along with me.

First, the Governor and his people are the Others.  The Governor is Ben.  The post-Apocalyptic southern landscape resembles the Island in the fact that danger lurks everywhere outside of protected areas, and that resources are scarce and technology is limited.  Like the Others, the Governor’s people live some semblance of a normal life, unencumbered by the constant dangers and shortages faced by those outside (Jack’s group in Lost, Rick’s group in The Walking Dead).  The Governor, like Ben Linus, is clearly an archvillain, from the viewer’s perspective, but we don’t know his exact history (at least in the first couple of seasons of Lost), and clearly he didn’t necessarily start out with the intention of being evil (well, neither thinks  of themselves as evil, but let’s say, their intents were not purely negative like a true evil villain).  Also, it seems that many in Governor’s group don’t know exactly the full story about the Governor’s motives and villain-ness; it also seemed that way for Ben as well in Lost, though that may just be an impression I got, especially in the episode (the first episode of the third season, A Tale of Two Cities) that showed some of the Others at a book club when Oceanic Flight 815 crashed (more of the Others obviously knew something was going on, but I’m not sure how obviously villainous it was to all of them, at least at first, there were innocents, like Juliet).  Like Lost, our good guys are composed of a rag team group of strangers who didn’t know each other until a tragic set of circumstances, nad have to band together to stay alive.

The interrogation scenes with Glen and Maggie have no exact parallels, but remind me of not one but two major interrogations in Lost.  These are when Jack’s crew had Ben locked up, without knowing his identity, for the last few episodes in the second season, when Ben claimed his name was Henry Gale, and when the Others captured Jack, Sawyer and Kate early in the third season, and particularly when Juliet interrogated Jack (by the way, if we’re really stretching this out, Rick is obviously Jack and Daryl clearly a much nicer Sawyer).  As in Lost, in The Walking Dead, we know these two groups are going to clash at some point, as the much weaker good guy crew dares to take on the much stronger bad guys.  There’s something not quite right about the Governor and his crew, which is exactly the feeling that viewers developed with the Others, even besides their simply being antagonists – the idea that they’re up to something fishy and underhanded aside from just wanting to defeat our protagonists.

Of course, Lost spent a lot more time developing these groups (the Others are around by the end of the first season, while the Governor doesn’t enter until the beginning of the third of Walking Dead, though the latter is on cable, and the episode count per season is significantly less) and then went way off the rail afterwards (time travel, um, purgatory, nuclear explosions).  Lost involved elements of the supernatural that aren’t present in Walking Dead.  Walking Dead involves the science fiction of zombies, and that’s about it.  Many of Lost’s best episodes were when the Others were still mysterious and when Ben’s creepy stare and constant lies-that-might-be-part-truths were captivating instead of tiring and repetitive (why did anyone ever believe Ben by the end of the show?).  The combination of the human dynamics amongst people who don’t know each other yet must work together set against the tension between opposing groups and the continuing plot mysteries that kept audiences guessing, anticipating, and theorizing were what made Lost so tantalizing, and what The Walking Dead does on its best days.

To its credit, I think The Walking Dead has soundly avoided the problem of biting off more than it can chew, plot mystery wise , and having source material, even if it’s not entirely faithful to it, probably helps a lot (I think the lack of limitless supernatural elements helps as well).  In addition, it smartly stayed away from the flashbacks, which I, and I realize this is a divisive opinion, always hated.  We can learn all we need about the characters from their actions at the present time.

I admit, the comparison is a stretch at times, but I do think Lost viewers will recognize at least a feeling in The Walking Dead right now which resembles some of the magic of the earlier (and best) seasons of Lost.  The show, which has had its share of issues over the first couple of seasons, has had its strongest half season so far.  Hopefully Walking Dead will continue its positive run of episodes;  for the first time in a while, I’m really looking forward to the next episode, the midseason finale.  So, kudos, The Walking Dead (and visiting the Lost wikipedia page just reminds me again of how Lost made me crazy (like visiting an ex’s facebook page) but that’s for another day).

Mid-season Report: The Walking Dead

8 Dec

(This should go without saying but this midseason report contains spoilers you’re not going to want to read if you’re not up to date on the show and plan on watching it)

This first half of the second season of The Walking Dead ends with a great TV moment which shows everything The Walking Dead can be when it’s at its best.  The barn full of zombies, which has been revealed to us a couple of episodes ago, and to the whole crew more recently, is opened up by Shane.  Dramatically, the zombies are shot one by one by everyone except Rick, until, last out, comes zombie Sophia, wearing the same clothes she was wearing when she got lost.  Everyone is stunned, too stunned to react, and finally Rick steps up and shoots her, taking on his leadership role and showing he’s willing to play rough at the same time.  Even though I hadn’t cared so much about Sophia before, the way she came out out of the barn as a zombie had an immediate visceral emotional impact, and the misdirection of the barn plot had me forgetting about the search for Sophia temporarily.  The scene was extremely powerful and exhibited surprise, plot development and characterization all at once.

The Walking Dead is a show which with a short season and a half behind it is still trying to find its footing.  It’s a good show, and it shows flashes of being a great show, but there are several areas that need improvement.  There are two top-notch moments in the first half of the current season.  The second is the barn scene that ends the half-season, leaving a very good impression going into the second half.  The first is when Shane is shown in flashback shooting poor helpful redneck Otis to get out of the school with the hospital supplies alive.  Both of these moments were character defining, hold your breath, call your friends and talk about them immediately after they happen moments.  Not all of The Walking Dead can be like this – no show can have moments like this constantly and be sustainable.  Still, the payoff of these scenes remind me how good the show can be.

Characterization and pacing are probably the two biggest areas of The Walking Dead that need work.  The Walking Dead has a lot of work to do buidings its characters up.  The best developed character so far in the show is Shane, who began as the best friend who looked after Rick’s family before Rick met up with them, and who has slowly emerged as the primary antagonist in the show.  His journey to antagonist has seemed fairly natural as he’s struggled with losing Laurie and dealing with Rick’s less practical, more soft leadership style.  The rest of the cast either hasn’t gotten a chance to grow or have had their moments in stops and starts.  Daryl, the redneck with the heart of gold, had one half an episode in which he has some battle with a hallucinated version with his brother, and other than that it’s not exactly clear what his deal is, or why he’s so friendly when he seemed more hostile in the first season (think Sawyer from Lost, but skipping past a few seasons).

The Walking Dead needs to decide what its relationship with its own status quo is.  Some shows constantly change while others like Battlestar Galactica feel uncomfortable once they venture too far from their original set up and work on getting back to it.  I’m not sure whether I can expect constant change in The Walking Dead universe or whether even when they move from place to place as seems inevitable, they’ll just settle back into their routines.  One way is not necessarily better than the other, but it affects the pacing of the show.  In the first season, the characters moved around a lot and the plot almost felt rushed.  Another episode at the camp might have let us learn about the characters more and laid down the groundwork for future conflicts.  The second season, on the other hand, has remained at the farm and it feels like an episode or two could have been cut.  All that time could have been used for productive characterization, but it wasn’t.  Often, instead of organically feeling like a character got to a particular state, it felt like he got there because the story needed him there.  An example of this is Dale’s admonishments of Shane in the last two episodes.  For Shane, the journey to antagonist actually seems natural as I mentioned before.  For Dale to hate Shane though, seems to come out of nowhere along with his certainty that Shane killed Otis.  There were no scenes showing us why Dale would feel this way or why he would suspect Shane, connecting the dots.

There’s three main story reasons to kill characters in this show that I can think of offhand.  First, to provide a powerful emotional moment for the viewer.  For this, there needs to be a lot invested in the dying character.  Second, to show a big moment for another character.  For example, Shane killing Otis.  We don’t care that much about Otis, but it’s a powerful moment for Shane.  Third, to show how dangerous an enemy is, such as the zombies.  This is the main motivation between killing many of the early first season characters.  This is a horrible world and the zombies are deadly.  I have no way of knowing, but this seems like the type of show that’s going to want to kill off characters as it goes forward and right now I feel like for a majority of the characters I wouldn’t feel that much if they died (think Boon from Lost).  There’s plenty of time to change this, but it’s something the show should be working on so they can give us more moments like the final scene in the last episode.

I’m by no means souring on The Walking Dead. It’s just frustrating to watch a show that has so much potential not yet fill it.  Unlike shows like Heroes and Lost that had me extremely excited only to lose me for good after I was quickly disenchanted, The Walking Dead has me right now thinking it has the same chance of being great as it did when it started.  There hasn’t been any creative decision which is such a mistake that they can’t turn back from it and I have no reason to think there will be.  The pieces remain in place, they’re just shifting back and forth waiting for someone to get the configuration right.