This fall's batch of original programming has been fairly lackluster, to be kind. There are not a lot of new TV series to be excited about, but if there is one in particular that has generated an intense amount of interest it would have to be AMC's The Walking Dead. The cable network has garnered attention in the last few years for offering original, daring programming--shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Rubicon--that trump the offerings of network television. The small cable channel has become what HBO was in its heyday, when water-cooler talk and internet message boards were rife with discussions about Tony Soprano and The Wire. In comic-book form, Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead has garnered rave reviews and is one of the most consistently excellent monthly titles being published right now. So it makes a terrific amount of sense that a celebrated comic should make its way onto the airwaves on what is quickly becoming the most celebrated network on cable TV. AMC knows they have a hot property, too, ramping up excitement for the pilot episode by hosting a worldwide zombie outbreak in the days leading up to the Halloween premiere. The Walking Dead will certainly be a hot property for AMC, and deservedly so. The pilot episode, "Days Gone Bye," is a great opener that kicks the series off in tremendous fashion. If you weren't sure what you were in for, you certainly knew by the time the opening title credits rolled through after a small zombie-child had her brains blown out at point-blank range by Sheriff Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln. The story then took a step back to show us Grimes prior to the zombie outbreak, where he was wounded in a gun-battle and left comatose. He wakes up in a hospital room, alone and understandably confused. The lights flicker in typical horror-movie fashion; he finds a dead body, torn apart and decaying, bullet holes riddling the wall. At one end of the hall is a door barricaded shut with chains and wooden boards, a hastily written message on it that says simply, "DON'T OPEN DEAD INSIDE."
Lincoln perfectly captures the confusion and horror of this new world as he wanders the hospital searching for a way out. You can see the fear and disgust etched in every line of his face as he makes his way home. The nervous breakdown he has in discovering that his wife and son are missing is fantastic, as he hits himself repeatedly, trying to get himself to wake up from this horror, convinced that this cannot possibly be real. It's a terrific job, and is one of those scenes that if not sold properly would come across as a cheap and cheesy effort. In casting Lincoln, the creators of this adaptation have brilliantly nailed the character of Rick Grimes.
Based off a long-running comic book series, director/writer/executive producer Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist) has a lot of material to play with. He allows Kirkman's opening issue to be a guide, but does not follow it lavishly. Many of the beats are the same, but there's a fair amount that's different and fresh. After Morgan and his son Duane "rescue" Grimes, we get some background on their situation and meet Morgan's wife, which I don't recall from the comic. When Grimes finally makes his way to Atlanta, he finds himself surrounded by zombies and finds refuge in a tank left behind by the dead National Guardsmen tasked with defending the city. It's another moment I don't recall from the comic, but it works well. Episode descriptions for the rest of this six-episode season indicate that more changes are afoot while the series creators chart their own path for a bit, while still using the comic series as inspiration for tent-poles on character and story arcs. By and large, it's a very good thing that Darabont is not strictly beholden to Kirkman's work, allowing it to serve as a template while managing to tell a story that is true in spirit and honest to the original. In that sense, it's not terribly different from what Christopher Nolan has been doing with the Batman movies--it's faithful, but different. Those differences, for now, are minor, but honestly earned and feel authentic. Only time will tell if Darabont is as liberal in killing off the series characters as Kirkman.
The make-up effects are beyond impressive. The graphic level of detail is astounding, and sure to cause some controversy with the Parents Television Council. How this much walking rotting meat and gory zombie kills can be aired, even at a 10 p.m. time-slot on cable television, and still earn only a TV-14 rating is amazing. I would have thought for sure that the half-severed corpse crawling through a park with a leg bone and intestine dragging behind her would be TV-MA, but perhaps the TV Parental Guidelines are taking a cue from the MPAA. The Walking Dead is a gory affair, but largely a sexless one and thus apparently safe for minors.
AMC is taking a bold approach with this series, and it's amazing they're the first to try it. They have succeeded in bringing a comic book series to TV, along with a popular horror-film genre in all of its brutal, gory detail. The cinematography, acting, and make-up effects are on a scale typically unheard of when it comes to television production, and proves that AMC is determined to continue being a home to original, ground-breaking programming. The only complaint I can levy against The Walking Dead is that it's going to be a long wait for next week's episode.