I'm keeping a close eye on AMC's The Walking Dead. I could give a respectable-sounding reason for this... it's an unusual artifact, being a television series based on a horror comic. We've been seeing a lot of movies based on comics lately, but isn't a television series probably a better match for the comic's format, which stresses perpetual, cyclical continuity? And a horror-based television show... aside from infamous examples like Tales from the Crypt and The Twilight Zone, we haven't had many of those, partly because broadcast television has such strict content controls.
But the real reason I'm following The Walking Dead is that I'm a huge fan of the graphic novels. I have been for three or four years, since they were publishing collection five or six (out of thirteen now). It's fascinating on a personal level to see how the story, characters, and atmosphere of the comic is changing with its move into a new format. As much as that stuff is my real point of contact, I think I should start with the media questions, because in writing these two paragraphs, I've realized that stuff is probably more interesting.
Sure, there have been TV series based on comic books before. Superman, Batman, The Hulk, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- these all jump to mind. And recently, there've been some abortive attempts at creating series based on comic strips -- Boondocks, Dilbert, etc. However, it's worth noting that those first four, the adaptations of superhero comics, totally abandoned the continuity that makes the comic book series such a fascinating medium. Indeed, The Walking Dead is one of the first live-action adaptations that, as far as I can see, attempts to keep the comic book's sense of perpetual continuity and change.
This was one of the great aspects of The Walking Dead in its graphic novel form. The characters weren't unchanging, mythical embodiments of ideals, like Superman and Batman, nor were they stuck in constant cycles of crisis and contrived resurrection, like many superheroes tend to be (the characteristic they share with soap opera characters). It's an inevitable fact of the series that characters, including the ones you hold dearest, have finite lifespans, and as the reader, you never get the comfort of functionally immortal protagonists. The series itself isn't even titled after a hero, so there's always the possibility that Rick Grimes, the series protagonist, may die a permanent death.
Within these limited lifespans, these characters evolve constantly, becoming hardened in the face of the apocalypse, sometimes breaking, sometimes becoming pillars of strength. If the series plays its cards right, we'll see that by about the mid-point of the second season (which has already been renewed, by the way). This is when the first batch of protagonists will have established their roles in the group dynamic, and it's when we'll probably be seeing the first "turnover," if you will, of some of the most important characters.
I have to mention, in passing, the brilliant casting decisions. Carl, in particular, is perfectly cast. His presence in the show is actually one of the first times I've ever seen an adaptation improve upon the spirit of the original. Carl makes the most sense as a character when he's seen as a fresh-faced little boy. Robert Kirkman, the writer of the comic, does a good job of evoking his childlike mentality, but artist Tony Moore can't really do justice to the face of a child. This is mostly because of the harsh, scratchy, India-ink finish of the artwork. Yet, it still stands -- the rough artwork seems to alienate the reader from sheltered little Carl. In the show, on the other hand, Chandler Riggs has exactly the right on-screen presence to evoke the Carl of Kirkman's writing.
We're now past the third episode, and it's become clear that pretty extensive liberties have been taken with the core team in adapting the comic to a television series. In particular, the show has added a couple subplots about social issues: a raving racist becomes a key figure in the show's first major moral dilemma, and some of the early power struggles among the survivors occur because of a wife-beater's treatment of the women of the camp.
These additional elements of drama are only provisionally welcome. They provide some additional opportunities to cast Rick and Shane as heroic defenders of justice and order, and they allow for some commentary on the civil strife within an isolate community. They also feel a little too easy, because "racism" and "domestic abuse" are very easy cues for our moral indignation. Without these little indicators, the comic provided a fairly broad, unpredictable, and murky moral landscape. Perhaps these civil disputes are commentary on culture clash in the American South, where the story is taking place; that rationale is enough to redeem the dramatic baggage, at least for the moment.
Ultimately, and refreshingly, the most powerful scenes in the show are the moments of emotional redemption, brought into relief against a ruined world. The cross-cut "mercy killing" sequence in episode 1, where Rick wanders into the woods to euthanize a female zombie, paralleling Morgan Jones' unsuccessful attempt to put his wife down: this sequence was one for the ages. The reunion scene between Rick, Lori, and Carl was another perfectly directed cinematic sequence, bringing the joy of the reunited family into focus without losing sight of the emerging tension between Shane and Rick.
I'm not completely done discussing these three episodes yet. In particular, I need to devote a post to the gender roles in the show, because they're a bit different from the comic, and they're showing a little regressiveness. However, that's a post for another day, not in the least because it's a bit too foggy and complex to be covered in a mere few closing paragraphs.
With that said, I hope everybody is enjoying the show as much as this Walking Dead fanboy, and I hope you'll stick with me through the first season.