When I heard that AMC was going to produce a television series based on the zombie epic “The Walking Dead,” I was both concerned and delighted. A bona fide classic in undead lore, Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” graphic novels are brutal and surprising–not really what I would picture for a basic cable TV show (the first season is only 6 episodes, we’ll see where it goes from there). But AMC has produced terrific and prestigious shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” so I was pretty stoked to see what they do with this. Add Frank Darabont of “Shawshank Redemption” fame as the creative force behind the show, and I’m pleased to report that we’ve got a winner!
For years, I’ve maintained that the principle themes of Kirkman’s vision have little to do with actual monsters. This is a story of human survival, of morality, of loyalty, of sacrifice–of doing anything necessary to carry on without losing the basics of what makes life worth living. The fact that this is occurring within the midst of a zombie apocalypse is just a bonus! Darabont and team are fully on board with the notion that it is humanity, not the undead, driving this epic struggle. So while “The Walking Dead” expertly crafts its horrors, the real emotional weight is conveyed through its characters and the decisions they face on a daily basis.
The story in these six episodes, for the most part, adheres to the first few individual comics or the collected “Volume One: Days Gone By.” This is the series’ jumping off point–and, in truth, sets things up in a fairly typical way. After being involved in a shoot-out, cop Rick awakes from a coma isolated, but not alone, in a local hospital. Apparently, in the time he was out, something has shifted in the world and now the dead walk. The program introduces Rick and many other principles as he tries to figure out what is happening while he crosses the state to locate his family. On the outskirts of Atlanta, Rick is reunited with his wife Lori, son Carl, and police partner Shane with a group of other survivors. I was afraid, with so much story to draw from, Darabont might rush things. Instead, “The Walking Dead” takes its time setting up the premise, introducing the cast, and establishing a bleak new world. It is a tremendous accomplishment that really allows the viewer to identify with the action, to become emotionally connected with the horror.
There are a few diversions from Kirkman’s text, but they actually enhance the drama. I particularly enjoyed the introduction of one of the series’ greatest villains at a much earlier point–rounding off his back story for a reemeergence in the future. With such a large cast, the standouts in the beginning have got to be the leads–Andrew Lincoln as Rick and Jon Bernthal as Shane. Hopefully, should there be a second season, more of the supporting cast will get to shine–but their early contributions are uniformly fine. Lincoln displays an intriguing balance of strength and vulnerability, but it’s Bernthal who is the break-out star for me! The gore and effects are absolutely top notch and should be appreciated by horror aficionados. Those that love zombie mayhem should have more than enough to whet their appetite. But, and this I stress, “The Walking Dead” is sophisticated, adult entertainment that should appeal to viewers who might not ordinarily target this genre as well. This is just great TV, plain and simple, and something unexpected fresh (if you can call rotting flesh fresh) on the TV landscape. KGHarris, 11/10.