30 Day Television Challenge: Day Twenty-Three

Best Pilot Episode: The Walking Dead

I’m not necessarily convinced “Days Gone By” is the best pilot ever, but it is brilliant and worth talking about. The reason why I picked it is because it set such a high standard, which the show never again came close to to matching (or at least the first season – I haven’t seen the other two).

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The episode begins with a prologue that is out of sequence with the chronology of the subsequent narrative. It gives the viewer no context, only atmosphere and action; it’s more about tone than anything else. I’m a sucker for this sort of storytelling. David Simon does something similar in The Wire. The viewer is sucked in now, thrown into the universe head-first instead of tip-toeing in.

Another thing that impressed me about the pilot is that it’s better than the comic book, which is rare in adaptations. The pacing of the show is far superior. It really takes its time with the first act with Rick getting shot and ending up in hospital, thus missing the outbreak. In the comic, it all happens in a page or two; there’s no time for characterization, etc.

Despite being a rip-off of 28 Days Later, I like this idea because the first days of the zombie apocalypse are played out these days. With The Walking Dead, we’re now in the dog days, the survival days. This is the real grind. Sure, the initial impact of the apocalypse is destabilizing but trying to survive and live day-to-day is where you see some real fucked up shit.

Also, by having Rick wake up in the middle of the apocalypse gives someone with whom the viewer can connect. As Rick learns about this world so too does the viewer. It kills two birds with one stone: a) it bypasses a stage of the narrative the story isn’t interested in telling, and b) walks the viewer through the universe, explaining the rules, the stakes, etc (for example, the show is very thoughtful about how gunfire can attract zombies).

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What the pilot illustrates so well is that when the state dissolves, people must fall back on more primeval organizations: the family and the tribe. The family is the most basic and rudimentary group people have. Before anything else we have our family. Beyond that, families reach out to bond with others. We see this when Rick first wakes up. He seeks out his wife and kid. Failing that he gets taken in by Morgan and Duane, a father and son.

Rick is brought into their family by the ritual of supper and prayer. They hold hands together around the table to form a circle. Morgan insists Duane remain courteous to maintain goodwill in exchanges with others. The significance of rituals re-emerge. The destruction of society thus brings people back to the pre-historical tribal unity.

Accordingly, before Morgan and Duane can leave their home, they must take care of their matriarch, who has been transformed into a zombie.

The zombie is a grotesque imitation of a person. The zombie is owed a death. Herein is the significance of the funeral as a rite for the family. People feel the need to honor the dead, however meager the ritual may be. It closes the loop so the family can move on and be whole again.

When the father prepares to shoot his former wife, he looks through the family album and tapes a picture of her to the window. Morgan is performing a funeral. He is sending her off and forgetting her. Is he doing this to remind himself that the zombie is not his wife, or is he not allowing himself to be indifferent? Either way, ultimately, he can’t go through with it, and they remained trapped in the house.

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From there, Rick moves on to the city. The image of him riding atop a horse into an abandoned Atlanta is brilliant. The subsequent attack by the horde of “geeks” is also very nicely done. I have to admit, I totally got taken in by the near-suicide attempt. I remember exclaiming, “No way!” when he almost shot himself.

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. I really didn’t like the rest of the first season and from what people tell me, I have no desire to watch the second or third seasons.

The challenge The Walking Dead arguably fails is adapting the zombie story to the medium of television. Most celebrated zombie narratives belong to film, which is very different. TV is a long form; the narrative is spread out. The question is thus, can a zombie narrative last the distance? In regards to The Walking Dead, I’m inclined to say no. The comic fails similarly. The characters simply continue to run into the same problem: seeking refuge only to discover it has been compromised either by zombies or other survivors who can’t coexist.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on January 11, 2013.

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