Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Dead Rise Again

I am truly surprised to be writing these words, but The Walking Dead is good again.

For that brief, six-episode first season, I thought it was the best thing on television. (And that's high praise, considering the amazing things you could and can find on television these days.) But then Frank Darabont stumbled slightly in setting up season two, AMC decided to fire and replace him, and things went into a tailspin.

First, there was season two, a narratively stagnant quagmire that didn't move the story, barely grew the characters until the last few episodes, and regurgitated the same beats week after week. Then there was season three, an entire season built around a cartoonish villain that culminated in not even resolving the damn storyline! Then came the first half of season four, a drawn out flu storyline just marking time until the mid-season finale could resolve the story that season three should have wrapped up in the first place. And all the while, the writing was increasingly terrible. First, there was the way it looked like it was written by two different sets of writers -- one struggling (and failing) to come up with interesting character developments, and the other thinking of ridiculous zombie gimmicks. (This week, they'll fall down through the ceiling! This week, they'll bust out of the wall of a hedge maze or something!) Then there was the formulaic way they kept killing off major characters. (If someone who doesn't usually get much screen time suddenly seems important this week, watch out! They're futilely trying to make you care at the last minute before they die at the end of the episode.)

At at least three points during all this, I was sure I'd watched my last episode of The Walking Dead. But Sunday night was still a television viewing night at my house, with a small group of friends coming over to cheer on The Amazing Race, enjoy something else like Game of Thrones or American Horror Story, or (increasingly) mock The Walking Dead. Whether I could have actually given up The Walking Dead or not, the group could not. But certainly, we all acknowledged it was the show we wanted to get out of the way first so we could go on to truly enjoy whatever else was lined up for the night.

But now we have the back half of season four. And though I was predisposed to bag on it at first, I grudgingly came to realize over the next few episodes that it was actually pretty good again. And after this week? (No spoilers.) Well, I'm ready to proclaim the show "back" in good form.

If only we could have skipped over the two-and-a-half years since season one and gone straight to this somehow. If only AMC had hired Scott Gimple (the current showrunner) immediately instead of the clown who took over for Frank Darabont. (I have a feeling that the only reason the first half of season four sucked under Gimple's watch is because they had all this crap to mop up, left over from the last guy.)

The Walking Dead is back to doing what I loved in the beginning: every week, it's horrible. Horrific. I mean emotionally. Each episode puts the characters into some truly awful situations. The answers aren't clear-cut. Or if they seem like they are to a callous, bloodthirsty audience, they certainly aren't for the characters. Decisions carry major emotional consequences that leave deep scars on the characters' psyches. In short, the show realistically portrays the way that living in an apocalypse would change a person.

It's great. So great that I might get back in to writing about the new episodes each week... well, if it weren't for the fact that we only have two more now before we're done until the fall. But in any case, I had to speak up and acknowledge: I'm glad I didn't give the show up. I could never have imagined thinking that a year ago, but there it is.

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