The adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s zombie comic epic “The Walking Dead” for television has been the most hotly anticipated morsel of nerd entertainment this Fall. It’s not very hard to see why, as it’s a perfect storm of popular and quality source material meeting a talented crew and a boundaries-pushing network that recognize why the series has such appeal. With expectations as high as these, is it possible that we’ll get a treat this Halloween instead of getting tricked?
Not only is it possible, but it’s factual. The Walking Dead is a shambling, brain craving, drama-fueled slam dunk. It’s the full sized Snickers bar when all you’ve been getting from your entertainment has been “fun sized.”
The hour long first episode covers the same ground as the first issue of the comic, but spends much more time adding depth to the overall story. What the first issue of the Walking Dead comic did in two pages (Rick getting shot & waking up in the hospital) the show spreads into nearly 15 minutes of television. While a new, untested comic series has to grab the reader’s interest as fast as possible, a television show doesn’t have to limit itself so strictly. We see more interaction between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane (Jon Bernthal) before Rick is shot, setting up their friendship and adding to the conflict that fans of the comic know will be the centerpiece of the first season.
Episode writer and director (and series executive producer) Frank Darabont adds so much tension and horror to Rick’s journey through the hospital and out into the world with minimal use of music and tiny glimpses and hints at what the world has become. Even if you know what’s in store for Rick you can’t help but feel nerves begin to take hold as you watch. Rick’s encounter with Morgan (Lennie James) and Duane (Adrian Kali Turner) is expanded upon as well, and a new wrinkle to their situation is added to further illustrate the horror and tragedy that a zombie apocalypse holds for the survivors (as if the hordes of walking dead people wanting to eat you wasn’t enough). James’ portrayal of Morgan is heartbreaking and adds real emotional depth to the story.
Everything in the first issue of the comic is expanded upon and for the most part it’s for the better. The only thing that detracts from the overall presentation of the episode is the cold open, which pushes forward in time and attempts to get us to the zombie action a little bit faster than story naturally takes us. I can understand their desire to get to the action (as the comic did), but it takes a little bit away from the growing anticipation of first encountering a zombie that the early scenes, especially in the hospital, do so well.
AMC and the production team have gone above and beyond on this series. Not only is the gore and violent content pushed farther than you thought possible for basic cable television, but the show’s high budget was used masterfully. The hordes of zombie extras all look as if they’ve had the same level of attention as the zombies we’re given closer looks at (including one that’s a cameo from a very famous master of horror himself).
Throughout the episode Andrew Lincoln makes sure you feel every bit of the turmoil that Rick is going through. All of the terror, confusion and panic that you’d expect him to feel in his situation is masterfully portrayed. If he’s this good in the first episode it’ll be amazing to see him tackle some of the real hard choices and experiences Rick has coming to him. There’s not much screen time or heavy lifting for many of the other members of the cast, but guest stars James and Turner do a great job not just expositing naturally but delivering compelling and emotional performances.
If you’ve read the comic and you’ve seen the trailers the general trajectory of the story will come as no surprise to you. No matter how many times you’ve watched that con-exclusive footage though, there’s no substitute for seeing it strung together in an actual narrative. If the series continues to add depth to the story as presented in the comics the way that this first episode does, even folks who’ve read the comics over and over again will be glued to their seats every Sunday night.
The only drawback to the extended and expanded approach that the first episode takes is that if this trend keeps up the show will be running for nearly ten seasons just to cover the stuff that’s already seen print, putting aside the fact that there is no real end in sight for the comic itself. There are definitely points later on in the series that fans of the comic will want to see immortalized in motion but take place several volumes down the line. No matter how good the show is, can it last until fan favorite storylines are resolved? Will it eventually branch out into its own mythology and side stories? Does every side plot and character require more depth and examination that what we got in the comic? If the series runs for a high number of seasons while following the story of the comic how will they deal with the actor playing Carl growing much older than his character has over the course of those stories? While all these questions will keep us talking through the first season and beyond one won’t even have to be asked: can they continue to meet the old and new fans expectations for greatness? The answer is a resounding “yes.”
4.5 out of 5 bad hiding place decisions.