Thursday, October 20, 2011

My Love/Hate Relationship With 'The Walking Dead'

Season 2 of the ‘The Walking Dead’ premiered this past Sunday on AMC to ridiculous TV ratings from the zombie starved masses.  It’s an interesting conundrum though; the seemingly sudden fascination the general public has with zombies.  Long looked upon as a cult interest, Robert Kirkman’s show based on hits comic book, has breathed new life into the genre.

The spike in zombie popularity comes on the heels of the resurgence we have seen in classic horror genres. The classic horror film was supposedly redefined In 1999 when ‘The Blair Witch Project’ came out.  TBWP brought back the idea that ‘Jaws’ initially gave us which was the less you see the scarier it is.  The old guard of gory zombie and vampire movies of the 80’s was slowly eroding away to give rise to this new sector of horror the American public was actually craving.

The decline in popularity of these movies was its own undoing.  What started out as Dracula, Frankenstein, and classic zombies, horror movies had become victims of their own clichés.  The idea of the vampire as a tortured soul struggling to survive through an eternity of punishment was gone.  The focus was now on the wrong things.  Since Dracula was the vampire model, all vampires had to be classic counts dressed in ceremonial garb and searching for the perfect kill to satisfy their undying urge.

Zombies had gone from slowly decaying monstrosities to mindless puppets walking with arms out forward craving “brrrrraaaaaiiiinnnnnnssss.”  With movies putting zombies into everyday situations some had started to view them as allegories for our consumerist culture.  It became more prevalent to see zombies wearing wedding dresses or Nike apparel.  You also had movies like ‘Dawn of the Dead’ in which zombies walk around an infested shopping mall, not looking much different than before.

Movies began to draw a hard line between humanity and zombie-ism.  The subtext of the movies was that we all were walking through our lives as zombies before, and now our physical presences manifested that inner reality.  In order to survive we had to renounce our previous lifestyle and start anew.  Humanity was given a second chance and was presented with multiple reminders of what their life once was.  This time things needed to be done the right way.  The survivors had to redefine how their new world was going to operate going forward.  This was the subtext of the zombie genre initially.  Unfortunately, it became less and less prevalent with each movie made.

Regardless of how deep our portrayal of zombies or vampires aspired to be, they were considered ‘played out’ by the general public.  Instead of searching for the deeper meaning behind anything, the public was instantly turned off by the prospect of a new zombie or vampire moving coming out.  The public had been desensitized and zombies and vampires had lost their appeal.

That all changed roughly 5-7 years ago, with the advent of books like ‘Twilight’ and the ‘Sookie Stackhouse Series.’  Vampires had become sexy again.  While Anne Rice had been writing vampire books for years to much success, there was still an element of camp to what she was writing.  Now, I would contend that there is such an element present in the ‘Twilight’ book series, but that is just my opinion.  The ‘Twilight’ books rekindled the ‘romance’ aspect of the vampire and made the crucial move of putting it in modern times.

Part of what made vampire story’s less popular over the years was that it was hard to relate to.  Nobody knew what it was like to live in Victorian times, so the problems of being a vampire in that era didn’t resonate with everyone.  While this was a vehicle to making the stories more plausible (nobody was alive so you didn’t have to deal with the “that would never have happened” argument), it made them nothing more than slight entertainment.  Putting them in modern day meant that we could all relate to these new stories.

With vampires another crucial change was made in that the main characters in ‘Twilight’ and ‘Sookie Stackhouse Series’ books weren’t vampires.  Nobody knows what it’s like to be a vampire so they can’t relate.  But when you put the main character as a normal person, it becomes much easier to put yourself in their shoes.  When that normal character gets involved with a vampire it heightens that sense of danger and excitement.  That is a large part of what has driven the vampire genre to renewed success.

Zombies ran into similar issues.  While nearly all zombie stories took place in modern times, the focus kept getting blurred.  Zombie movies got too concerned with mass killing of all the zombies.  There was no awareness of the bigger picture.  All people wanted to see was the next “really cool zombie kill.”  Such a phenomenon was even poked fun at in the film ‘Zombieland.’  In that movie, after killing a zombie the Woody Harrelson character asks “What do you think?  Zombie kill of the week?”  The movie then proceeded to go to a “highlight” type segment going over what was actually the ‘Zombie Kill of the Week.’ 

In zombie movies everybody was killing zombies, but nobody was thinking “OK, after we kill all these things, what’s next?”  Just as the trick of putting vampires into modern times did wonders, the idea of answering the question “what’s next?” has put zombie drama back on the map.  This question has been dealt with before on a limited basis with the likes of ‘The Omega Man’ starring Charleton Heston and others, but those played to such limited fanfare that it was never fully developed as a sub-genre.  Instead, people wanted to see lots of zombies, lots of blood, and lots of gore and that’s what they got.

This was all shaken up a bit when ’28 Days Later’ came out in 2002.  No longer were zombies the ‘un-dead.’  The people didn’t even know automatically what to call them.  Further, there was a scientific reason behind their existence that not only made it plausible but made it even scarier to think it could happen at any point.  These “zombies” were creatures created by a rogue virus that affected the majority but left the chosen few to fend for themselves in this new hell of mankind’s own creation.

’28 Days Later’ delved into the “what’s next?” question.  It didn’t try to make us find out who the zombies were or why they were there.  The movie started with a man waking up from a coma and not understanding what has changed the world he once knew.  The zombies have come along and nothing was the same.  No longer was it about trying to stop the outbreak from happening, it’s already done.  Now the characters just have to re-learn how to live in this new world.

This is infinitely more intriguing to the American public today and it showed in the box office receipts.  The zombie genre had basically started over again and was taken it to a different place.  No longer was the genre going to be about running zombies over with lawn mowers.  That was not acceptable and the public demanded more from their zombie movies.  Answering the question “what do we do now?” is what the masses wanted to delve into.

It is asking this question that makes ‘The Walking Dead’ a popular show that is only growing in its popularity.  I count myself as part of the group.   I have seen every episode including the recent season 2 premier.  I am sure AMC thought they had a show that would be successful and keep people coming back to AMC on Sunday nights in between ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad.’ However, I’m not sure they realized they would have a mega-hit on their hands. 

This begs the question of what exactly has made this show so popular.  In searching for the answer to that question we come upon the reason for my love/hate feelings toward this show.  TWD didn’t waste much time and knocked you over the head with exactly what this show’s going to be about in the first episode.  After awaking from a coma (how long that coma was, we don’t know) our main character Rick Grimes finds himself beaten over the head with a shovel. 

Once it’s discovered he’s not a zombie, the people who hit him over the head nurse him back to health.  Shortly thereafter, Grimes wakes up and we are presented with a scene where a zombie pounds at the door.  All three inhabitants lay low and try to not make a noise so the zombie will just go away.  That’s when we learn the zombie is the wife and mother of the man and son who saved Grimes.

The tension mounts as to whether or not the zombie gets in.  Then we are introduced to the question of whether or not these characters have what it takes to kill a zombie that used to be someone they loved.  This is a central aspect to most zombie films.  With the world crumbling around them survivors do whatever they can to rekindle their past lives.  That longing for their normal life makes it hard to kill a loved one as a zombie, even if they no longer resemble the person they love.  This is where zombies are used as reminders of what was wrong with our previous lives and how we have to move on.

Loved ones are no longer the humans we once knew.   Zombies are creatures that exist as beings controlled by the completely primordial area of their brains.  Their only instinct is survival and to survive they need to eat.  Humans, animals, it doesn’t matter; their physical forms need to be sustained in order to continue on.  They are so consumed with this urge they will put themselves in physical danger in order to quench it.

This is what makes zombies such a scary prospect.  They are relentless.  Zombies don’t get winded; they don’t feel pain, all they know is they have to eat.  These aspects of a zombie’s nature are what feed into my love/hate attitude towards ‘The Walking Dead.’

On one hand I love the tension and drama this show creates.  When hordes of zombies come chasing after the group of survivors its puts us all on the edge of our seat waiting to see how people will survive.  Being marooned on the top of a car or inside an abandoned army tank is a precarious situation.  How one escapes this situation is usually a tension filled endeavor.  This makes for good TV.  Being cornered or chased incites a certain human reaction towards survival that we can’t control.

While that may pull us in as viewers, it also makes me feel cheated. I care about whether they can escape the zombie herds and continue to survive in this dystopian world.  I care from a human part of myself that wants humanity to survive and flourish.  How much I actually care about the character in danger is irrelevant at that point because the stakes are bigger than just one person.

When not presented with the scenario of a post apocalyptic, zombie infested, world things might be different.  If one of these characters was in a fight in a non-zombie world, would I care what happened to them?  The answer to this question isn’t clear because we don’t know enough about the true nature of these characters when they’re not in survival mode. 

When I’m caught in the moment, these characters attempt to survive makes for great television.  After the show goes off the air, when I think back to what happened, I’m not as enraptured as I was while it was going on.  I asked myself “Why is this?”  The answer led me to where I’m at now, having a love/hate relationship with this show. 

Playing on this innate need for survival and our predisposition towards the prosperity of the human race, TWD has found a way to make viewers out of people who don’t even care.  I would bet that if you ask the majority of the viewers of TWD you would hear a comment something like this “the show is really good!  And I don’t even like zombies!!!”  It’s a classic phenomenon that this show was able to recreate with incredible accuracy.

By using a vehicle that turns most people off, TWD can create a scenario that people can’t help but watch and be enthralled by.  ‘Lost’ captured somewhat of the same phenomenon in its run on TV.  Most people who watched lost would probably tell you that they weren’t even science fiction fans.  These people were pulled in by an interesting premise and then human nature took over.  People couldn’t stand not to know what was on the island, what the mist was, why they were there, etc.  It’s a fundamental phenomenon that viewers could not move on unless they knew what it was all about.

While these are two different aspects of our inherent humanity, the principle remains the same.  Issues such as character development and depth of personalities can be skirted around with the right premise and the right situation.  Assuming TWD can keep the plots of the show grounded the first couple of seasons (not get too hokey) then they can most definitely continue this show’s success. 

Towing that line will be a difficult task.  It’s a very thin line between viewers caring about characters and feeling manipulated.  Once that line is crossed, it is hard to go back.  While audiences might be able to turn a blind eye to certain things in the name of entertainment they don’t like feeling manipulated.  At times I feel cheated while watching TWD.  I feel that way because the characters seem to have more depth to them.  I want to know more about these characters.  I want to know what their previous lives were like that has made them act how they do now.  This is why I currently don’t feel manipulated, there seems like there’s more.  If this show continues and doesn’t give me that depth of those characters and it’s just one zombie chase scene after another, then I think that I won’t be the only one tuning out.  As for now, I’m going to keep watching.  For now.

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