Tag Archives: The Walking Dead

Pandemic Binge Watching Fear the Walking Dead

At some point I am going to have to stop pretending we’re binge watching this much television just because of the pandemic.  We do tend to do this in fair times as well, it is just somewhat more pronounced now due to not being able to go out to dinner or a movie or leave the house without a mask on.  Now that we’re fully vaccinated and the mask thing might be going away, we’ll just be binge watching.

But when it came to Fear the Walking Dead, we were still in pandemic stay-at-home mode, so it counts.

West Coast Walking Dead

After having watched ten seasons of The Walking Dead, you might have thought we were ready for something else.  Alas, no.  The lure of a different telling, a west coast suburban telling of the tale of the zombie apocalypse, seemed like a good idea.

And, I will admit, the first season was very strong.  Or, at least it delivered on the promise of a different and somewhat more relatable telling of the story.

The Walking Dead opens up with the main character waking from a coma to find the zombie apocalypse already in full swing.  Then, save for some time spent in Atlanta and looting the Smithsonian in Washington DC, it spends most of its time in rural settings.  At best you get small town zombie America.

Fear the Walking Dead opens up in a suburb of LA, which looks much like most suburbs in the coastal population areas, including my own, before the rise of the zombies occurs.  Or just as it begins.

And the story, which follows a family, one partner’s ex-wife, their kids, plays out how I imagine the zombie apocalypse would.  Everybody’s daily life and problems has their focus as hints of their impending doom start to show up.  There is a news report about a police shooting, a Vine video about some shambling homeless, the elderly neighbor growling through the fence.  Since you know what is coming… right, the title isn’t hiding anything… you want to yell at them to pack up and run for the hills.  But you also know how it goes in the suburbs.  Everything is fine and normal until suddenly it isn’t.

Things start getting out of hand, neighbors start holing up in their homes, and then the national guard shows up to help maintain control.

The family, including the ex-wife and a couple and their daughter who were picked up along the way as the panic started, are in a “safe zone,” fenced in and guarded by the military.  Others outside of the are evacuated and the national guard has orders to shoot any infected outside the safe perimeters… and they shoot first and skip asking any questions.

Anybody sick in the safe zone… because the zombie fever is already a thing… gets shipped off to a secure hospital for observation.  The family gets split up that way and it turns out that the Salvadorian barber, who the family is helping, turns out to be a former member of the Sombra Negra death squad and, when he feels that the guard isn’t telling them things they should know, captures a guardsman and tortures him into revealing the reality of the situation.

But things are ready to fall apart anyway.  The guard pulls back or deserts and the family goes to the secure hospital to rescue their family members.  There the oldest son has been befriended by Victor Strand, a confident man with a plan.  He leads them off to a boat and then to Mexico.

Because if you’re white suburban Californians who can barely speak menu Spanish and are ignorant of the culture, why wouldn’t you run to the country next door with a worse gun violence problem than your own?

There the tale becomes more akin to the original series.  You get armed gangs, people denying the apocalypse, people who think the zombies are still the people they were before, looting, shooting, and people generally becoming a worse problem than the zombies.

Still, that goes somewhat well, story wise.  They spend a season in Mexico, then get caught at the border by an armed group as they try to get back into what was the US, end up in a land dispute with Native Americans in New Mexico and eventually blow up a dam in the season three finale that is yet another testament as to why we cannot have nice things.

Then season four hits.  Despite good ratings and reviews, they decided to shake the show up.  The timeline was sped ahead to bring it into sync with the original series.  Both timelines started in 2010 in the shows, but the TWD launched five years ahead of FTWD.  They spend season four cleaning house, killing off much of the old cast and introducing a bunch of new characters, including a cross over character from the original show because… reasons.

Oh, and the show moved the setting to Texas with the fast forward and, like many Californians drawn to Texas, they find that the benefits (lower taxes, cheaper land) comes with many of the same old problems (traffic and/or zombies) with a few new twists (toll roads, hurricanes, ice storms, and heavily armed neighbors with strange beliefs).

And it all felt very much like a purge, like  they were sick of the old story line and the original family from episode one.  And yes, even in TWD they have killed off most of the early cast, including disappearing the episode one protagonist, but this felt different, even if the first person they injected into the new series was from episode one of the old. (Yeah, they couldn’t stop at just one.)

The stories get less compelling, more erratic and nonsensical, and you know that every time anything seem to going well somebody is going to show up and ruin everything.  Oh, and zombies.  They become a plot device more than a threat, though props to the one group who hooked several up to a capstan and created a perpetual motion machine used to pump oil.

As we got towards the end of season five I was suggesting loudly that we could maybe pick up with the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale or one of the movies on my watch list.  My wife can attest that on at least three occasions I swore that if the show did what I thought they were going to do I would turn it off and never watch it again.  Of course, they did the dumb thing I expected every time.  But we still rode it out to the end of the season.

By the end though I was convinced you could play a game RimWorld, note down the events, and write a better show script than what we were getting from seasons four and five. (Of course, I write that and wonder if there is a RimWorld mod for a zombie apocalypse scenario.  That would be some fun base building.)

Overall I enjoyed season one, largely due to being able to see the zombie apocalypse unfold in familiar territory.  Seasons two and three were fine, if headed down a predictable path.  I was surprised how quickly they got on board with “slather yourself with zombie guts and you’re safe to walk around.”  Then seasons four and five sucked the life out of the show by being both dumb and predictable.

I have heard that season six gets better… but I also saw somebody on Twitter declare they were done with the show due to events in that season.  I am fine giving season six a pass, but my wife seemed disappointed when I refused to subscribe to AMC’s streaming service in order to carry on.  I might be alone in my opinions in our house.

Anyway, the first five seasons are available on Hulu.

Pandemic Binge Watching and The Walking Dead

Every so often when we’re looking for shows to watch I dig into award winning series and put them on the list for potential viewing.  In the past this has sometimes been a bit of wrestling match with my wife who, for example, had no interest in watching The Wire or Breaking Bad. I had to start watching them myself and let her come in and settle in after a few episodes, like luring a wild animal.  I actually went back and re-watched the first four episodes of The Wire because it took that long for her to find something interesting and then she wanted to start from the beginning.

But that was fine.  I could watch the first two seasons of The Wire on repeat.

That history helped me lever in The Walking Dead (TWD going forward) once I had mentioned it was long running, award winning, popular, and all of that.  It helped that she knew people who were into the show.

TWD is here

Her primary objection was that she wasn’t all that into horror movies and the like.  I am not really either, not any more, though I did stay up and watch Night of the Living Dead back when Bob Wilkins ran it on Creature Features and one of my brothers, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, expressed a desire to live in some sort of Dawn of the Dead mall scenario.  So I am at least versed in the zombie genre and the George Romero zombie rules, which TWD mostly sticks to.

On the other hand, TWD is a series which has run ten seasons so far, has an eleventh season filming, and a spin-off series that is into its sixth season, all of which means that, unlike a movie, which has to come to a resolution in 90-180 minutes, TWD has to keep the party rolling.

Somewhere into the second season my wife commented that the story certainly didn’t seem in any hurry to get anywhere fast and I responded that this was, after all, the “walking” dead and, as such, speed was not on the table.

The Story

The tale starts of with sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes who, in the first few minutes of the show, gets shot and ends up in a coma.  He later wakes up and the zombie apocalypse has already hit and so the view is on a voyage of discovery with him.  And that is a decent vehicle to bring the viewer into the world of the show.  That lasts for about a season.  Another season or so goes by where zombies are really the main antagonist of the show, after which the real villains emerge; people.

People are just horrible to each other in stressful situations, like zombie apocalypses.  The show is then less about the zombies which, while always a looming threat, can go missing for long stretches while the humans battle each other and make each other miserable.  Basically, at any point in the show where the situation of the main cast seems to have settled down, some other group is going to show up and bad stuff is going to happen. (Unless they’ve decided to suddenly inject a back story episode, which happens now and then.)

I will say, however, that TWD has few compunctions about killing off members of the cast.  It wasn’t too far into the show when I remarked that after Game of Thrones got a reputation for killing off main characters, TWD clearly said, “Hold my beer!”  That said, once they establish that reputation, they play on it a few times by setting up a character who looks like they are as good as dead at the end of an episode, only to find out they had a miraculous escape.

Zombies

Zombies are, of course, the raison d’etre of the whole show.  It is the zombie apocalypse.  And, as I noted above, they remain a looming threat all the time.  Early on the show cannot resist putting zombies around just for mood.  There will be a lone zombie in a field or a couple shuffling along in the distance, which really adds to the creepiness.

But after a couple of seasons zombies are more like the weather.  It only rains or zombies only show up when the plot requires it or if the writers feel we need to be reminded that they’re around.  Some main character is going into an empty building, well we had better put some zombies in there.  They go from constant menace to plot device.

The zombies follow the “Romero Rules” for zombies.  They are slow, hunger for human flesh, and can only be killed by a blow to the brain.  Anybody who dies becomes a zombie, and being bit by one gives you the zombie fever, which kills you and then you become a zombie.  A fair number of cast members who die get their turn in the makeup chair to be the zombie versions of themselves.

Other than that, they tend to be whatever the plot needs them to be.  The shamble slowly and make lots of noise… except when the plot needs them to be silent or move quickly or whatever.  They are dumb and get caught up on very simple traps and get stuck behind waist high walls… unless the plot needs them to be wily and able to climb, jump, or otherwise demonstrate exceptional athletic feats.

We eventually had to set a house rule about not trying to evaluate or define zombie logic.  And both of us seriously have to be reminded of this rule now and then as we’ll get that sudden indignant rush when a zombie is suddenly driven by the plot outside of the usual behavior pattern.  The other just has to say, “zombie logic” to shut that down.

Cars

Lots of old cars.  I realize the show started in 2010, but as something of a car buff in my youth, I keep spotting a lot of cars from the 80s and 90s rolling around. (And not a few from even the 70s.)  I am kind of used to that being a thing living in California where the main weather effect on cars is fading paint from all the sunshine and I get that if you want cars as props you go to the junk yard and not a dealership, but still… there seemed to be an unlikely over representation of cars that were 25-30 years old on set, even in a world where the average age of cars on the road is something around 12 years.  Of course, I am that person who feels they need to ID every car I see on screen that is older than 20 years, so I might be on the rare end of noticing this.  Or it could be my own bias in noticing every old car but passing on anything new.

Guns

Guns, the acquisition there of and the use against zombies and other people make up a key part of the first six or so seasons.  This is not surprising.

The surprising bit is the marksmanship performance of various cast members depending on the target.

A neophyte shaking a revolver with a 2″ barrel vaguely in the direction of a zombie seems capable of putting a shot through its eye at a distance of 20-50 feet on the first try.

But give a trained police officer a fully automatic AK-47 with a full magazine and a human target ten feet away and they’ll blaze away all 30 rounds and not hit even once most of the time.  Along with “zombie logic” I have been known to say “plot armor” as well.  Seriously, I was reminded of The A-Team, a show where people would expend huge numbers of rounds and would never hit anybody.  The phrase “A-Team violence” became a derisive term for that sort of thing among my friends at one point.

Basically, there is a whole lot of silly going on with guns, and it keeps escalating until everybody seems to have a fully automatic weapon and, despite the scarcity of ammunition and the previously demonstrated uncanny accuracy against zombies with single shots, everybody commences to blaze away, emptying full magazines at everything, zombies, humans, or shadows in the night.

Also, there are a lot of “that’s not how guns work” moments.  Sheet metal tables and filing cabinets are not, for example, bullet proof.  Nor are most car doors, sheet rock panels, and a lot of other things people hide behind only to have squibs go off against them.  And most of the guns don’t make a loud, audible click when you pull the trigger on an empty magazine.

Eventually I think even the writers started to realize they had gone over the top on guns and there is a sudden change between seasons and guns disappear for the most part, though not before a horrible gun plot point that made my eyes roll one last time.

Hair

Everybody in the apocalypse seems to have enough time to keep their hair looking good.  Seriously, where do they find the time and the product?  Even Daryl, whose hair is always a mess and hanging down in his face, always has exactly the same style and hair in his face… and the same level of stubble on his chin… even as we get years into the story.  Yes, I get this is television and everybody has their level of vanity, but still.  Also, shoes seem to be fashionable and longer lasting than any pair I have ever owned… and some items of clothing.  Only Bart Simpson’s clothes have lasted longer.

Actually Watching the Show

The first nine seasons were available on Netflix when we started, which was a big reason why we dove right in.  The episodes, without commercials, tend to be about 43 minutes long and, skipping the opening and end credits, get close to 40.  There are occasional long episodes that ran in 90 minute time slots for season openers or mid-season events.  Those run close to an hour without commercials.

The first season is just six episodes and fairly well concentrated.  Things move along.  After that the seasons expand to 13, then 16, then 22 episodes and you end up with a lot more of what I call “bridging” episodes where not a lot happens other than wrapping up the previous episode, setting up the next, and characters expressing their feelings about this or that.

There are often a couple of story lines… or at least points of view on a story… running and the writers are very good at ending episodes on a cliff hanger on one line, then spending the next episode on something else before getting you back the resolution you were waiting to see.

And then there is the tenth season, which you can buy on other services or watch for free, with commercials, on AMC’s streaming channel.  However, this is worse than it sounds.

Being a traditional cable TV show, TWD is set up in acts that break for commercial breaks… again, often on a point of suspense.  But the method used to inject commercials into the streaming service ignores that and just cuts off the show to feed you two minutes of ads… often the same ad repeated… in the middle of somebody speaking or an action sequence or some other point when there was clearly not a commercial break set.  So, in addition to stretching the episodes from 40 minutes to an hour, we also had to sit through the same five commercials over and over an badly timed intervals.

After two episodes we were willing to pay money.  Lucky for us, AMC had a 7 day free trial for their premium service and we were able to grind through the remaining 20 episodes in season 10 before that expired, though we may have wasted most of a Saturday getting there.

Overall

It’s good…. or good enough.  It is, as noted, much more of a zombie apocalypse soap opera where living are far more of a problem than the dead.  We enjoyed it and obviously kept watching to the end through all 153 episodes currently available.  It is easy enough to knock out two or three episodes with dinner… though maybe dinner isn’t the best time to watch as somebody will inevitably disembowel a zombie as I am taking a bit of food.  And we will probably set aside time at some future date to watch season 11, another 24 episodes, which will finish the series, though we will probably wait until it is done and binge it.

That said, I am not sure it is a great show, at least after one pass.  Unlike, say, The Wire, I cannot see myself going back to re-watch any of it.  A lot of the show is less interesting and more about finding out what happens next.  Once you know how any situation gets resolved there isn’t a whole lot of other substance holding things together.  It isn’t all that memorable and the characters are not as deep.  It is a soap opera in that it is always moving towards the next problem or conflict.  Seriously, as I said above, any time things seem peaceful or settled in an episode, or the characters have time to sit around and talk about their feelings, you know something new is coming.

But for a one pass show it is good.