Monday, February 20, 2012

Am I Done with AMC's The Walking Dead?

First off, a distinction. I am making a distinction between AMC's The Walking Dead and the excellent comic The Walking Dead. I am NOT done with that. Far from it. I have really enjoyed the growth of Andrea's character and Rick's attempts to be moral while doing decidedly controversial things and making huge mistakes along the way. But, more on that another time.

Secondly, a warning. This may contain spoilers. If it does, thank me. I saved you from watching this episode.

Last night's episode, "Triggerfinger," showed me that the show had lost a great deal of its mojo. Now, they are simply tacking on drama to the show and at times doing it in a half-assed way. Need some drama? How about introducing some living antagonists that are boorish northerners. Instead of a herd encountered on a highway or a high school full of zombies, now we get a smattering of them here and there. They seem to have lost focus in a lot of ways. They seem to be missing the obvious drama right before them.

How could The Walking Dead build drama more effectively?

1. Bring back zombies! What happened to them? There is a lot of plot building and world building to do here. Seeing the bloated zombie in the well was interesting. Seeing the herd was interesting. There is a lot to learn about how the zombies operate and move about. Instead they seem to be the occasional bone they throw the watcher. This really struck me in the mid-season finale when Shane confronts Rick about the danger he put everyone in as they stayed behind and searched for Sophia. Shane was right in a sense, but, according to the action of the show he was dead wrong. In the world the show has created, they could stay on the farm indefinitely. The extended time not moving seemed to have cost them nothing. They lost Sophia on the highway, not the farm. The farm seems to only encounter a zombie or two every few episodes, and they lost NO ONE in the search for Sophia (other than Otis who was lost indirectly due to Sophia). The show tried to create a conflict, an idea of Rick's hope contrasting with Shane's cold pragmatism. But Rick's hope is much more pragmatic. The zombies aren't a threat here at all.

2. Find a new direction. Okay, so in last episode, we learned that Fort Benning is not a viable option. But this was from a decidedly unreliable source. And just because one direction is cut off, doesn't mean another is not open. The Nebraska idea is a good one. But, whatever they decide, they need to GET OFF THE FARM. I am sick of the barn (especially now that it's no longer a looming threat). I'm sick of Glen and Maggie (I get it, young love and all that). I'm sick of the pointing fingers and threats that never seem to come to fruition. If this is a show about people, great. I want that. But what separates this from Mad Men is its unique world. We should be learning about people as they try to exist in a post-apocalyptic world, not as they try to figure out when certain are allowed to eat at the table or use the kitchen. This space has been explored. Move on.

3. Teach us something about this new world. This probably goes along with number 2, but we need to learn something about the world around them. In the comic, they have gone to a gated community (bad idea), a prison (somewhat good idea), Woodbury (I wonder if this will ever happen in the show?), a military base, a newly formed, fortified community, and now they are realizing there are others out there. We've seen Atlanta, I-95, and Washington, DC (and its suburbs). I know it's had a longer run, but we need to see something out there other than this farm.

4. Kill, hurt, or maim someone we care about. I wish I had gotten to know Sophia. I was so unfamiliar with her that, without the dramatic music and the staring characters, I am not sure I would have recognized her. It was creepy to have to kill a zombie child. I know because the first sequence in the show's premiere showed Rick killing one. Then they went back to the well. And, while it was dramatic, it lacked the power it could have had. Last night, they had a chance. Lori was taking off her shirt. What if she had been bitten? Wow. What if she was maimed and Shane had to fight off zombie hordes while they came to rescue her? Instead, life moves on and the show does not. Now we have manufactured a showdown between Rick and Shane. Really? The tension was there. All that had to happen was Shane has to make a move. Instead, the increasingly disappointing show felt the need to have Lori spell out exactly what the conflict is and we have to judge from Rick's expression how homicidal he is. I hope it at least goes somewhere. Maybe it just means Rick will make Shane take a turn doing the laundry.

Maybe all of this is related to the show's budget cuts. Certainly, it costs money to film on location and to create zombies. If so, this is a budget cut that will kill The Walking Dead. It is leaving the show stranded in one location where it is only capable of spinning in circles and manufacturing drama. Lori flipping in the car was one of the most obvious gimicks I have seen in a show. She's flipped, she may be dying. Nope, she's fine. The flip was just to get us to tune back in a week. The problem is the classic "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice..." dilemma. I have to ask myself: is the show going anywhere? Or is it another failed attempt at a genre show? The hay is most likely in the barn on this one and we'll see where things go from here. My hopes are dwindling, my DVR space is valuable, and my viewing time is limited. And this show may not be good enough to make the cut.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On Charles Dickens's 200th Birthday

Well, I have some other blog posts slowly brewing in my "drafts" folder, but today's auspicious anniversary makes me feel the need to post immediately.

When I logged onto my home computer today, I noticed the artistic rendering of "Google." A quick scroll-over revealed that it was Charles Dickens's 200th birthday. It is an anniversary that will probably pass unremarked-upon by most. It may even elicit some grumbles from others. They remember struggling through Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities. They remember his long-winded prose and the foisting of it upon their young minds. These people who complain about Dickens are not limited to the illiterate or even to those whose artistic tastes have been numbed by so much reality television. Unfortunately, many of the people I know who will grumble today are English teachers.

Dickens is, for me, one of the greatest writers in history. He may be the greatest novelist in history. But for a few generations now he has gone unappreciated. Many high schools will limit their Dickens reading to one of the aforementioned novels, with "A Christmas Carol" thrown in on occasion. The sentences are long and the prose can be difficult. And we have, over time, slowly begun to shelve Dickens alongside other largely forgotten British and American authors such as James Fennimore Cooper or John Milton.

And we have lost something here. Dickens is a master of characterization. Sometimes his characters are largely stereotypes, some of them racist stereotypes (such as Oliver Twist's Fagin the Jew). But that may undersell them. They seem many times to almost be archetypal characters, characters that we recognize in our own lives. By way of example, I offer the first chapter of his Hard Times:

'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'
The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, - nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, - all helped the emphasis.

'In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!'

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

Dickens offers us the imperious schoolteacher, the teacher who is willing to push his sole view of the world on his students uncompromisingly. He is a character that we all, even in the twenty-first century, recognize. And his singular view of the world, repeated over and over again in an almost fractal pattern in Dickens's prose, is that the only thing that matters in the world are facts. Not love, not honor, not interhuman relations. Just the facts, ma'am. And Dickens's closing metaphor, of the "little vessels" and the "imperial gallons" that are going to fill them, shows an excess and bombardment of these very facts that will end up warping a whole generation. 

He very intentionally batters us with the "emphasis" of this worldview. He shows us the metaphorical choking effect that living life solely by "facts" can have on a person. He forces the idea on the reader in much the same way that our instructor foists it upon his charges. 

Dickens also foreshadows the main action of the novel: the very warping that our archetypal instructor is inflicting upon his students has also been inflicted on his own children. And that warping is the central tragedy of the tale. And if you didn't get it through his very short first chapter, don't worry, the title of the second clues us in further. It is entitled "Murdering the Innocents."

Dickens is long-winded. Twenty-first century readers are used to "sound-bytes" and quick cuts in films. They are used to an immediacy that would have been completely alien to Dickens. But this prolix writing also allows for playfulness and for repetition. I see it as kind of like watching an old movie. The pacing is unfamiliar. It's off. It takes too long to get to a point. But there's a refinement and subtlety that this slow pacing allows that has been lost to current readers. 

So I greet his 200th birthday with mixed emotions. I am happy that Google still sees Dickens as worthy of its title page. But I also see the day when Dickens will be someone we have all but forgotten. His irony, his wit and his subtlety are slowly passing away. I won't condemn what comes to replace it. I certainly love the breakneck pacing of todays media and I am certainly a consumer of sound-bites. But I would prefer to see Dickens appreciated alongside our current media.

Of course, that's my heart speaking. The "facts" tell me otherwise.