AMC's Monster Hit: "The Walking Dead"

By Karen Moul

The Walking Dead
Caution - Spoilers!

It looks like AMC might have a hit with The Walking Dead, the new six-part series based on the comic books by Robert Kirkman. Sunday night's opener drew 5.3 million viewers, more than any series premiere this year on any cable network, according to SpoilerTV. It was also the highest audience for any series ever on AMC (the season finale of Mad Men drew half as many viewers.) Most critics seem to think if AMC can hold a good chunk of that audience, a renewal is likely.

This show deserves it. AMC has assembled a dream production team that includes Kirkman, writer/director/producer Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), and effects and makeup guru Greg Nicotero, whose credits include more than a hundred feature films. Together they created a show that satisfies die-hard zombie fans as well as viewers new to Kirkman's story. And the network has clearly put some money into this show - great production values, great special effects (for TV), great music. The zombies look awesome.

I give them credit for having the main character shoot a little kid in the opening scene. Sure, she's a disgusting, ravenous zombie kid, but it lets the viewer know that this show is holding nothing back. And it nicely sets up the rest of the episode, which is told in the least-distracting flashback I've seen in a long time. In fact, it wasn't until the end of the episode that I realized I'd just watched an 85-minute flashback.

The early similarity to 28 Days Later is striking but ultimately irrelevant. It doesn't matter why Rick missed the apocalypse, he could have been climbing Mt. Everest or on a deserted island or engaged in pretty much any solitary activity you can name. The point is to set up Rick's shock and disorientation and to put him in the position of playing catch-up. The survivors he encounter have been living with zombies for at least a month, and they have learned a bit about how to get by. It's a nice set up for Morgan (Lennie James, from Jericho), it allows him to give Rick - and the viewers - the ground rules of Kirkman's world without too much distracting exposition.

Ultimately what will make this show succeed is not makeup and shootouts; characters and storytelling are the key. Great characters allow viewers to suspend disbelief and accept devices such as smoke monsters and zombies and alternate universes. The Walking Dead was full of great character development and emotion. How could you not be moved when Zombie Mom tried the doorknob, reducing her son Duane to tears? That seemed like a realistic reaction to seeing your undead mom night after night.

I especially enjoyed the scene where Rick goes back to find the legless zombie lady and kill her, and how they juxtaposted that with Morgan's inability to kill his zombified wife. Those scenes tell us that so far our main characters have retained their humanity and compassion. It will be interesting to see what happens as they struggle to survive. Eventually Rick will encounter other survivors. Will he still be such a good guy when he has to compete for resources such as food and guns? Will he kill not just to defend himself, but to gain an advantage? And what happens when he finds out his partner is sleeping with his wife?

Ultimately, I think The Walking Dead is perhaps less about zombies and more about what happens to our basic humanity after civilization falls. How far are you willing to go to survive the apocalypse? And if we lose our humanity, then how are we any different from the walking dead?

The first episode get an 'A'. If you haven't seen the episode, catch it online or on demand before next Sunday. AMC only ordered six episodes and you don't want to miss a minute!

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