Monday, September 14, 2015

Love-- Don't Fear-- The Walking Dead

 “Fear the Walking Dead,” the companion series of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” premiered a few weeks ago to huge ratings. It is set in East Los Angeles during the very beginning of the same zombie apocalypse as the first series, but if the pace of the first three episodes is any indication a major part of this series is going to be eyewitness to the collapse of civilization. This was skipped in the original series (and the graphic novel): The protagonist wakes up in an abandoned hospital, the gap between normality and post civilization left to the imagination of the viewer.

FTWD has been subject to mixed reviews: some think it is an excellent thriller with some amazing potential, others think the premier episodes was slow and many of the core characters are unlikable. These are both fair observations. I think it is excellent television, and you should definitely check it out! Also, I believe there is a reason why this show was structured this way:

• The core of the cast are Travis (Cliff Curtis) and Maddie (Kim Dickens), both with children from previous marriages. two adults struggling to merge into a new family unit as the story begins. And as much as I like this show so far, I have to admit that all three of their kids are remarkably awful. Maddie’s son Nick (Frank Dillane, a dead ringer for a young Johnny Depp) is a hopeless junkie who sees his first zombie when he comes to in a squat in an abandoned church: so far he has been resolutely concentrating on scoring more opiates, little else. Maddie’s daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is a high-schooler who was ready to bolt from family and safety to be with her infected, dying boyfriend. Travis’ son Chris (Lorenzo Henrie) is your basic never-respond-to-parents-calls, clueless kid. Much parental energy has been spent in these first three episodes just rounding the kids up in one place, leaving precious little time to cope with the collapse of technological civilization.

Travis, trying to call his dumb kid.
I think there is a reason we are saddled with so many addled kids in this series— and I know the primary reason is likely trying to capture a young viewer demographic. But “The Walking Dead” is the most popular series on television, and so far has disproven the need to cast with the 18-to-25 “ABC Family” audience in mind. This has more to do with showing true, ground-up character construction. These kids are truly clueless (except for flashes from the otherwise drug-addicted Nick, who is the very first character to identify the ”infected” not as sick people but animated dead). We will get to see them develop survival skills from essentially nothing as the show develops. Contemporary young adults are stereotyped as coddled, tech-addicted and incapable of self-support: it should be interesting to see how they harden into zombie killers.

• Added to this core family are Daniel Salazar (Ruben Blades), his wife and daughter. They are from El Salvador, and bring some very interesting developing-nation values into this story. From their first meeting Daniel strikes bargains with Travis and his family: Every favor is matched with obligation. He is not shy about blowing away a zombie with a shotgun. He also sees Travis’s aversion to guns as a sign of weakness— and says (in Spanish) “Good people will be the first to die.” El Salvador was (and well may still be) a messed-up country controlled by autocrats, with a weak government and no rule of law. He is the Greek Chorus of this series, knowing all the upcoming events are going to be bad and are getting worse.

• One of the reasons I think audience are more critical of “Fear the Walking Dead” has something to do with the diminishing returns of any spin-off. The first series introduced the zombie apocalypse, right around Halloween 2010 in fact: it was bleak, thrilling, terrifying and unlike any horror show seen before. Viewers of “Fear the Walking Dead” know this universe well: they are drumming their fingers impatiently, waiting for those hordes of shuffling undead to show up, the expected Grand Guignol of gore, the descent into amoral kill-or-be-killed survival.  But the emphasis on this series is quite different: as I’ve said before here, the collapse of civilization is just as terrifying as animated cannibal corpses. The lights go out; food runs out; basic services are gone. Eventually the emergency services (the California National Guard, apparently) will break down as well, as they are either eaten or abandon their posts and run for the desert. This is going to be playing out in detail, and will be the standout feature of "FTWD."

Look at those lovely anamorphic flares!
• As is the standard for this franchise, a sizable percentage of the cast playing Southern Californians are from the Commonwealth (England, New Zealand and Australia). I’m not gonna get all Donald Trump here, but this casting fetish still strikes me as odd.

• One of the most pleasing things about FTWD is how they’re shooting it. When AMC was financing their first dramatic series it was a big risk, and to keep costs down they shot “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” in Super16. When “Breaking Bad” started to take off they upgraded the budget and shot in 35mm, but “Walking Dead” stayed with 16mm: It looks gritty, grainy, a little washed out, which perfectly suits the bleak, zombie-infested wastelands of the South. But for "FTWD" they chose to shoot in 2K digital with Hawk Vintage ’74 anamorphic lenses. This gives the show a clean, expansive look, with the same flares, bokeh and shallow focus of a theatrical release in ‘scope. Visually it is as about as far as you can get from the original series. It's still in full-frame 16x9, but I'm hoping the BluRay release will be in 2.35:1.

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