On Zombies: Community and The Walking Dead
October 31st, 2010
I’ve already written enough about Halloween episodes (both in my review of The Office at The A.V. Club and in my piece on Halloween-themed TV episodes at Antenna) that writing a review of Community’s “Epidemiology” in that context seems like a waste of time. In fact, part of me feels as if it’s too late to really add anything new to the discourse.
However, having now watched the first two hours of AMC’s The Walking Dead – which premieres tonight at 10/9c with a special 90-minute opener – I think that I want to talk about zombies, and their function as genre. In a movie, zombies are easy: you introduce zombies, chaos ensues, heroes emerge, a conclusion is reached (which is either the heroes proving themselves capable of subsisting within a zombie-infested nation or the zombie outbreak being contained, presuming a happy ending is desired). Admittedly, I’ve only watched a handful of zombie movies thanks to being largely averse to suspense, but the point I want to get across here is that there’s a clear timeline. There is a situation, there is a conclusion, and you move on from there.
When you move this notion into television, however, you’re forced to live in that space, which is a problem that The Walking Dead will have to face should it join the rest of AMC’s lineup. Community, of course, is a very different situation, but it is nonetheless interesting to note that seriality plays a pretty substantial role in how their zombie story is told, and so I think tackling them both simultaneously will speak to some of the things which impressed me about Community and some of what concerns me about The Walking Dead.
First off, I suggest you read Alan Sepinwall’s piece on how Community’s second Halloween episode came to be – sadly, he was working from memory thanks to a recording mishap, but the insight is nevertheless fantastic.
The first observation that struck me is that it was supposed to be Patton Oswalt’s nurse as opposed to Rich in the banana suit, which I thought was surprising considering how perfect that callback was. I loved the way that the existing feud between Jeff and Rich played into the story, and how that antagonism made things funny not just because of the situation. Sure, Patton Oswalt is a funny guy and the scene would have worked well, but Rich was the perfect foil, which was especially clear when he came out in Jeff’s expensive suit jacket. It wasn’t just about the jacket, or the fact that a zombie was wearing the jacket – it was that the doctor/pottery ringer who upstaged Jeff in pottery class was wearing the jacket.
It’s a point of connection to the story world that grounds the zombification of Greendale. Another example is the fact that Shirley’s costume is once again obtuse – although, to be fair, I totally got it – in a direct callback to last year’s Halloween episode. It very purposefuly establishes that this is not some sort of fantasy, something that has no connection to what we’ve seen in the past. The episode is not really serial, considering how it ends, but it draws as much from the show’s past as it does from the movies it parodies.
And so, when the zombies start to take over, we know what they’re taking over and can enjoy not only the cultural reference but also how that cultural reference plays into various story points. Sure, Chang and Shirley is not quite Jeff and Britta, and Abed and Troy will never remember the latter declaration of love, but the way the zombies pick off and separate the group is quite similar to the way in which “Modern Warfare” brought a wide variety of things to the surface. It’s, for me, what was absent in “Basic Rocket Science”: in that episode Annie’s decision had no context, and was necessary to create the plot which got them into the space simulator. It was clever, but as someone who hasn’t seen Apollo 13 in over a decade it had nothing to speak to the show itself. “Epidemiology” may not be a situation-changing moment, but it unquestionably relies on our previous experience with the characters in telling its story, and is much more effective because of it.
I also thought it was interesting that there was a lot of discussion about how the “why” would be handled. The goal of the episode is to have fun with zombies, and so there’s a temptation to ignore any sort of logic: just have some zombies show up and call it a day. However, the end result is much stronger because there’s a logic: it’s tainted food that causes it, temperature which fuels it, and eventually temperature which stops it. That logic keeps the episode from being too absurd, which therefore allows them to up the absurdity level in other ways (most specifically through the use of ABBA). The episode’s coda, often silly for the show, is actually key to the episode’s success: while their memories may have been erased, the phone message confirms that what we witnessed is not uncanonical. The show is perfectly suited to surviving, logistically speaking, something like a zombie attack, and I think “Epidemiology” really deftly handled any concerns over this bit of genre proving problematic.
This seems like a really roundabout way to get to The Walking Dead, but the point I wanted to make is that zombies are something that fit quite comfortably into a half-hour sitcom – you’ve got your brain-desiring, your creepy walking, the experience of seeing someone you knew when they were alive emerging zombified, and then you have your conclusion. The show quite successfully dealt with the majority of zombie tropes in a very short span of time, so it begs the question: how, precisely, can The Walking Dead sustain its premise over the course of multiple seasons?
The premiere, which airs tonight, is really strong – some great atmosphere, some really strong visuals, and a standout performance from Lennie James. However, next week’s episode is quite substantially weaker, mainly because the novelty is gone: any of the meaning derived from the initial altercations with the zombies is left more or less stagnant, and so the effect starts to wear off. This is not to say that “Guts” is a bad hour of television, per se – with Michelle MacLaren, Emmy-nominated for her work on Breaking Bad last season, the show is as stylistically interesting as it was in the beginning. However, it’s interesting in much the same way, and since there’s no change on that front you start to look to things like story and character and…there’s not much to find. Andrew Lincoln is adequate but charisma-free, and none of the supporting cast (of which James is not a part, sadly) stand out.
This sense of “What next?” is the same problem that a large number of genre shows have faced in the past, unrelated to zombies. Take, for example, CBS’ Jericho (which is a logical comparison both because of its post-apocalyptic element and the Lennie James connection): once the show set off that atomic bomb, it really didn’t know what to do with itself. The question of “what’s up with the nuclear explosion” lingered, but it was never the primary focus, and so the test becomes whether or not the remaining structure – in Jericho’s case the community responding to the crisis – is worth your time. AMC had similar concerns with Rubicon: while the show is obviously tapping into the notion of conspiracy as genre, the early episodes had absolutely nothing else going for them. It was only when Brommell stepped in and counter-balanced it with a compelling workplace drama about API’s employees that the show actually became anything, as the genre was ultimately too thin to carry the show on its own.
Zombies, by comparison, are more versatile: they’re more prescient than atom bombs, representing a greater threat, and there’s a built-in element of action and suspense which Rubicon’s conspiracy theory lacked. Jericho couldn’t set off another atom bomb, just as Rubicon couldn’t suddenly bring in a new conspiracy, but The Walking Dead has hordes of zombies just waiting to torment its heroes. The problem of course, is that the show needs to have something else: it needs to tell a story of something other than zombies, and the premiere is very conscious of this. No one ever asks how the Zombie outbreak started, nor does the point come up in any conversations. Our hero simply wakes up in a world where zombies have taken over, and we’re meant to simply go along for the ride.
Based on the first two episodes, I see the appeal of the ride without necessarily buying a ticket – while the pilot is strong, the second episode is problematically transient. What I mean is that it doesn’t seem as if there’s any cumulative story or character development: outside of a single callback, the second hour is just another stop on the road towards our hero’s inevitable destination, a destination driven by a primary cliche that does little for me. A short six-episode season means that things will be pretty streamlined, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t expect something more substantial than what you’ll see next week – if you’ve only got six episodes, you should make sure that they have some sense of weight to them, and “Guts” doesn’t have it.
What I found myself focusing on when watching the episodes is what show you have when you take away the zombies. You might find this silly, since it’s a show about zombies, but look at Community: if you take away the zombies you still have a compelling television sitcom. When you take the zombies out of The Walking Dead, you pretty much have nothing of any interest, which means that your mileage will certainly vary with the show. Personally, I think the visual style will keep me watching through the short season, but unless things substantially pick up on the story front I don’t foresee this becoming the next great drama series.
It’s why I’m so interested in knowing what they’re aiming for, which includes both Darabont and AMC. Does AMC want this show to slot in with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, or does it want to start a new genre offshoot of their current brand? I have to think that AMC would like to be able to do both, but what I’ve seen isn’t in the same league as their established hits even though I would say it is elevated above most genre fare. I’m not sure what to do with it, in other words, which is perhaps why I’m comfortable lumping it in with a one-off sitcom episode. Community knew what it was doing, found a way to work it into their existing universe, and ended up with something really effective. By comparison, The Walking Dead seems to be fairly aimless (and, when focused, fairly derivative) beyond aesthetic pleasures, and so perhaps we need to know what show it’s going to be before we really see how zombies will affect it.
For now, they’re the point of interest; in the future, they may be a crutch.
- I’m curious to see if there is any discussion of Shirley and Change sleeping together – while I’m not precisely shipping, I did love that they came together over their frustration with racial stereotyping in Halloween costumes. Only on Community!
- As someone who unironically enjoys most of the ABBA songs played in the episode, there was value not only in the unusual mashup but also in the sing-along factor. I probably also danced a little – I’m not made of stone, people (although the Office commenters would likely say otherwise).
- I still do not get the gag with the cat, but I still absolutely love the gag with the cat.
- I’m ready to start the Emmy campaign for Lennie James, by the way – feel free to join me later tonight.
- I know that the internet is in love with the comic-style credits that a fan made for the show, and I think they’re really impressive, but once you actually see the show you’ll realize that the credits they have (while less interesting) are more appropriate…or maybe it’s just Bear McCreary’s theme.
- Speaking of McCreary, he has one particularly fantastic musical moment in the premiere, as well as some nice mood stuff.