Pilot Impressions: ‘The Walking Dead’, AMC’s Intrepid Walker

As of the premiere episode, AMC has infected viewers all across America with their most audacious original series of viral interest yet, and one of irrefutable brilliance.  This untamed adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s renowned comic book series, The Walking Dead (which first appeared in 2003) acquaints us with Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), our protagonist, an Atlanta lawman, resident and family man who never imagined he’d soon shoot a little girl in the forehead because she’s a raging, lip-less zombie whose social skills have been reduced to rushing him for his tasty entrails (teddy bear in tow, of course).  For the better part of the pilot, the episode focuses on him, one of the few remaining survivors of an unexplained (thus far) zombie apocalypse.

Following that gripping overture, the opening hospital sequence is incrementally more harrowing.  It’s quiet, eerie and (worst of all) unpredictable.  Andrew Lincoln convincingly etches shell-shock and trauma onto his character’s face and shambling, tremulous body (waking up from a coma), as he schleps through the bilious ruins of the seemingly empty hospital, finding an eviscerated corpse on the floor, and a chained double doorway bulging with moaning zombies and bloodless, pallid fingers wriggling through its openings, almost sniffing for animate flesh.  Piece by piece, he puts together a blasted puzzle of clues as to where he is, what happened (to the world he once knew) and whether or not he’s having a nightmare.

In fact, there is a heartbreaking scene where he prods himself to “wake up,” prostrate on the floor of his empty home where his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and his son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), used to live.  Fortunately, Lori and Carl have found reprieve and protection through Grimes’ former deputy, Shane (Jon Bernthal), along with a coterie of shabby, tent-dwelling survivors.  Making matters all the more necrotic, though, is Shane and Lori’s apparent romance (bit of a lazy soap opera tactic, right there, but it works).

Destitute, desperate, unbeknownst to his family’s whereabouts, and half a wink from going insane, Sheriff Grimes eventually sets out to find his family.

Executive Producers Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, director of the pilot) and Gale Ann Hurd (The Terminator) exercise little to nil censorship, and the opening sequence quickly becomes the preamble of expectation for how unchary the series is (and will be) in the department of gore and disturbing material.

If you have the stomach for it, however, consider the unabashed violence a strength, insofar as zombie fiction neutered of its graphic cannibalism, viscera and putrefaction might as well be the parody of a satire of a cautionary tale about human consumerism (which can be a very ugly and revolting image when placed under a magnifying glass).  In that sense, not much about the zombie tropes have changed since George Romero practically invented them circa Night of the Living Dead (1968), and The Walking Dead does little if nothing at all to sully that tradition.

Still, as far as my recollection would have it, this is the first instance in my personal film and television viewing history where the zombie story is placed into a serial format, and therein lies AMC’s biggest risk, I think.  How will the producers keep this story interesting?  And what is its expiration date?  Will the gore wear out the show’s novelty and eventually disinvite the squeamish?  The answer to those questions seem to be addressed most effectively by the show’s fulcrum-focus: human survival; the mind and body’s evergreen desire to endure, nurture, love and hope, particularly in the ghoulish, dissolving face of death and decay.  Consider EW.com’s Ken Tucker’s review of the premiere (which he liked):

Much as I enjoyed Walking Dead, I have a small prediction: I think the pilot will score very good ratings for AMC — first, because the show has lots of good hype; second, because it’s Halloween and what could be better programming, and third, because it doesn’t take a helluva a lot of viewers to qualify as a hit on AMC. (A couple million will be a roaring success.) But: I predict that ratings will fall after this week because many AMC viewers who like Mad Men and Breaking Bad will look at this and say, “Um, ick.” I think AMC has to import an almost entirely new audience to its channel for Walking Dead to be a long-running success. I hope my prediction is wrong; I also hope Walking Dead can sustain its quality.

If the production values of this series are any indication, however, AMC is taking the endeavor quite seriously. Midway through the episode, I often forgot I was watching a television premiere in lieu of a full-fledged, top-tier film that started life on the silver screen; until the commercial breaks struck, of course (the unfortunate reality of non-subscription programming I guess … sigh).  Notwithstanding, the scenery is replete with breathtaking images (sans, thankfully, any breakneck editing).  The cinematography lingers appropriately and evokes targeted feelings of dissolution and isolation, particularly the poster-shot of Sheriff Grimes astride a horse, slowly traversing a highway-turned wasteland, with charred cars sitting on the opposite lanes, almost resembling a graveyard.   Not to mention that riveting final scene involving an abandoned metropolis, an unfortunate horse, an outnumbered sheriff and hordes of ravenous walkers.

Thank God for tanks.

And thank goodness for AMC.  We’ll be keeping a close weekly eye on this one.

Update: According to James Hibberd of The LiveFeed, The Walking Dead’s 90-minute debut was a record-setting success for the network, attracting 5.3 million viewers with a 3.3 adults 18-49 rating (a coveted age bracket).  This not only supersedes the viewing reception for the season premieres of Breaking Bad and Mad Men (individually, I assume), but also proves to be “the largest demo audience for any series premiere on any cable network this year.”

No small matter.

Later in the article, Hibberd gives genre fans a bit more viewing incentive:

An aside: I’ve seen through episode three and if you liked the premiere you’re going to love the next two hours.

Unless Walking Dead suffers an enormous ratings drop off in the coming weeks, a second season order is very likely.

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