Monday, February 13, 2012

Eat. Prey. Lurch.

Can a TV series about a relentless plague of the undead really show us what it means to be alive?

AMC's The Walking Dead, which resumed last night after a gripping mid-season finale, paints a bleak picture of a post-apocalyptic America. Wind-swept cities stand empty, except for hordes of flesh-hungry corpses stalking the few remaining humans. The fact that a rotting zombie in search of a snack can leap out of the shadows at any time lends more than a little tension to the story, but the real conflict is between the survivors. Like any global disaster that strips society of behavior-restraining conventions like law enforcement and the PTA, the dwindling cast of characters is pared down to archetypes. There's the redneck hillbilly who's discovered his internal nugget of humanity, the abused wife learning to thrive in a landscape devoid of the oppression she's always known, the older man who's lost everyone he's loved and pines for a younger woman who will never have him, the computer nerd falling in love with the spirited daughter of the farmer who gives them shelter. And at the core of the story are a good cop and a bad cop -- former best friends -- vying for dominance over the survivors and the woman they both love.

Based on the hard-hitting graphic novel series, TWD doesn't pull any punches. Just when our band of mismatched survivors finally manages to relax (note to self: a fish-fry barbecue may not be the best way to hide from zombies that can smell flesh cooking from miles away) the "walkers" descend to feed on our most beloved characters. I like how the plotline has even given us a functional explanation for the zombie plague itself, as a doomed scientist at Atlanta's Center for Disease Control demonstrated that the virus kills its human host but then rescuscitates its brain stem, resulting in a perpetually famished, shambling ghoul. Much of the first half of season two focused on the search for a little girl named Sofia, and instead of being delivered back to her mother the way viewers expected she was the last to emerge from the zombie barn hissing and moaning and, like all the others, hungry for human flesh.

I'll take my Jane Austen zombie-free, please, but serve up a compelling adult drama that showcases the human condition against the backdrop of annihilation and I'll keep tuning in.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Too Late To Say: Houston, We Have a Problem

It's amazing how often this scenario plays itself out: we watch a self-destructive celebrity like Amy Winehouse stumble around Camden Town for years in her scuffed ballet flats and then express surprise and a kind of collective grief when the toll finally claims her amazing talent and her life. It's happened again and again, with celebrities as diverse in their contributions and levels of talent as Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith, and we keep expecting it to happen to tragedies-in-waiting like Lindsay Lohan but will somehow be taken aback when it actually transpires.

Whitney Houston has been skating on this thin ice for what, 15 years? Her career path took an unshakeable detour when she met the rapper Bobby Brown. She went from a clean-cut gospel-trained singer with a five-octave range to a raspy, drug-addled shadow of herself, a reality TV parody in a track suit shrieking obscenities at the ever-present camera. Just yesterday she was photographed emerging from a club looking confused and combative, with something that appeared to be blood running down her leg. 

Like many performers who die too young, she left one last performance as her final legacy: the role of the stage mother in the upcoming film version of Sparkle. Let's hope it does her memory justice as a natural actress and an immeasurable vocal talent. And in honor of her once-astonishing ability, let's try to remember her when she was fresh, lovely and maybe even a little unsure of herself -- but unmistakably impressive -- from videos that feature her alongside several dancers who soon succumbed to the AIDS pandemic. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Brown Elixer

Since I've completely given up on the San Francisco Chronicle, which has pared itself down like a late-season Biggest Loser contestant to an x-ray of its former self, on weekends I usually pick up the Sunday New York Times.

My favorite part is stopping by the Starbuck's in the upscale shopping center near my house. I make my way through the WiFi hoboes and screaming, over-entitled urban urchins to the counter, where I slap the thick bale of newsprint onto the counter. "Is that all?" the barrista will ask, after inquiring unconvincingly about my health and happiness level.

"Yes," I respond loudly. "I don't drink coffee." The response from the assembled caffein addicts is similar to when a living human stumbles into the zombie barn on The Walking Dead.

A study last week reported that the average American adult spends $1,096 a year on coffee, but I'm willing to believe that even in these troubled times it's much more than that. At just three visits to Starbuck's or Peet's a day at $4.00 a shot, that's $4,380.  Is it not strange and noteworthy that at 11 p.m. in any city or town you'll find people carting around 16-ounce cartons of coffee? People talk about how meth has ruined small town America but what about its watery brown cousin, the antsy hopped-up one that stains its users' teeth, fouls their breath and drains their already limited disposable income?