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.

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