In the interest of full transparency, I am just going to get this out of the way right up front.
I love Frank Darabont.
His treatment of Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” into the cinematic brilliance of The Shawshank Redemption was a master’s course in brilliant filmmaking. The writing, the pacing, the casting was the work of a virtuoso at his finest. His dedication to the human struggle, his ability to wring as much yardage out of every line, every scene, was beautiful to watch. He matched this with The Green Mile, although that film would never capture, for me, the lightning in a bottle that was Redemption. That was not to say that it wasn’t brilliant in its own way. He was on to something. He understood people.
That is why I was beyond excited when I learned that Darabont was in development with AMC to bring Robert Kaufman’s The Walking Dead graphic novel (alright- “comic book”) to the small screen. I had dabbled slightly with the work, not as much as my comic book fanatical friends had, but enough to know what was there. Have you everseen The Big Bang Theory? Yeah, that is them. That is why I listened, with much anticipation, as some of them groaned about this development.
“Ah, great. Hollywood will (insert word of your choice) another great graphic novel !!!”
“Had they seen The Shawshank Redemption?”, I had asked like an outsider. I was excited at the possibility! Darabont would weave the human element in there. Rick Grimes would be a psychologically tortured bad-ass, Michonne would be an unstoppable rebel force, and The Governor would be a son-of-a-bitch. What’s not to like about that?
Well, Darabont delivered in the first season. He brought a depth to the characters, positioned Rick to be the leader, and chose to tell most of the story through Rick’s eyes. He spends most of his time trying to make sense of his new world while searching for his wife and son. It was brilliant. It caught on. People liked it. We were hooked. The ending of the first season was great, it brought us full-frontal into the second, and the rating were through the roof.
And then AMC, which was on a roll with hits like Mad Men and Breaking Bad did the most “logical” thing.
They fired Darabont.
That’s right, the man who developed the show for television, the man who wanted nothing but to realize the vision of Kaufman’s zombie-apocalypse epic and keep the story true was fired from his own project. Speculations vary, but the common knowledge would suggest that he wanted more money for the budget to keep this vision alive. He wanted to put a good product on the table for fans to feast upon (or zombies, for that matter) and he wanted it to be done with integrity.
AMC told him thanks, but no thanks.
So as far as timelines are concerned, that was halfway through Season Two. Rick kills Shane, his wife Lori is with child (Shane’s? Ricks’? Who knows?) Daryl is handy with a crossbow, Glen is good at stealing, Hershel has a farm and can fix people up after practicing on animals his whole career. They discover a prison after being overrun by zombies, and have a season-long showdown with The Governor, who has established his own version of the post-apocalyptic Jonestown.
Whew…slow down. That’s a lot of exposition. Back to Darabont.
There seems to have been a major shift in the storytelling since his departure. There are things in the graphic novel (alright- COMIC!!!) that could not be shown on television, but you’ll have to check that out for yourself. It hasn’t stopped AMC from trying to squeeze as much yardage as they can out of the genre. There is a lot of gore. There is a lot of sociopathic digression. And then there is last season, which spent about six
episodes building up to the dramatic confrontation with Rick’s group and The Governor’s cult, which culminated in what could be best described as a five minute BB gun fight with some M-80’s and a zombie bus thrown in for good measure. I still wonder how Darabont would have handled this delicate storyline. I could only imagine he would have made Rick more tortured psychologically and The Governor even more diabolical than he was. The losses would be exponential and would resonate deeply. There would be story. There would be character. It would not be an instruction manual in how to butcher the Undead, or, for that matter, the Living. But we will never know.
So that leads us to Season Four, which premiered this Sunday night. Understand that I am still a fan of the show. I want it to be good. I want it to recapture its old magic and not just be a gore-fest. All of that has its place, but not at the expense of good storytelling. They hit a home run with Breaking Bad, did they not? They do understand great storytelling, right?
Ok, the Season Four premiere was not entirely disappointing. There are searches for The Governor, who is in hiding. Rick comes out of his psychotic delusions and becomes human again, There are many new faces- don’t get used to too many of them, as the apocalypse takes them in kind- and there is a pretty dramatic scene involving a faulty roof, a crashed helicopter, and more zombies than you can shake a crossbow at. There is Clara, a scared-to-all-hell woman Rick stumbles upon in the woods and shows real human empathy towards against his better judgement (maybe, just slightly, he should have listened to that a bit). Seems eerily like…storytelling. So where does that leave us, the poor viewer that has to eat well in advance before 9pm if we don’t want a late-night cleanup of the rug?
Maybe with a bit of hope.
Season Four looks like it has rediscovered itself. Yes, there were zombies. And brainings. And “holy s*&t!!!” moments. But there was a bit of a departure from the Bourne-like high concept action. The show seemed to veer a bit back to what make us like the characters in the first place: they are in an impossible situation, experiencing mind-numbing catharsis while trying to hold out “hope” for hope. There is something to be said for this type of “action”. We connect. The story moves, not crawls. Re-watch Rick’s scene in the woods with Clara. It’s pretty powerful, and human.
And in a world mostly populated by the Undead, isn’t human is a welcome invitation?