I blame Frank Darabont and the walking dead.
It’s like this: I’ve become resistant to new TV shows. I think it’s partly because of the arc. Not Noah’s, nor that of the Covenant, but the one that means there’s no such thing as a series any more – everything’s a serial. I’m old enough to get nostalgic about all the old episodic cop shows and cowboy shows and yes, even SF or fantasy shows (not that there were so many around in the old days – all hail the wondrous infiltration of the genre into the mainstream, at least on the big and small screens). Back then, you got a story a week and if you missed one it didn’t matter, because there was no arc.
Now it’s different. Every series has a continuing story, complete with mid-season climax and end-of-season finale, which usually delivers the kind of twist or cliffhanger that leaves you climbing up the wall. Now don’t get me wrong. I love the epic storytelling that’s made possible by this format. The screen in my house is smaller than the one in the movie theatre, but the canvas is actually bigger. And spreading the budget means the writers have to focus on storytelling and character, which are the things that are really going to bring me back week after week.
The down side, of course, is when the writers lose focus. Or the show gets cancelled. I loved the first series of Lost. That bastard actually got my attention; it was the best thing I’d seen on the telly for years. Series two ... pretty good, but the finale left me literally screaming. Then it switched networks and I just couldn’t stay committed. I stuck with FlashForward, which began well, drooped in the middle and ended strong ... but then it was taken off the air. Sorry you invested, old chap, but you’ll never know how the story turns out. Thank you and good night.
I’m old-fashioned, you see. I like a story – however long it may be – to have a beginning, middle and end. And if the end is a cliffhanger, I want it to be because that was the writer’s intention, not because some network chief forgot where he keeps his testicles.
Also, the week after week thing can be a slog. I don’t know about you, but I’m a busy beaver. Sometimes it’s hard to find time to eat, let alone watch the boob tube. Committing to a regular time slot – 10pm Fridays, or 9pm Tuesdays or whatever – is a big ask. Yes, I can record the shows, but then they start stacking up. I have to make time to watch them. Suddenly I’m three episodes behind, and I can’t discuss the show with anyone for fear of spoilers. Oh the pressure!
The other solution is to resign yourself to being behind everyone else, wait for the DVD box set to come out (better still, to get cheap) and treat yourself to a concentrated blast. This worked a treat for me with Battlestar Galactica (which I only just finished watching this summer). By the way, I have to say Galactica is the single best thing to come out of US television for a very long time. Fabulous writing, awesome performances and at the end of it all a stunning and beautifully played-out conclusion. Beginning, middle and end, you see, with quality running through it like words through a stick of rock.
All of which brings me round to The Walking Dead. When I heard about the show, I waxed and waned. Did I really need another zombie story? But wait – the guy behind it is Frank Darabont. You know, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist ... in short, all the really good Stephen King adaptations (although let’s not forget Rob Reiner here, who also understands what King is all about. Will Ron Howard be up to the task of bringing The Dark Tower to the screen? Screens plural, actually, since I hear it’s going to be hitting both the cinema and a TV set near you. God, I hope so!).
Anyway, last Friday I tuned in to the opening episode of The Walking Dead, which has finally reached UK network TV. I enjoyed the first ten minutes in a routine way. It was smooth, with a patient, lengthy dialogue scene between the two cops right near the start. Then we reached the scene where our hero wakes up from a coma after the Big Zombie Event and starts exploring Wrecked Small Town America and I thought haven’t I seen all this before?
Then it all just kicked in. Smart pacing. The first proper zombie scenes. Some graphic violence – very graphic, actually, but beautifully controlled, and a milion miles from Danny Boyle’s epileptic undead in 28 Days Later (which I love, by the way). A slightly dodgy fake beard. A neat subplot about the father and son ... and the mother. A cop on a horse. Unexpected action in Atlanta. And, yes, a twist in the tail. And, what struck me most of all, particularly in the scene where the father’s got his undead wife in the sights of his rifle, and the cop tracks down the pathetic legless zombie he saw in the park to put it out of its misery, unexpected beauty and lyricism. In short, I loved it.
Will I be tuning in again next week? You bet. Am I glad to hear the show’s earned a second season? I’d have to be crazy not to. Am I twitchy about committing myself to a story that may never actually end? Yep. But this time I’m prepared to go out on a limb. Damn you, Frank Darabont!