Though the show is titled The Walking Dead, it's not really about the zombies. Sure, they appear in every episode as the looming threat, just as the Atlantic Ocean was a constant in Titanic. But what this show is really about is the living -- the human survivors of the zombie outbreak, and it's not just about their survival, but what each one of them is willing to do -- what moral compromises they are willing to make -- in order to survive. And that's what makes it great drama.
The Walking Dead is not just a horror show about zombies, it is a drama about the human condition... what makes us what we are, and what choices are we willing to make, and where do we draw the line? Sure, it is a disaster movie where the zombies are the ever present disaster. But like the best of the disaster movies, it focuses on the characters (and the character of the characters), and not solely on the threat of the moment. The Walking Dead takes the best elements of the disaster movie -- this awful thing has happened to us, now how do we deal with it? -- and adds to the mix an interesting bunch of characters that grow and change over time as they deal with the choices they make to avoid the reality of being a food source for the undead.
I watched The Walking Dead episodes in their first run on cable, and enjoyed them. But having been knocked out for this past weekend with a stomach flu that left me with little choice but to lie on my back staring at the ceiling, I decided instead to spend the time with a Kindle Couch Marathon, re-watching Seasons 1 and 2 of The Walking Dead, while waiting for the 3rd season finale on Sunday night. In short, though I liked the show the first time, seeing the episodes the second time around gave me an even deeper appreciation for the series. The other thing that one appreciates in re-watching the first seasons is being reintroduced to the characters (those that survived) that are now the mainstays of the third season. So much happened so fast in the first few episodes that, other than lawman Rick Grimes, the central character, we didn't get to know a lot of the others before they met their end. So to those who know the series, and to those who've never seen it, it's worth it to go back to the beginning and get a fresh perspective.
Warning: this review will have a few spoilers, but nothing that will ruin your experience if you haven't seen the show.
What makes The Walking Dead so good is not just the interesting characters, but the moral quandaries that are presented to them in a world in which all the old rules are gone, along with nearly all of the people they know. There is no law, no military, no organizing social structure other than the one created, moment by moment, by the survivors. Being surrounded by the undead, constantly on guard against being bitten which is, of course, ultimately fatal, makes every day a struggle for survival. Each of the characters in the show are called upon at one time or another to make life or death decisions that they then have to deal with after the fact. Some are capable of handling the burden and learn from it, becoming richer and wiser in the process. Other characters are made hardened and cold, while others are simply driven off the deep end.
An example, in an early episode, Merle, an unhinged racist redneck character must be subdued before he does harm to T-Dog, one of the survivors who is black. After Merle is knocked out by Rick, he is handcuffed to some ductwork on a rooftop until he regains his composure. Later, as the dead are attacking and the group is fleeing, only T-Dog, the very man he earlier attacked, has the handcuff key, which he accidentally drops down a drain pipe. Through fear, or just bad timing, T-Dog runs away, leaving Merle presumably to get eaten by the zombies, but there is a hacksaw nearby. It isn't until a subsequent episode where we learn that Merle got free of the handcuff, not by cutting the cuff (the blade was dull), but by cutting off his own hand. So, how do you live with the fact that your carelessness (and/or momentary cowardice) caused a guy you didn't like much to hack off his own hand? How do you react to the fact that you may run into him again someday.
It's like that for all the characters. What is it like to be the leader of a group of survivors, and make a bad call that gets one or more of them killed? Happens on a daily basis for Rick. What is it like to accept suicide as a logical option (as Andrea does at the end of Season 1), only to be forced out of it to save the life of Dale, another character she cares about? Being in the world of the walking dead puts the cast constantly in extremis, where these kind of life and death choices can happen on a moment's notice. Would Shane, a truly morally compromised character, have made such a terrible series of moral choices if he wasn't forced into them by a set of circumstances that would never have happened to him in normal life? You almost feel sorry for the guy, even though he's doing things that are truly despicable. Same with Rick's wife Lori, who makes some bad decisions based on flawed information. And what are the choices for Rick, shouldering his own burdens, when he learns his young son Carl has turned into a cold-blooded killer, not just of the dead, but of the living? These are the kind of moments you get on The Walking Dead that you get nowhere else.
Over the course of the show, characters grow and change. Glenn grows from being the pizza delivery man, a self-described loner, into a dependable battle-hardened lieutenant in Rick's army who finds love away from the battlefield in one of the survivors he meets. Daryl, Merle's sibling, grows from being the abused younger brother into a solid character with his own will and moral code that pits him against Merle, even while his family bonds remain forever strong.
The other thing that's really radical and fresh about The Walking Dead is that nobody is safe. Seriously, nobody. This is a show in which any major cast member is only one zombie bite away from not being back next week. In fact, of the sixteen major characters who were introduced in Season One, only six are still alive at the end of Season Three. That makes it dangerous, unpredictable and absolutely riveting. It also makes it a lot different from most TV shows in which multi-season contracts with actors essentially render them safe from real dramatic consequences. It's a different world for The Walking Dead. We lose characters, many of them characters that we've grown to love. But then, new characters come along and fill in a new role, one we didn't even know we needed. At this point, I'd really say that no character, even Rick, is truly safe. The Walking Dead follows a series of graphic novels, but only loosely. I haven't read the novels, but apparently some characters that are still alive there are now gone from the series. But, personally, I sure hope they never get rid of Hershel, the show's Greek Chorus of reason and optimism.
Finally, from a show named The Walking Dead, you'd expect that the major threat comes from the unbelievable (and at times it is unbelievable) number of zombies on the prowl. But in fact, the conflicts that have grown the most heated over the past two seasons are the conflicts that emerge between one group of human survivors and other groups. When the world has gone to hell, with limited food, shelter and resources, how do you know who to trust? Turns out that you really can't trust a whole lot of humanity, which is one of the major ethical issues the show confronts.
Though it is proving to be quite popular, I suspect that there are a lot of people who wouldn't watch The Walking Dead because they assume that it is just a gory, monster show. And, in truth, it is. But it is much more. In some important ways, The Walking Dead reminds me of how Star Trek and its offshoots have been so misunderstood over the years. Non-fans assume that Trek was an outer space show about aliens, strange planets, phasers and photon torpedoes. And, in truth, it was. But what made Star Trek so endearing and enduring is the fact that, due to the strict edicts of show-runner Gene Roddenberry, it "had to be about something" -- meaning, about some great issue of life. Roddenberry fought regular battles with network execs who essentially wanted each episode of Star Trek to end with a fist fight. Sure, Kirk had a lot of those (the network boys had to be placated from time to time). But he also had moral and ethical challenges that were far more interesting. That's what draws fans back to watch the series over and over again.
I suspect that something similar will happen for fans of The Walking Dead. It stands up to repeat viewings. This is the difference between The Walking Dead and most other shows on TV. There has been some turnover this year in the Story Department with the departure of the show runner. Will it continue to be as good in the future? Time will tell. For now, I'm putting my money on the dead.