By: Aleks Chan
THE WALKING DEAD, set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse (and based on the popular comic book series by Robert Kirkman), is ambitious, haunting, cold, and occasionally slow. In the opening sequence, our hero, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), is foraging for gas amidst a field of abandoned cars when he is faced with a zombified child — what happens sets a powerfully grim tone for the rest of series. That scene is almost so manipulative as to be repulsive, but as the show rocks between freights and tedium in its first two-and-a-half hours, it still makes a convincing (if not yet entirely realized) case for itself as a gross-out survivalist zombie drama.
After suffering a gunshot wound in a dustup with some runaway crooks, Rick awakens in the hospital alone. Hobbling his way through the abandoned, disheveled building, he starts picking up on a few things: something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. The town abandoned, there are dismembered and sickly-looking bodies everywhere, and his first face-to-face encounter with a “walker” throws him (and us): a zombie woman’s torso, and only her torso, writhes across the ground towards him, chomping for his flesh.
His wife and son are missing, and according to a man and son team who’ve held themselves up in an abandoned house, they might be in Atlanta. Rick doesn’t ask a lot of questions, but we do learn this: a fatal fever outbreak leads to the dead rising again as monsters, the disease spread by infected wounds. Andrew Lincoln, a British actor probably best known to stateside viewers as the guy who swooned over Kiera Knightly in Love, Actually, effortlessly shakes off our frustrations with Rick, whose reticence would be maddening if he didn’t make him seem so scruffily wise but still worthy of our sympathy — he’s like an edgier Matt Damon.
In the overlong premiere, the show lingers too long in some scenes meant to instil an emotional reaction that indeed registers, but diminishes some of the gravitas. Zombies are largely tangential to the larger undercurrent — human reaction to tragedy and disparity. It mostly does this well (a subplot in episode 2 involving a white supremacist is poorly handled), poignantly conveying the difficult and almost impossible decisions one could be forced to make in the throes of catastrophe. With a story as mature as it’s trying to tell, and with zombies no less, the balance of heady drama and horror flick pulp proves especially tricky, and so far seems to overcompensate with the former and underplays the latter.
Now the zombies: they are mean, creepy figures given impressive makeup work that keeps them more human than monsters in a way that adds to the effect — with their infamous staggered gait, they enter a scene like pale, tattered figures, only revealing their fiendish, carnivorous sides at a sudden turn. If I’m underselling their scariness, wait until they devour a poor horse. These walking dead are the core of the first two episode’s strong and weak points: in moments like the opening scene mentioned earlier, they’re great at being cold and affecting; in others, they’re merely menacing, like in the scenes where Rick guns his way through a hoard of zombies in a video game-like fashion that creates a mechanicalness the show is better without. They’re the difference between whether THE WALKING DEAD is scary or scary good.
Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a blood-spatter-analyst who moonlights as a serial killer who only kills other killers, hasn’t been scary since DEXTER’s first season. We’re so desensitized to his ritualistic murders that they’re almost comfortingly familiar: They’re good for Dex too, as he’s been off his game since last season’s bewildering decision to kill off his wife, and the show’s only sense of gloomy warmth, Rita (Julie Benz), staged in the upsetting tableau of the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow, who nabbed an Emmy for the role).
Right from the start, there’s supposed to be this gruelling sense of dread hovering over the show: What if Dexter is exposed?! Yeah, right. I’ve become so accustomed to not worrying about Dexter ever being made that even if the show threw us for a loop and has Quinn’s (Desmond Harrington) hare-brained scheme to finger him as a killer work, I’m doubtful it would even stick. Alas, just when I think the show has maybe run its course (see: the offensively stale Angel-LaGuerta marriage), it ushers in a new, intriguing puzzle: Julia Stiles’ Lumen is a Stockholm Syndrome looney hellbent on getting revenge, Dexter-style on her past captors.
Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Dexter’s wiseass, devoted detective sister Debra, has long been Dexter’s secret, acerbic weapon: their relationship — full of tough love, sarcasm, and understanding — holds the show together and she even makes the groan-worthy, longtime-coming Deb-Quinn relationship a relatable human reaction to grief. Dexter might not be the bump in the night he used to be, but Deb’s heart, something the show would be nothing without, keeps on beating. Grade:THE WALKING DEAD: B; DEXTER: B-
THE WALKING DEAD premieres Sunday, Oct. 31 at 10PM EST (90 minutes) on AMC,
DEXTER airs Sundays at 9PM EST on Showtime (10PM on TMN in Canada)
Aleks Chan is a contributing writer to The TV Addict. He has seen every episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER four times, has once referred to his DVR as his “best friend,” and has only seen the pilot episode of THE SOPRANOS — and has no intention to apologize for it. He lives in Austin, Texas. His name is pronounced like Alex. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter (@alekstvaddict), or his own blog, Screen Reader.