When you ask the creative team behind AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which debuts Sunday night at 10, what differentiates their series from every other filmed zombie story, they’ll point to the fact that it is a series - that, like the Robert Kirkman comic books that inspired it, it is an ongoing, never-ending nightmare, as opposed to two hours of scares and out.
But an ongoing nightmare requires ongoing viewers, and therefore a show that stays strong as it goes along, if not one that gets better and better over time, and I’m not sold that “The Walking Dead” is that kind of show.
I will say upfront that I generally felt the same way about the Kirkman comics. Though I’m not a devout zombie fan overall, I enjoyed the first few collections, then started to find it monotonous and depressing and stopped. The comic has many fans who have been understandably excited about what the TV team - including Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”), Gale Anne Hurd (“Terminator”) and Kirkman himself - will do with the property, and I suspect they’ll be pleased, even though the series takes notable liberties with the comic, altering the story at points, introducing some characters earlier and inventing some new ones altogether.
Going into the show as someone without deep affection for either the genre or the source material, I still found myself riveted by the pilot episode, which will air in a 90-minute timeslot on Halloween. Written and directed by Darabont, it’s a master class in suspense filmmaking, of dread and atmosphere and grief.
British actor Andrew Lincoln is our lead as small-town Kentucky cop Rick Grimes, who’s wounded in the line of duty, goes into a coma and wakes up weeks later to find a world overtaken by zombies, with only small pockets of frightened and angry humans trying to stay alive without getting bitten by the “walkers.”
Lincoln’s Southern accent is pretty terrible, though no worse than most of his co-stars, and Darabont and company have wisely pared down the wordy dialogue from the comics. Rick spends much of the pilot alone and in silence, simply reacting with horror to what the world has become. Lincoln’s quite good in that mode, and a solid hero once Rick links up with a group of survivors on the outskirts of Atlanta.
Darabont knows when a moment needs to be goosed and when he simply needs to hang back and let us share Rick’s view of this terrifying landscape, full of empty cars, decaying corpses and, of course, many, many, many zombies. (The zombies were designed by acclaimed make-up master Greg Nicotero, and understandably look fantastic/disgusting.) He takes a less-is-more approach to the score by Bear McCreary, letting long stretches play out with nothing but the sound of the wind, the creaking of doors, or the shuffling of zombie feet.
It’s wonderfully creepy, and then Darabont turns on the pathos as Rick makes the acquaintance of Morgan Jones (guest star Lennie James of “Jericho” fame) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), who have suffered a horrible, seemingly unending tragedy as part of this zombie apocalypse. That subplot’s pretty much beat-for-beat from Kirkman, and it plays out beautifully. (Though James does upstage Lincoln in the process.)
Many of the zombie encounters in the pilot are one-on-one, as the focus is less on action than on conveying a feeling of loss. Rick fell asleep in one world and woke up in another. But as he gets closer to Atlanta, encounters an ever-increasing number of the monsters and then connects with other survivors, “The Walking Dead” becomes a more conventional, less interesting zombie story. The technical work remains impeccable (the second episode is directed by “Breaking Bad” veteran Michelle MacLaren, the third by Gwyneth Horder-Payton from “Sons of Anarchy”), but the story, the suspense and the characters (Lincoln’s co-stars include Sarah Wayne Callies, Jon Bernthal and Jeffrey DeMunn) all begin to feel familiar quickly - not just from the comic, but dozens of zombie and/or post-apocalyptic yarns.
I was encouraged that the character-driven third episode was stronger than the zombie action-heavy second, and perhaps the producers will be proven right - that the longer this saga goes on past these initial six episodes, the more it will set itself apart from the zombie canon.
But it’s also possible that there’s a reason there’s never been a zombie TV series before that goes beyond the technical difficulties of pulling it off. Maybe the zombie apocalypse is a horror that’s better off in brief glimpses than as a story with no end in sight.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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