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Ecks Factor: The Grateful Undead

****SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the first seven episodes of The Walking Dead's second season, DO NOT READ ON. YOU'VE BEEN WARNED.****

AMC has quickly become the premiere network for cutting edge programming on television, taking the throne once held by HBO (The Sopranos, The Wire), Showtime (Dexter, Weeds) and FX (The Shield, Nip/Tuck). Its universally acclaimed Mad Men has scored four consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Drama Series, a rare feat. Equally as rare is Bryan Cranston's three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor for Breaking Bad. Also finding popularity in their rookie seasons are crime drama The Killing and western Hell on Wheels.

But the true champion of AMC's original programming has been the zombie series, The Walking Dead.

Premiering on Halloween night in 2010, The Walking Dead introduced us to a world ravaged by the undead. Sole survivor Rick Grimes (played by British actor Andrew Lincoln) made his way through this new world after waking up alone and terrified in a hospital (a la 28 Days Later). The pilot was a work of art, keeping the tone dark throughout and allowing this character to grow on his own until he met a man (Lennie James) and his son, both trying to survive on their own. It's rare for a series to go stark in a pilot episode as The Walking Dead did, but it worked beautifully in the end result, keeping things simple between just three primary characters (and loads of angry, brain-eating zombies).

As the six-episode season progressed, the audience was introduced to the rest of the principal survivors, including Rick's wife, Lori, and son, Carl, (Sarah Wayne Callies and Chandler Riggs), Rick's cop partner Shane (Jon Bernthal), the brothers Dixon (Norman Reedus and guest-starring Michael Rooker) and a slew of others, including watchful Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), nerdy Glenn (Steven Yeun) and independent Andrea (Laurie Holden).

The band of survivors suffered a vicious zombie attack towards the end of the season, losing key members of their group, including Andrea's sister, as well as abused wife Carol's (Melissa McBride) husband. After heading to the CDC building and finding a scientist (Noah Emmerich) who is ready to give up on this new world of terror and uncertainty, the group settles in for what they believe to be the long haul. The scientist eventually pulls the trigger, so to speak, allowing the CDC building to explode with our group of survivors trapped inside. A trusty grenade almost forgotten allowed escape for almost the entire gang, and that was where they left us in Season 1.

Season 2 began with the group on the road to Fort Benning, ready to face their fates. Complications arose and the group was stalled on the highway. Eventually, Carol's daughter Sophia goes missing, setting off the main storyline for the first half of Season 2. Equally as devastating in the first episode was Rick's son, Carl, being shot unexpectedly and unintentionally by a hunter. This takes Rick and the others to the home of Hershel Greene, a doctor who must save Carl's life, if only for Rick's sanity. Of course it's only revealed later on that Hershel is a veterinarian.

As these seven episodes progress, certain characters began to unfold and unravel simultaneously, most notably Shane and Andrea. It is revealed that after searching for supplies to help Hershel save Carl's life, an injured Shane essentially killed Otis (the apologetic hunter responsible for Carl getting shot) to further himself from the zombies. What follows is a man, as Dale puts it, born to be in a world like this. He knows who the hero is and he wants the glory for himself. Unfortunately, his own mental well-being is severely affected and it won't be long before he becomes a danger to himself and the others. As for Andrea, she wanted to die in the CDC building, but overprotective Dale told her she needed to live. Her hostility towards fatherly Dale has verged on mean, but she doesn't care. She wanted to die. She knows there's a good chance she will die. Why prolong it? Coincidentally, Shane and Andrea have sex in episode six.

On the flip side, in "Cherokee Rose", resident anti-hero Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) searched high and low for Carol's daughter, Sophia, coming upon the title's "cherokee rose". As he explained it, the cherokee rose was a Native American sign that gods protected their children. Carol took solace in this, praying desperately that her daughter was still alive on her own. It showed a softer, gentler side of Daryl Dixon. While I'm all for expanding characters and allowing them three-dimensional layers, I feel the Daryl Dixon we knew in Season 1 would have laughed his ass off at the Daryl Dixon in Season 2, offering such a delicate moment to a woman so distraught. It's a very humane quality, but Daryl Dixon of Season 1 wasn't necessarily a humane person.

The pacing of the show, while never as breakneck as the horror films upon which this series (and graphic novels) is based, has been substandard at best this season. Arriving at Hershel Greene's farm in episode two, the survivors have stayed there, as Carl has been on the mend and Sophia has been missing after being chased by the walkers. Almost every character has suffered from symptoms of soap-itis, the common affliction of being affected by those storylines most associated with soap operas. The most obvious example was Rick's wife, Lori (played by Sarah Wayne Callies), finding out she was with child in this violent world. But who's the father? While Rick was MIA in her life, she was routinely sleeping with Shane, believing her husband to be dead. What follows is typical soap opera moments, complete with uninvolved characters (Glenn) finding out before either of the potential dads. I don't feel the added weight of a pregnant woman on the storyline will in any way help the show forward, but that's me. On a side note, I find it increasingly difficult to find any care in me for Glenn and Hershel's daughter. It's supposed to make me think "Hey, he's a nerd, how can he get a hot girl?" but instead I end up thinking "Where are these zombies when you really need them?"

Let's not forget the acting on the show. Certainly never its strong suit, it never became more evident than this season, when everyone seemed to have that one moment where they lose their mind. Some of these actors are accomplished, but you would never know it by watching The Walking Dead. Of course, horror films are rarely known for Academy Award acting, but sometimes it feels like they're giving a little bit extra to be recognized come Emmy time.

Of course, the big reason many tune in to The Walking Dead is the dead themselves, often referred to as walkers. For some reason, zombies are rarely called zombies in zombie films. And despite the downward trend in overall quality, the walkers have yet to disappoint. In the opening episode, reminiscent of the many scenes in the pilot lacking dialogue, a herd of walkers saunter by the stranded group on the highway, leaving our survivors frightened and close enough to death, they can taste it. Or smell it, as it were.

I must mention the bloated well-walker as well as Hershel Greene's Walker Barn, which becomes the single most important location thus far in the first thirteen episodes of The Walking Dead.

In the mid-season finale, appropriately titled "Pretty Much Dead Already", several key storylines come to a head: Rick has discovered Lori is pregnant, and furthermore has figured out Lori and Shane have slept together. Rick tries desperately to reason with Hershel about the newly discovered barn of walkers, telling him they're dead and there's nothing more to be done. Shane's unravelling continues until he himself discovers the barn and opens fire on the barn's brain-hungry inhabitants. And of course, all but one walker remains standing in the end: Sophia Peletier. It adds a moment of thought for everyone involved, until Rick grabs a gun and shoots the girl in the head. It was a ballsy move to essentially keep them (and us) in the same place for six episodes and have it all mean nothing in the end. Sure, Carl was saved by Hershel, and where would Glenn's sex life be without Hershel's daughter? Still, it was a fruitless journey.

Forget character development, forget walkers, forget blood and gore, and forget all the key ingredients to an intense tale: it's the very human reaction to this post-apocalyptic world that makes The Walking Dead fascinating at its very best. It's those moments in which these people try their best to stay alive, try their best to keep others alive, only to have it all go to hell anyway. Sometimes in life, that's the way it goes anyway, but when you add walkers to the mix, it's even more true: no matter what you do, at any given time, it can all end, with no reward or prosperity to show for it. To put it simply, damned if you do, damned if you don't. And for these characters, after trying desperately to find Sophia Peletier, it didn't matter in the end: she was right under their noses, dead as undead can be. Time elapsed, lives were lost and now it's back to the drawing board for Rick Grimes and His Band of Dysfunctional Survivors. And despite the many flaws, I'm ready for the ride when it restarts February 12, 2012.

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AN APOLOGY

Last week, I submitted my predictions for this year's upcoming Golden Globe Awards, laying down the gauntlet on what I felt would get recognized on television. I regretfully included Mad Men on the list for Best Drama, as well as acting honors for Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. What I didn't realize in my research was that, unlike the Emmys, Mad Men was not eligible for this year's Golden Globes, having not aired any new episodes in 2011. This oversight was brought to my attention and I swiftly changed my predictions to include Game of Thrones for Best Drama, Michael C. Hall for Best Actor in a Drama and Kyra Sedgwick for Best Actress in a Drama.

Furthermore, I neglected to include this year's Emmy winner for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama, Peter Dinklage, for Game of Thrones. I have since included him in the place of Aaron Paul for Breaking Bad. I sincerely apologize for these mistakes I made and hope they don't reflect on my columns overall.

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TUBE NEWS

-This week, Nicole Scherzinger continued her quest to become Most Hated Woman on Television by refusing to make up her mind AS A JUDGE on The X Factor, preferring to send these week's vote-off to a deadlock between Rachel Crow and Marcus Canty. As youngster Crow was eliminated, the crowd booed the decision. After last week's elimination of personal favorite Drew, I have to question if Nicole Scherzinger has any idea what she's doing on the show. In fact, why did anyone believe the lead singer/dancer of The Pussycat Dolls could be a proper judge of talent? The sooner she's let go, the better The X Factor will be.

-NBC's experiment of airing a new episode of Friday drama Grimm on Thursday night proved to be a bust, barely scoring 4 million viewers on the completely dead night of primetime programming. The further NBC sinks, the deeper the scars become. Is there any way to save the network?

-The Writers Guild of America announced their television nominees this week. Leading the pack with three apiece are Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Homeland and Modern Family. Noticeably absent? Mad Men. What gives, WGA? Oh... right, I forgot. Oops.

Thanks again for reading any or all of my column this week devoted to The Walking Dead. Any thoughts on the undead AMC saga? Let me know below in the comments section. I will be back next week with a brand new column singling out the many things bothering me lately on television.

Until then, stay tuned.

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Total Comments: 6
Karl Schneider
Karl Schneider    Dec 10 2011 2:23am
No apologies needed, you offer insight I enjoy consuming. Plus, now Game of Thrones is in the mix, and that makes the Globes column even better!
Patrick Ferrara
Patrick Ferrara    Dec 11 2011 12:51am
I think AMC is the only real contender to HBO for televised drama, but i still think the latter holds the crown.
Crux
Crux    Dec 11 2011 5:54pm
Ironically, I want to read this.....but I don't want to see the spoiler. I just saw the first season of The Walking Dead and I still need to catch up to the current season.
Mister Ecks
Mister Ecks    Dec 11 2011 11:38pm
No Crux, don't read it. It's laden with spoilers, especially the last episode. If one thing worked this season, it was not knowing what was going to happen.

Patrick, HBO is coming back around with Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. For a season or two, it lacked in a drama. But personally, I think AMC has the upper-hand with award-darlings Mad Men and Breaking Bad, as well as crowd-pleaser The Walking Dead. I haven't heard a ton on Hell on Wheels though, while I heard negative things about The Killing towards the end of its first season.
Bluebomb
Bluebomb    Dec 12 2011 4:03pm
Season 2 of The Walking Dead was terrible. The pacing was horrible. They practically did a u-turn with some of the characters' personalities from Season 1. Some characters like T-dog were underused. The Sophia storyline went on too long. Most of all, the baby drama was and still is ridiculous.

After 6 intense episodes of season 1, I watched the first 6 episodes of season 2 hoping for something to happen but alas I didn't have any patience left. They screwed the pooch with this show and I won't be back for the 2nd half of season 2.

I don't really think the Grimm experiment on Thursday was a complete bust. It garnered more 18-49 viewers than Prime Suspect and it probably introduced non-viewers to the show. It's a very small victory that NBC will take. Even though a 1.6 rating is horrible for a Thursday, it has been stable the past few weeks. NBC is probably going to renew it since it's a Friday show.
Mister Ecks
Mister Ecks    Dec 13 2011 5:22pm
I'd be curious to know what part, if any, Frank Darabont had in these episodes before leaving. Or what his idea was for the second season, if the writers actually did go in a different direction.

Maybe this whole mini-season was Darabont.

Thanks for reading, Bluebomb!