Saturday, February 15, 2014

AMC's The Walking Dead and the many ways in which it *ahem* bites

With the return of AMC's The Walking Dead, this week, here are my much-delayed but eagerly-awaited (or not!) reflections on why the show is terrible, and how it manages to screw up everything that the the comic does right. (Be warned! I will probably end up spoiling stuff.)

[A quick note: This is not to suggest that the comic is perfect, by any means. The prison arc drags and, more recently, characters have a habit of monologue-ing in such a way that I have to think Robert Kirkman is hoping to make some sort of serious social commentary that's well beyond his ability. But still, it's much better]

1) The Walking Dead are supposed to be the people, not the zombies

The show's biggest failing is that it thinks the zombies are the stars. It can't go an episode without a zombie sneak-attack, and it makes a zombie encounter part of every story. To pull some examples from this season:
  • The story about the flu, while ostensibly serving as some sort of banal contrast and reminder of the dangers of the everyday, devolved into just another surprise zombie rampage.
  • The visit to the grocery store was interrupted by bunches of zombies falling inexplicably from the ceiling. (I say 'inexplicably' not because it doesn't make sense that the roof is sagging, but because it appears they had been there for months, and somehow none of them had previously managed to fall through the roof)
  • Though it was understated, even Rick and Carol's half-decent foraging episode was interrupted by  zombies who carried away and ate the new people. (But even I'll admit that this was done with impressive restraint.)
  • In the latest episode, Carl is nearly bitten not just once but twice by zombies who either snuck up or sprang out from behind a door, both of which are lazy tropes that the show relies on with alarming regularity.
In the comic, the zombies have been largely reduced to background pieces that do little to move the plot forward. When they gather en masse, it's to serve some sort of symbolic purpose.
  • The zombies flood the prison as an after-effect of the battle with The Governor, not because he deploys them as a weapon. 
  • When a zombie herd pushes through the walls that surround Alexandria, it follows a gun-fight with outside bandits and parallels an internal struggle for the right to lead the town. When Rick is finally installed as leader, the town finally learns how to keep the zombies out.

It's not that the zombies disappear or are rendered harmless, but nor are they aggressors or malevolent. Rather, the zombies of the comic appear as a consequence of human folly - the wrath of god, a force of nature, a critique of social relations given undead form, or however you choose to explain it. And so there's a subtle moral element to it, too, at least in the past few years. Not that any particularly person deserves to be attacked by a zombie, mind you, but that we, more generally, have brought this upon our selves - and we're running out of chances.

2) Pacing

A friend of mine defended the story arc in the first half of this season by way of claiming that it was about the difficulty of re-establishing society. Which, if it were true, would've been great. Instead, having only just established the prison community in the previous year's season finale, this year's season premiere immediately introduced a mystery illness to destroy it. Number of full episodes spent showing that it's not all about the zombie attacks: 0

By contrast, the comic book spent dozens of issues in the prison and plenty of time showing that inter-personal conflict and power struggles were far more deadly than anything outside the walls. What my friend claimed/hoped the show was doing? That's what the comic book actually did. If you're going to make a show about humanity after the apocalypse, it probably behooves you to slow down and establish that they can still interact with other human beings.

3) Choreography that would make a pro wrestler blush

Again, the lazy tropes. There's a difference between the effective use of horror conventions and the poor use of them. While I expect the disorienting close-up or extreme that shields our view from a surprise, I expect what follows to be an actual surprise. When Hershel stepped slowly past a body in a dark prison corridor, I knew it would bite him. When, in the second season, Lori went after Rick in a car, I was reasonably sure that she would crash. When she held up a map and took her eyes off the road, I knew there would be a zombie in the way when she looked up. And that she would swerve. And that she would crash.

And when, earlier this season, Rick was outside the prison and got pinned against the fence, the camera angle suggested that someone was going to sneak up, unseen, from behind to save him. So, Daryl did just that:

It's one thing to anticipate a surprise, but to know exactly what that surprise will be? That's not a surprise at all. It reduces the anticipation to an expectation, and robs the scene of tension or excitement entirely.

4) The physics of sound

When they're off-screen, the zombies are remarkably quiet. Like, sooo quiet. But when they're on screen, they're incredibly noisy - gnashing and moaning and gurgling and growling.

But, you're saying, it's just that they're quiet when there are no humans around - obviously, they get noisy when there's meat in their presence.

Except, that's not what I'm saying at all. I literally mean that it's a matter of whether the camera can see them or not.
  • When, in the season premiere, the group arrives at a grocery store, the scene is totally silent. But, as the camera pans up, we see and hear dozens of zombies on the roof. (Which puts that whole 'the zombies are normally quiet' theory to bed.) Now, I'm not at all certain whether the humans would've heard the zombies, but it's pretty silly that the zombies fail to hear the humans approach - especially since their hearing is acute enough to hear a crash from within the building.
  • When Meghan is attacked in the Governor's RV camp, it is doubly ridiculous. Not only is it shot from directly in front, which immediately gives away the eventual zombie attack, but the zombie that she finds is standing totally stationary behind a bed sheet, of all things. A bed sheet that could, ostensibly, block both the sound of the zombie from ours and Meghan's ears, as well as the sound of the community from the zombie, who was turned in the wrong direction and thus oblivious to their presence. Dumb.
  • And the most egregious example, from the end of the second season, is when Dale is standing in an empty field - which we know to be empty because the establishing shot was from a distance. Yet, somehow, a zombie swiftly and totally silently sneaks up from behind him. Which is even more impressive because the field is, itself, totally silent. Until, of course, Dale turns around and the zombie appears on camera, its mouth all frothy and gurgling. Because, of course.

5) Rick

In AMC's version, everyone hates Rick. He's a reluctant leader who's largely incapable of making decisions, wracked by self-doubt and guilt. This might be a fine archetype to employ in literary fiction, but in the hands of lesser writers, Rick is simply annoying.

The problem is, the TV version of Rick is only a small fraction of a full character. Like AMC's Rick, the comic book version of Rick also has a period of self-doubt where he's paralyzed by guilt. But that's not how he begins, and that's not where he's been for a long time.

In the first few years of stories, Rick is instead characterized by a survive-at-all-costs ethos, an angry-at-the-world recklessness, and is intensely protective of his family. Just like TV's Shane. (The comic's Shane died after only a few issues - killed by Carl, rather than Rick.) And, in the comic, he finds some solace in rejecting his responsibility to others and disappearing for days at a time, setting out alone on his motorcycle like some sort of post-apocalyptic cowboy. Like TV's Daryl. (The comic has no Daryl.)

6) Didn't we see all this before? This is what passes for character development?

When the previous season ended, The Governor wanted the prison and was willing to destroy it if he couldn't have it, bringing with him a small army to demand its surrender and knocking its gates down. When The Governor returned at the midpoint of his season, he wanted the prison and was willing to destroy it if he couldn't have it, bringing with him a small army to demand its surrender and knocking its gates down.


In between, we were given two episodes that demonstrated how a shattered Governor rebuilt himself in order to become the exact same person he had been before, with a more or less identical purpose - he replaced his old community with a new one, regained his leadership role, even managed to find a new daughter. And this all served what point, exactly?

7) How gender influences your chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse

I haven't fully developed this point in my head, and it deserves a longer, fuller discussion. But regardless, it's something that needs to be covered. (That I've put it number last on my list isn't an indication of priority. Instead, it's an indication that it's the least rigorously formulated.)

One of the interesting tropes in The Walking Dead comic is the clash of male egos and its catastrophic consequences. Shane nearly kills Rick before the first story arc is complete; Rick and Tyreese nearly kill each other; Rick and The Governor destroy one another's homes; a group of cannibals become a particularly unsubtle metaphor for the direction that this is all heading in. The group's most brazen and direct actions also tend toward disaster: Shane pulls a gun on Rick and Carl shoots Shane in the neck; Rick's first confrontation with the Governor is memorable for Rick getting his hand chopped off; Tyreese's pre-emptive strike against Woodbury results in his capture and execution; Rick's first encounter with Negan ends with Glenn's murder.

Consciously or not, there is a clear and obvious indictment of hegemonic masculine aggression, ambition, and hubris. But this is also a violent story with characteristically violent consequences, so all of this might seem rather unconvincing and lazy - characters die all time, most of those characters are men, and it's easy to link any one death to any one man's reckless actions.

So, let's try this, instead: apart from the characters who were introduced in the current storyline of the comic, only one man who claimed any kind of leadership role is still alive: Rick.
  • Shane, who led the RV group before Rick arrived, is dead.
  • So is Tyreese, Rick's other early competition for leadership of the original group. 
  • And Hershel, who stepped up when Rick and Tyreese were trying to kill each other.
  • Glenn was also among the group that tried to replace Rick. Also dead.
  • Douglas, who preceded Rick as leader of Alexandria. 
  • Spencer, Douglas' son who plotted to replace Rick, is murdered by Negan. 
  • Gregory, who leads The Hilltop, is also killed by Negan.
  • And the bad guys, too, like The Governor and whoever led The Hunters. It's only a matter of time until Negan dies.

Now, it's not like women don't take risks or don't die. The comic book version of Carol kills herself. (Carol is the one major exception to the general rule that the comic does everything better. But even though it seems inevitable that she'll return to the show, the way they wrote her out was awful. And just reinforces the fact that Rick is a dick.) Lori and Judith are killed in the Governor's attack, which ultimately reduces them to a story function - the cost of Rick's pride.

[Quick aside, though. The female characters on the TV show? Some great steps have been taken to build them up into strong, independent people. But there's a reason that half of the early TWD memes relished in point out how annoying they were.]

But Andrea and Michonne have survived capture and physical abuse, and have grown into leadership roles rather than having taken them by force. Necessity plays a role, too: when Gregory gives his allegiance to Negan, a disgusted Maggie effectively takes command of The Hilltop.

And this is hardly an argument for some wildly different form of feminine leadership. Michonne is no less hot-headed and independent in the comic than she is on the TV show, and Andrea is remarkable for her level-headedness and killer instinct. Maggie probably most closely resembles a recognizable feminine trope, having become something of a mother bear to Carol's daughter.

Rather, it seems to be an argument for leaders who don't aspire to hold power but earn it and will take it when they must; fighters who don't seek fights but will fight when they're backed into a corner. As it happens, these sorts of characters are all women.

Women who, I should again add, have taken very different paths and achieved very different outcomes. It's not as if the book recommends one particular way of surviving the zombie apocalypse, even if it seems to suggest that, yes, that one other particular way leads unavoidably to death.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Michael Sam and the talk about draft value

Yesterday, Michael Sam, a college football player who intends to enter the NFL draft in May, told Sports Illustrated that he's gay. It's being described as "outing", but Sam's sexuality was no surprise to his college team, whom he informed in August, and apparently "only two or three [NFL teams] didn't know" beforehand.

Now, the fact that this is news - that Sam would be the first out player in the history of the NFL - is obviously indicative of heterosexism. That all of the coaches, scouts, and such interviewed by Sports Illustrated confirmed that this would be a problem, that it would be a distraction to the team and hurt his own prospects is also unsurprising, and also an explicit admission of widespread homophobia. But these are not surprising findings in North American sports, even if they're still upsetting.

As recently as a year ago, baseball's Torii Hunter was saying that having a gay teammate would be "difficult and uncomfortable", and the comment - while widely criticized by media-types - was basically a non-issue among people who are actively involved in the sport. Or in all of North America's big four sports, for that matter. The NBA's Jason Collins, a mediocre player nearing the end of his career, came out in spring 2013 and has been unable to find any more work. The NFL's Chris Kluwe, considered more-or-less average among punters, became an outspoken advocate of gay marriage and critic of its enemies and he, too, has been unable to find a job.

That the NBA's only out gay player and pro sports' most vocal straight ally find themselves unemployed is not evidence of a conspiracy, but it's reflective of this fact, at the very least - homophobia is deeply entrenched in the culture of sport.

What makes things more interesting for Sam, though, is that he's not on the verge of retirement, (like Collins) nor does he play a relatively marginal position that's rather easy to replace (like Kluwe). Rather, Sam is the SEC Defensive Player of the Year - not just the best at his own position, but judged the very best among all players on defense among the 14 team, Division I Southeastern Conference.

So, if Sam is going to be punished for his admission, it might be useful to look at how former Defensive Players of the Year have been treated by the NFL draft:

2012 - Round 1, Pick 17 - Jarvis Jones, Linebacker
2011 - Round 1, Pick 6 - Morris Claiborne, Cornerback
2010 - Round 1, Pick 5 - Patrick Peterson, CB
2009 - Round 1, Pick 8 - Rolando McClain, LB
2008 - Round 1, Pick 5 - Eric Berry, Safety
2007 - Round 1, Pick 5 - Glenn Dorsey, Nose Tackle
2006 - Round 1, Pick 11 - Patrick Willis, LB
2005 - Round 2, Pick 33 - Demeco Ryans, LB
2004 - Round 1, Pick 17 - David Pollack, LB
2003 - Round 5, Pick 142 - Chad Lavalais, Defensive Tackle
(previous to 2003, a single Player of the Year was named, which included offense and special teams)

Even with the inclusion of 2003's outlier, that's an average of 25th pick. And Sam? The various sources I've looked at were guessing, even before the public announcement, he could go anywhere from 3rd to 7th round - the vicinity of Lavalais, the outlier, rather than the norm. Following the announcement, the consensus seems to be that he'll go even lower. That is, if he's drafted at all.

Now, Sam is considered small for his position, (he's 6'2", while DEs tend to fall in the 6'3"-7" range) which is a criticism that unavoidably, and reasonably, damages his draft value. Doug Flutie, notably, won the Heisman Trophy and was named the best player in college football, only to be drafted in the 11 round and 285th overall. So, these things matter, and it's entirely possible that he'd fall outside the first round, controversy or no. But now we're suggesting that he would likely be the lowest-drafted SEC Defensive Player of the Year, ever? That he could, conceivably, go undrafted unless a team with "a strong owner, savvy general manager and veteran coach" can "make [it] work"? (We could spend hours peeling back the layers of the language that executives have used to describe Sam. Likewise, in discussing how cowardly it is that they've all hidden behind anonymity.)

This makes it sound like we're talking about someone who is intentionally divisive, who makes his sexuality central to his public persona. You'd think we were talking about someone who wears political messages on the field, who makes controversial remarks to media, who very openly and often talks about his sexuality, and whose media profile creates a conscious "distraction." Someone like, say, Tim Tebow.

And for what it's worth? Even with that baggage and similar concerns that his game wouldn't translate to the NFL, Tebow was picked 25th.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Brief thoughts on a Conservative anti-drug radio spot

From a Conservative Party of Canada radio ad:
"There's so much I worry about as a mom. Justin Trudeau's plan to make marijuana legal certainly doesn't help. Imagine, making it available just like alcohol and cigarettes. He's sending the message that recreational drug use is okay."

Simply put, this is a terrible ad. Not just because it's cheesy and melodramatic (there's a minimalist piano backing track) but because it strikes me as both internally contradictory and totally wrong about its facts. To wit:

1) There's an implication, here, that we can/should send the message to kids that alcohol and cigarette use "is okay". I don't know if that was the intention, but it's the effect. Grouping these three "recreational drugs" together only really makes sense if you're suggesting that they should all be treated in the same way. If you aren't, it all looks a bit arbitrary.

2) If pot were available in the same way that booze and smokes are available, it would actually be harder for kids to buy. One of the things that makes pot so readily available - or, at least, made it really accessible when I was a teenager - is that the market is entirely underground. Thus, the only barrier for buyers is knowing someone who's selling. And when you're 18, finding another teenager at your school who's selling is a lot easier than finding someone who can buy stuff at a store.