If done right, a television adaptation of The Walking Dead should necessarily be a better TV series than it was a comic book. This isn’t a knock against comic writer Robert Kirkman’s talents or pencillers Charlie Adlard and Tony Moore: Their Walking Dead may be uneven, but it remains an arresting read. At the same time, its novel crux has always been the way it gives a post-zombie crisis world a sense of continuity. Kirkman set out to follow a single survivor as he fights to survive a world overrun by zombies. Time is the key factor in both the comics and the TV series. In the first half of director-screenwriter Frank Darabont’s impeccable pilot episode for AMC’s new adaptation, you feel the weight of time passing in ways that Kirkman always struggles with. To say that Darabont has kicked his series off with a bang would be a serious understatement.
When former Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes up from a coma, “Day Zero,” shorthand among zombie film aficionados for the day zombies descend on the human populace at large, has long past. As in 28 Days Later, the world’s decimation is a matter of fact by now, leaving Rick to pick up the pieces and figure out where things stand. His slow, shambling, dialogue-free exploration of the abandoned hospital in which he wakes up is one of the purest expressions of television’s trend toward a cinematic emphasis on fluid, atmospheric, and purposeful visual storytelling. Rick’s terror at discovering a room full of zombies is palpable because it mounts in such a way that it gives you the illusion of a real-time happening while suggesting a poetic luster that neither Moore nor Adlard’s pencils have yet to achieve. Darabont’s desiccated world is staggeringly lush, shot by cinematographer David Tattersall with a wide-angle lens capable of an astounding depth of field, and populated by gut-churning makeup effects by Greg Nicotero. Darabont has fashioned a fully realized alternate reality and it’s a thrilling thing to experience.
Another way Darabont has improved on Kirkman’s indispensable model is in the way he humanizes Rick, the white knight who frequently goes overboard in his attempts to keep the post-human world sane and emotionally stable. After his hospital encounter, Rick’s initial shock subsides and he heads home to find new neighbors have taken over the house next door by force and that his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), have long gone.
Rick is defined by his clear head, and he notices the family pictures missing from his house and knows that he has to start searching for his family. His conviction is, of course, almost immediately confirmed with shots of Lori and Carl living with Rick’s ex-partner, Shane (Jon Bernthal), and a caravan of other survivors on the outskirts of town. Darabont doesn’t use this transition as a means of dramatic irony, but rather as confirmation that Rick is right—most of the time, that is. By the end of the first episode, he’s thrown off his figurative and literal horse and shown that he can’t keep living in this ugly new world without compromising his morals a little. He can’t save everybody and has to draw the line somewhere: In “Guts,” the second episode, he’s already warning people that he’s only interested in finding his wife and son and that nothing else matters. His next actions prove that that’s not quite true, but they also show that he’s already displayed a willingness to transform from John Wayne to the Man with No Name in a flash.
Still, the fact that Rick wants to do everything himself speaks to his overbearing nature. As a character study, The Walking Dead is about Rick’s need to reassert control over his surroundings and take charge of whatever situation he becomes involved in. No matter how many times he tries to talk about his feelings in the comics, or allow other characters to take the lead in the TV show, he’ll always essentially be a macho guy, making the series in large part about sexual tension, race relations, and other power struggles.
Darabont knows this and handily avoids as many potential missteps as he can. The first black people Rick sees in the pilot are Morgan and Duane (Jericho‘s Lennie James and Adrian Kali Turner), a father and son haunted by Duane’s infected mother. This brief encounter not only introduces us to the idea that Rick is going to treat other survivors as foils for his various insecurities, but also the fact that that’s exactly what everyone else in The Walking Dead is doing with the zombies. Lines are arbitrarily drawn in the sand and people either shun each other or band together based on snap judgments.
People like Rick can’t always do the right thing, no matter how much they may want to (spoilers herein): In “Guts,” a black man tries to save a white bigot but fails not because of anything he did intentionally, but because fate conspires against him. That is the heart of what makes The Walking Dead interesting. It’s a moment-by-moment vision of the post-human future where survivors live and die because only sometimes fortune favors planning and good behavior. That central implicit tenet is almost enough to make one forget that Rick can never die in the series, still a major anti-climactic cornerstone of the show. But given time, even that may seem less irritating than it does now.