The Fall 2010 season of television has been a complete and utter disappointment. Many of my favorite returning shows are mere shadows of their former glory, and a majority of the new shows that debuted are either tired and lazy takes on conventional television tropes (Hawaii 5-0), painfully written sitcoms (Shit My Dad Says), desperate attempts at recapturing the event television format that Lost so nearly perfected (The Event), or halfway decent shows that just can't seem to capture the audience's attention (Terriers). The Walking Dead is the major exception here. Easily the most hyped show of the fall season, it has not only surpassed that hype, but completely twisted all expectations and created one of the most compelling pieces of zombie fiction in the visual entertainment medium.
Now, while there is a ton of things that The Walking Dead does incredibly well, this post will focus what I believe to be the best and most unique aspect of the show: the human element.
The thing that makes The Walking Dead so special is that the show doesn't treat the zombies as the focal point of conflict, instead they play a more circumstantial role. They're essentially in the background providing an ever-present source of tension for the main characters. The characters are still the focus. Most writers would use an apocalyptic scenario such as that of The Walking Dead as an excuse to have all of the primary characters drop whatever issues they were having to focus on surviving, but not this show. As the series goes on it becomes more and more clear that not only have the characters held onto their comparatively petty mortal conflicts, but the tensions between them all has actually increased as a result of the physical and emotional drain the dire circumstances has inflicted upon them. The scene in which Rick and Shane are walking around the perimeter of the camp and hear a branch break is symbolic of this. Shane lets Rick walk ahead of him as he points his shotgun directly at his back. Shane hasn't let zombies get in the way of human vs. human conflict. In fact, he sees this situation as an opportunity to effectively get away with murdering his friend.
The survivors aren't the only "humans" though. Everybody and their mom knows what a zombie is. It's an unavoidable concept. The idea has been spread so thin though, especially recently, that we've all forgotten just what a zombie really is, or rather what it once was. These things used to be one of us. Humans with lives and families. Far too often, however, these zombies become little more than cannon fodder. Nobody ever stops to think about just what it is they're shooting at. The Walking Dead, however, has gone through great lengths to re-humanize these zombies in the eyes of those struggling so desperately to survive their ruthless attacks, and even in the eyes of we the audience.
This re-humanization is done brilliantly through a few key scenes, the first of which comes to mind being the scene that bookended the pilot episode, the one featuring the now infamous female torso zombie. Rick tracks down this undead woman whom he met just shortly after leaving the hospital, points his pistol at her head, expresses sympathy for her by looking into her soulless eyes and telling her "sorry" before finally pulling the trigger and putting her out of her misery. Not only does this powerful scene foreshadow an event that will take place in the camp several episodes later and set the tone for what's to come, but to my limited knowledge, it's also the first instance of a human establishing eye contact and communicating directly with one of these former humans. That's really remarkable considering how ubiquitous zombie fiction has become.
There's many other examples too. Andrea witnessing firsthand the death and transformation of her daughter Amy. This again being one of these "first" moments. I've never seen a character stare into another's eyes as they go from dead human to living monster. The depiction of these zombies as being familiar in some ways yet unfamiliar in others is fascinating and is something I've never seen in movies or television. Another example of which being Morgan's wife examining the porch of what was once her home. The house is instinctively familiar to her, but at the same time very foreign to her in her new state of being.
These crucial scenes have gone a long way in putting a face back on these "monsters" that many of us have become so desensitized to. After all of the zombie shooting gallery movies and zombie comedies, it's easy to forget that the reality of the situation, that these things were once people like us with feelings, families, homes, jobs, etc., have been effectively thrown into this life of aimlessly wandering through their once familiar world, with very vague memories of who they once were and who they once knew, just begging to find release through death is extremely tragic. I went into the show with high expectations, but never did I expect the show would be such a compelling blend of character-driven drama and a thought-provoking examination and dissection of the entire genre. How ironic is it that a show about zombies has breathed new life into both the genre and this season of television?