There’s just something about ragtag teams of extended families trying to get by after an apocalypse. It feels like a particularly American fantasy — that when the chips are down, we’ll all put aside our petty differences, realize what’s truly important and come together to kick some ass, whether it be Nazi or Commie or even alien or zombie. The point is that our melting pot really doesn’t get cooking until the heat is applied and the burner’s on high.
These two series are flagship action pieces for their respective networks — The Walking Dead came first on AMC, followed within a year by Falling Skies on TNT. The former has its second season finale this Sunday and the latter comes back this summer for its sophomore year. Both are in their prime when it comes to the life of any TV series — enough of a run to fix some early mistakes but not so much as to render the week-to-week predictable.
The United States of America in both of them is a vast wasteland, but not the kind that comes from crappy TV. These two worlds are places where there are only a few survivors left after a global extinction event. Neither series cares too much about how we got in these extreme circumstances, each episode stays focused on what we do after the hammer comes down.
The Walking Dead is about existential survival. There’s nobody to get revenge on, just pitiable but lethal former humans to avoid at all costs. Falling Skies, on the other hand, is about fighting back against a military occupation by being willing to give up your own life to give humanity another shot.
It should come as no surprise that both of these series have some pretty loyal fans — there’s even a decent amount of overlap between them — but, as you know, we don’t do ties here. We pick winners. Even in worlds full of losers.
The Walking Dead (AMC)
Imagine waking up one day from a coma and realizing the world has been taken over by flesh-eating zombies. That’s what happens to Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). If that sounds a little like the set-up to 28 Days Later, yep, that’s right. Hey, this is a zombie show. It’s about execution, not originality. For real.
Premiering in October 2010, The Walking Dead is based on a comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, developed for television by Frank Darabont who, after season one, had a falling out with the powers-that-be and left the show.
Without getting into all the details here, it’s been nominated for awards and had sensational ratings for a cable series, towering above the network’s two critics’ darlings, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, in viewership. It’s finishing up its second season even as you read this and has been renewed for a third.
These zombies that have taken over the world get the nickname of “Walkers.” They just shuffle along at their own speed. They’re not fast like they are in 28 Days Later or I Am Legend; they’re just persistent and very, very common. You can cut the legs off one and he’ll just keep coming at you, dragging what’s left of his body by his hands. The only way you can stop them (remember, they’re already the walking dead) is to put a bullet, knife, hatchet or some other instrument of destruction through their skull. Like our friend in the picture to the left, there’s not much they like more in life than a good, bloody human body party to gnash on. Oh, and if they bite you? Well, you turn into one of them. Game over.
Back to Sheriff’s Deputy Grimes. He eventually finds his wife Lori, son Carl, best friend Shane and some other hangers-on with names like Glenn and T-Dog and takes over the leadership role of the small group. This all takes place in the Atlanta area. They soon find out the city has been overtaken by the zombies and leave for the country, where they spend some time at a nice farm raising vegetables and hunting zombies and fighting about who among them is smart or courageous enough to keep them all alive. Particularly Rick, the guy who gets to wear the hat, and his on-again, off-again best friend Shane, who gets to shave his head.
It’s not my intent to ridicule the concept here but to acknowledge that its beauty is in its simplicity. The world is set. Now for the execution.
Think of The Walking Dead as the thinking person’s zombie thriller. There are moral dilemmas, love triangles, leadership struggles, kids growing up too fast, doomsday sex and all kinds of other issues that serve to emphasize the humanity of the characters, rather than the inhumanity of those mindless zombie hoards.
It’s the kind of story-telling you can really sink your teeth into.
Falling Skies (TNT)
In June 2011, Falling Skies — a series about the aftermath of a near-extermination of humanity by some hostile ETs — debuted on TNT. It revolves around Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) who was a history professor before the disaster and now, in its aftermath, is part of the Boston-based militia group known as the 2nd Massachusetts. His wife died in the attacks; now it’s just Tom and his three boys. More on them in a minute.
The pedigree of the series is good, with Steven Spielberg as an executive producer and Robert Rodat the writer/creator. These guys know a good war story when they see one, having collaborated on Saving Private Ryan.
While The Walking Dead seems (so far) to be about only one kind of zombie threat, Falling Skies has a collection of extra-terrestrial hostiles. There are the biological kind, instectoid, multi-legged Skitters like the creepy-crawler over on the left; the mechanical kind, the robotic, heavily armed, bipeds called Mechs (Techs-Mechs, anyone?); and some other gray-skinned humanoid types we don’t know too much about yet.
What we know is that, to borrow from the great sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, the bad guys “have a plan.” It apparently involves booby-trapping any place that humans could get life-saving supplies, scavenging the countryside for the parts to build giant towering structures in major cities (landing platforms?), and kidnapping young humans and putting them into bio-mechanical harnesses that dig into their spine and render them, well, like zombies, except for the flesh-eating part.
So, of course, Tom’s middle son, Ben, gets captured and harnessed and Tom’s oldest, playing the series’ teen heartthrob role of Hal, becomes a freedom fighter like his Dad and, before the first season is out, they’ve reunited what’s left of their ravaged family. The ragtag group they belong to is pretty big, involving hundreds of non-combatant civilians and the soldiers who escort them out of harm’s way, led by a Captain Weaver (Will Patton), who wears a pony-tail to show that in this newfangled Army, it’s how you handle yourself and your weapon that matters, not your hairstyle. There’s also a pediatrician named Dr. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood — her real name sounds pretty zombie-like, dontcha think?) who has had to step up her game to include surgery and exobiology. And if you’re wondering if the widowed Tom and the caring Dr. Anne might just hook up for some doomsday sex of their own, well, I’m not telling.
I will say that TNT has enough hope for such plot complications that they picked it up for a second season of episodes that will air in the summer of 2012 and will provide relief for those who don’t see the Summer Olympics as enough apocalypse.
Let’s talk about stakes. Basically, they’re death in both shows. But there’s a netherworld in both between the dead and the living, too. Becoming a brainless killing-machine zombie sucks as purgatory, but so does getting harnessed by alien spiders and forced to treat the entire world like a garage sale.
All I’m going to say here in defense of The Walking Dead is that if you look at that picture at the beginning of this post that features the five original cast members, two of them are dead, and there’s a third KIA an episode back that was also a shocker. I think Andrew Lincoln’s job is secure as the Man-in-the-Hat, but beyond that, I’d have to say it’s an open question. In Falling Skies, people do die but they tend to be supporting characters and not the main cast.
Falling Skies serves up a decent amount of firepower in every episode. The Walking Dead is inconsistent in this regard, like every other production meeting comes with an admonishment from the studio that if they go over budget this week, heads are going to roll. The Falling Skies ragtaggers are on the move a lot more, or more active, while The Walking Dead group has taken an unexpectedly long slow summer on the farm. Maybe that has to do with the languid pace of Southern living, even in an apocalypse, I don’t know.
On one very basic level, the two series are about how much you as a viewer buy into the journeys of Deputy Grimes (Lincoln) versus Boston history professor Mason (Wyle). I didn’t know Lincoln’s work as an actor before this series. He’s got a lot to do between his family responsibilities and his group dynamic and, in many of the episodes, the writers made him a little too conflicted to the point where his character suffered and the ultimate badass Shane came out looking like the only sane man who realized all the rules had changed. Now, Noah Wyle we all know, going back to his days as the rube doctor on E/R who grows into being the guy in charge. Always did like him in that series and that coolness he carries in his performance really works for him in Falling Skies. Why should a guy get too hysterical when the world has gone to shit and half his family is dead? Better to keep it on the down-low and carry an extra backpack full of ammo. He’s terrific in this series, and really has dialed into how to play this character who is taking it one day at a time in a brand new world.
There are many fans who will argue this point, but I generally think the characters in both series are very good and developing decently over time. The Walking Dead gets the very slight edge — the Falling Skies ensemble seems to remind me more often that they’re just acting in a TV series, no matter how much talent and money has been thrown at it. But it’s close.
Both shows seem to be playing around with rules they set up, either by design or necessity. It’s clear now that what turns you into a zombie in later episodes of The Walking Dead time has evolved from what it was at the series start. By the same token, Falling Skies is setting us up to realize that these Skitters may be as pathetic as our own captured human kids who seem to be mutating. Point here to Falling Skies, because there are so many unknowable alien agendas yet to be revealed, while The Walking Dead is unlikely to come up with the concept of intelligent calculating zombies out of the shuffling lot they have now (although there are signs of some interesting zombie groupthink happening).
Another key difference here is what the characters actually do about their predicaments. The Falling Skies team falls back on classic military stuff, gathering intel on the enemy, plotting strategy and so on. But The Walking Dead people are just trying to get out of the way, to find a place to chill where rotten flesh doesn’t haul its sorry ass after you because its way hungry. They don’t seem to have much of a plan. Generally, I like characters to have plans, even if they’re somewhat formulaic.
Both series have explored another similar story element — the idea that even though we have to fight zombies or extraterrestrials, there is no getting away from the reality that there are going to be some asshole humans out there willing to take advantage of even this horrific situation. This was a must-do for both, since there are really no stakes in turning a series into a first-person shooter game where the prey can be killed on sight with no moral consequence.
The Walking Dead falls in the horror genre while Falling Skies lands strongly in science fiction. It’s mostly in the “who do they fight?” structure of it all and what that dictates, but there’s no question it forces certain choices on each series creative team. This means you’ll find more “creature effects” in The Walking Dead, as the zombies are makeup driven, and more CGI in Falling Skies in order to sell the alien technology.
Both shows get one thing absolutely right. The apocalypse will not be awesome. Life is hard, very hard, and there’s no getting around it. You want an image of what happens when you get this wrong? Think of Terra Nova. Those characters should have been scrapping for their lives to avoid being eaten by dinosaurs, but instead they all had condos with running water, hot showers and electricity. If Terra Nova had adopted the urgency of the two series we’re talking about here, it would still be around. But I digress…
The Decision Follows This Image
There’s a freshness to The Walking Dead and a familiarity to Falling Skies. Zombies haven’t been over-exposed on mainstream TV like aliens have. Neither show can escape this reality, and it can cut both ways.
I’m conflicted. The second season of The Walking Dead wasn’t quite as propulsive as it could have been and the first season of Falling Skies surprised expectations and shows promise. But I can’t go out sounding like Mitt Romney.
We need a winner. If you deconstruct these shows the way I just did, you end up with a yellow legal pad full of pluses and minuses for both and no clear path to a judgment. The only way to solve this one is to close your eyes and ask yourself which one you’re most anxious to see return and which one feels the most emotionally powerful.
With my eyes closed, I can feel that one of them is a very good TV show worth watching and the other is a genre-bender with heart and dread. Something powerful.
When I open my eyes, I see the winner. For me, it’s The Walking Dead.