Don’t lose your PC badge in the Apocalypse

April 18, 2013

It was an interesting coincidence that The Simpsons aired their “survivalist” episode “Homer Goes to Prep School” the same night The Walking Dead was wrapping up its third season. I’m not sure that actual preppers watch The Walking Dead (only in the sense that fictions feed many of their beliefs), but I think the show serves as a good guide to that mindset, since both preppers and TV writers seem to share the same Incredibles complex, namely that there are but a few worthy people on this planet and the rest of us are sheep.

(Don’t worry too much about your standing. You are mostly likely one of the sheep. And I am using the term “preppers” to refer to the very stereotypical notion of survivalists driven by right-wing conspiracy theories.)

Take Lost. There were more survivors and more people on that Island than the opening credits would suggest. Where else did they get all those people to run in front of bullets? Random people would pop up whenever the writers needed to display the Island’s hostility to humanity without losing a main player or when someone needed to stand behind Jack’s shoulder and nod during emotional “group” face-offs.

These people experience the same suffering, the same losses, and the same struggles as our main characters, but for some reason, they are not exceptional. They are functional, what gamers would call NPCs (non-player characters).

Back to The Walking Dead. Woodbury was a town full of NPCs. They support their sociopathic leader (the Governor) without question, right up until they don’t. The Governor has this vast network of spies, soldiers, and commandos, watching the prison, capturing walkers, etc. – but only about three men get names, lines of dialogue, and close ups. The rest are sheep, even though they stop bullets as good as anyone.

So if you want to survive a zombie apocalypse, you need to keep a tight grip on your PC badge, which is not as easy as it sounds. Andrea, she was a PC, and look what happened to her. She had many “emotional moments” that would seem to grant her a permanent “PC” tattoo – but The Walking Dead is essentially an unending sequence of emotional moments, one after the other, so much that they have lost their impact. Many characters have noted, “Everyone’s lost someone.” That’s the universe they live in – but the show’s writers seem to be unable to move on from that…

While there is no guarantee of permanent PC status, one way to guarantee loss of status is to become the moral foil to either the protagonist or the antagonist. Andrea was both. That’s a definite fail on her saving throw.

As I understand it, fans complained about her obtuse inability to see the Governor’s true nature. But characters are only as smart as the writing allows. And the writers twisted and turned and contorted to keep her as dumb as a post. There was plenty of information floating around that should have swayed her opinion of the Governor – e.g., he had Glenn tortured, he sexually assaulted Maggie, he gunned down a group of soldiers and took their weapons.

Any one of these tidbits, had they been communicated to her, would have swayed her to one side and altered her character arc. But we never see this information passed to her. No one tells her. Why? Because doing so would spoil her function. She needs to get us from Point A to Point B. Andrea didn’t kill the Governor because the script told her not to. She lost her PC badge.

Like The Walking Dead writers, preppers see NPCs everywhere. Except we are their canvas – and they are painting their own narrative on reality. They look at me and see a radiation canary. I will be the sheep gunned down by jackbooted government soldiers, the one who dies from the formaldehyde in a flu shot, the pile of dust after a fifth-column drone attack on American soil. No matter how hard I believe I have a PC badge, they will never regard me as anything but zombie food.

So both preppers and TV writers both are willing to sacrifice NPCs to realize their narratives. I guess the big difference is that TV writers are trying to make fiction look more like reality. For preppers, it is just the opposite. They might, for example, edit a popular animated show so that it appears to foretell actual events.

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October 14, 2012

Creating a sense of ambivalence within a show is generally a quality of a good show, with good writing, good acting, etc.

But what about meta-ambivalence? In “The Walking Dead,” I feel a growing sense of contempt for Rick’s wife and son, Lori and Carl. She is constantly making terrible decisions and reacting poorly to every new challenge, and Carl is a whiny little idiot. Seriously, if they weren’t Rick’s family, they would have already been killed several times over.

But I don’t want them to die solely because that would necessitate several episodes of Rick pining for his lost family while the current zombie-fighting frat struggles (again) with its identity. And that would get pretty dull…

So the only course of action I see is to kill every living person in the show and start over with a fresh, new group of humans. What’s the chance of that happening in Season 3?

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Zombie Supreme Court

October 7, 2012

Over the years, we as a culture have expounded much on the impending Zombie Apocalypse.

But one consequence I fear we have not fully appreciated is the effect on the Federal government, specifically our duty to the Supreme Court and Constitutional law. As noted by Justice Scalia, justices and lawmakers should apply the words in the Constitution “as they were understood by the people who wrote and adopted them.” Based on this approach, coined as a “textualist,” if something were illegal or generally unaccepted at the time the Constitution was written, then it should be the same today.

Therefore, anyone who lived in the 1780s is the best judge of how we should be living now. So, when the dead start rising from the graves, we must find those fetid, shambling corpses from that rarefied time to populate our governmental institutions. And not just Zombie James Madison or Zombie Ben Franklin, but even the commoner Zombie John Goodfellow would be better qualified than anyone today, including Justice Scalia, to adjudicate on the Constitution. (But not Zombie Penny Goodwife, who being a woman as well as undead, is unqualified to hold office, vote, or brush her own hair, as that enlightened time informs us.)

It would be a challenge to seat this new Zombie Supreme Court since they would have trouble concentrating on the task at hand, given their unrelenting appetite for brains. They could feast on the brains of the current justices, if only to satisfy their cravings long enough to hear oral arguments. Given the size of Scalia’s head, you’d think there would be ample meat to last for a full session. But given the quality of thought produced by that head, I fear it might be full of helium, or another light gas, and his pumpkin-perfect head would deflate to the size of a plum after the first puncture.

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Welcome to the New Apocalypse – Same as the Old Apocalypse

November 13, 2010

Would anyone be surprised to wake up in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? Or are our minds conditioned to expect any deep sleep, any extended hospital stay, carries at least a 50/50 chance that the undead will be walking before your discharge? It struck me, when watching The Walking Dead, how no one asked how or why the Earth became overrun with zombies. There would have been more exposition if a tsunami or an earthquake or global warming had destroyed the world.

Of course that’s a recognition of today’s audience – we no longer need an explanation for zombies – but have we reached the point where we don’t expect our characters to question the existence of the walking dead either? If so, then the creator of Zombie Nice spent way too much time searching for the right cause for zombification…

Et tu, zombie?

August 21, 2010

In light of the recent zombie-related story posted a week back, I thought it might be a good time to look at the concept of the zombie in popular culture. Given the zombie-like devotion to vampires right now, I figure another classic monster category is due for an upswing.

Like so many other classic “monsters,” the “zombie” category in books, movies, etc., has been slowly expanding its definition, perhaps more than any other and especially in the last ten years. What used to be the exclusive territory of the mindless, flesh-eating walking dead has broadened to include a variety of afflictions.

For example, the recent remake of The Crazies generally falls into the zombie category, but the threatening hordes are alive and they don’t eat human flesh. In fact, it seems the “zombification” agent served merely to amplify people’s innermost violent emotions so that the afflicted would pursue revenge fantasies they harbored in life (where it is revealed that high-school principals dream of stabbing their students with a pitchfork).

[Fair Warning: this post contains some adult language and spoilers for several movies, including The Crazies, Shutter Island, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If this warning scares you, read no further.]

I don’t have a problem with this expansion of the category – but I do think we need to start finding new endings for zombie/apocalypse/pandemic stories. Today’s Hollywood writers have only a handful of ending options in their bandoliers, and an astute viewer can see them coming before the movie is half over.

One, end of the world (implied or real) as the threat continues to spread after a failed attempt to contain it. The containment is invariably draconian, usually with a nuclear explosion. The Crazies (and the sad AVP:R) falls into this category. I think The Return of the Living Dead pioneered this type of ending, at least in modern horror cinema, but even for that classic, I don’t consider it a very satisfying final.

Two, some ultimate “fuck you” from an indifferent universe – e.g., the last survivor from a night of zombie raids and carnage gets shot through a window by a bunch of rednecks. (If you don’t know the origin of that ending, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.) The Dawn of the Dead remake used this motif as the survivors reached the “safe island.”

Three, the protagonist(s) emerges on the other side of the immediate conflict to face either a hopeful or hopeless solution. This is really a variation on the first option, done with subtlety in The Birds and the original Dawn of the Dead, but lately it has become much more about cocked guns and swinging dicks with Ghosts of Mars, Doomsday, and (dare I say) Maximum Overdrive.

Fourth, everything gets better. Reserved only for “serious” fare such as Outbreak. “We found the monkey!”

Each one of these endings, in its own way, is overused and predictable. Not that I claim any special abilities, secret knowledge, or superiority in the area of crafting finales. Endings are tough. And the wrong ending can seriously tarnish an otherwise exemplary work (I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica), so there’s lots of pressure to get it right.

For example, I liked Shutter Island (the movie) all the way to the end. It was compelling up to the point that we are told all events have been a ridiculous and overly complicated stage play done for the benefit of our wacky protagonist. It threw cold water on the whole drama, where we found we were invested in nothing. (If you want to see this type of ending done right, see Inception. It’s odd to think of Christopher Nolan outdoing Scorcese, but there it is.)

Compare the vague dissatisfaction of Shutter Island to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This one is easily the weakest movie in the series, thanks to a screeching Willie and its pervasive (and borderline racist) notions of paternal colonialism, but aside from Raiders, it has the best ending by a mile. For a movie in the tradition of the serial cliffhangers, does it get any better than the hero stranded on an old footbridge, suspended above a pit of crocodiles, with goons closing in on both sides? That ending is the only reason left to watch this movie more than five times, mainly because the awesome ending makes you forget how lame the rest of the movie is.

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Zombies – What Is Hip?

August 7, 2010

I have loaded up the new story “Dreams of Zombies,” which is about the desperate chase for the next big idea. The narrator is this poor schmo who somehow thinks he can make a living writing. Laughable, I know. You can imagine him writing teen vampire stories – but at least here he is trying to get ahead of the next trend with a story about zombies, which in itself might not be a bad story. Entertaining but disposable – so there’s no reason to think it couldn’t sell a million copies or turn into a multimillion-dollar film. Heck, people seem to like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I couldn’t get past the dull prose and endless exposition. I’ll settle for the movie.

The main character equates good ideas to winning the lottery, and the desperation in his life leads to changing plans and shifting loyalties, with an old writers’ workshop I attended over 10 years ago used as inspiration.

Character devolution

March 1, 2009

I have a tendency, some might call it a sickness, to make lists in my head. It brings order to the chaos – or at least the illusion of order to a series of inchoate thoughts.

One (short) mental list I worked up as of late was of the best whiners in cinema history. Not whiners like Luke Skywalker, who was going through a standard space farmboy phase, but full-on crybabies, where whining isn’t a phase or a state of being but a state of becoming. Where characters with the veneer of cool, confidence, professionalism, or menace disintegrate, quickly, often without warning, into blubbering near-embryos.

James Karen in The Return of the Living Dead sets the standard pretty high. His complete decomposition as people start returning from the dead is awe-inspiring. His performance is all the more laudable because he drives the plot forward at several key points, mostly in the first half of the movie, and in between his girlish cries of “Oh God!” and “Oh Jesus!”

Karen was a nice prototype for Bill Paxton in Aliens, who is the ultimate archetype for cinematic whiners. He strikes the right balance between obnoxious fatalism and self-serving contrariety. And he is eternally quotable. “Maybe you haven’t been paying attention to current events, but we just got our asses kicked, pal!”

Both these guys redeem themselves in the end. Karen never allows himself to become a flesh-eating zombie. You have to admit, it is a pretty ballsy move to put yourself in an incinerator. And Bill Paxton snaps back into badass mode in his final confrontation with the bugs. James Cameron likes him too much to let him be anything else…

But the third on the list is a special case. Stuntman Mike, played to perfection by Kurt Russell in Death Proof, is beyond redemption, which makes his devolution that much more satisfying. He crumples at the first sign of resistance, when his intended victims break from his script, and he carries that whiny riff all the way to his demise. So while Karen and Paxton show us there is some sliver of redemptive nobility in their whiners, Russell shows the eternal crybaby lurking one bullet wound below the surface of a Hollywood serial killer.

The great thing about these characters – writing them, playing them – is you are scraping at the bottom of a character. The character’s persona drops, real fast, and it feels both genuine and over-the-top at the same time. It is hard to get both those elements at the same time, but when it works, it is golden.

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