I don’t agree with those who say we are living through a new Golden Age of TV. There’s still way too much garbage on and too much of the stuff that’s supposedly good is precious nonsense that’s watched by far less people than the garbage. The vast majority of those hot and trendy cable shows that everybody online goes on and on about? They get fewer viewers than old episodes of “Law & Order” that you’ve watched so many times you can recite the dialog from memory.
But, as with any other age, there is some great TV out there and some of it is a lot weirder than what we ever saw in the past. If you’d told me just ten years ago that not only would the highest rated show on television would be a ripoff of George A. Romero but that, the same time, we’d have a TV adaptation of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, I’d have thought you were crazy. It’s really happened, though, and to celebrate this bizarre miracle, this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will pit “The Walking Dead: Season One” vs. “Ash vs. Evil Dead: Season One” to see if popular culture is big enough for two shows about fighting the relentless threat of the undead.
Spoiler alert: Yes, there is.
A televised version of a comic book by Robert Kirkman, “The Walking Dead” debuted in 2010 with six episodes and relatively little fanfare. Fans of the comic and the zombie genre were excited about it, but no one anticipated it would become the biggest hit of its time. If anyone had, it wouldn’t have had just six episodes for its first season and left us all waiting a year for more. It focuses on deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who wakes from a coma and is thrust into the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse where the government has fallen and flesh-hungry ghouls wander the earth. Getting some initial assistance from Morgan (Lennie James), a man who lost his wife to the undead plague and is trying to hold onto his son, Rick eventually reunites with his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Calles), and son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), who are part of a band of survivors held together by Rick’s old partner, Shane (Jon Bernthal).
With a first season dominated by a lot of time camping in the woods and trips into, back out of, back into, back out of and then again back into Atlanta, “The Walking Dead” lit a fire in viewer’s hearts by taking the trappings of zombie movies and using them as the backdrop of a survivalist drama about human virtue and vice. If you’re a fan of the show today and somehow haven’t seen the first season, you will be shocked at how little zombie action there was. There’s a bunch in episodes two and four and the rest of the show might as well be called “The Walking Dead?” because you’ll be wondering where the zombies are.
Nobody really minded the lack of the undead because the show blew everyone away with astounding performances and compelling storytelling. From Morgan’s struggles in the first episode to find the strength to put his zombified wife out of her misery to the surprising assertiveness of a young kid named Glenn (Steven Yeun) to seeing everyone else deal with the aggressive jackassery of the Dixon brothers (Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker), it was like the best written zombie movie anyone had ever imagined except it kept going and kept getting better as it went along.
What made the first season truly unforgettable, however, was the love/survival triangle involving Rick, Lori and Shane. Thinking Rick dead, Shane had stepped in and become a surrogate father to his son and surrogate lover to his wife only to see those arrangements destroyed by Rick’s return. It’s a testament to the series’ writing that even though Rick is by far the dominant character and the hero of the story, it is the tragedy of Shane that is allowed to shine so brightly. Shane is a hero. He saved Lori and Carl and all these other people and only wants to keep them safe. Then Rick shows up and not only ruins his dreams of having a new family but starts making a bunch of decisions for the group that Shane questions for perfectly legitimate reasons. It’s like Rick is doing to Shane what the zombies did to the world, taking away everything he loves and constantly exposing him to danger. Seeing such a good man struggle with the entirely understandable negative emotions caused by that is electrifying. Wonderfully brought to life by Jon Bernthal, Shane isn’t a villain you love to hate. He’s a villain you love and desperately hope he stops being a villain. And I’m sure if the people who make “The Walking Dead” had known the show was going to be as popular and long-lasting as it has become, they would have wanted to keep Shane around for a lot longer than they did.
Which is another thing that caught the public’s attention and got them wrapped up in the ups and downs of Rick and company. Before “Game of Thrones” and even more so than “The Sopranos,” “The Walking Dead” set a new standard in killing off significant characters both brutally and suddenly. I’m not exactly sure why we love it so much or what it reflects in our society today, but the idea that characters we love watching might die at almost any moment gave the show a can’t miss quality like little else in this era of endless viewing choices.
Starting in 2015, one of those other choices became “Ash vs. Evil Dead.” If you haven’t seen the original “Evil Dead” films, stop what you are doing and go watch them. I can’t guarantee you’ll love them because they are a very specific kind of experience but it is the best horror trilogy ever made and one of the best movie trilogies of any kind. Sam Raimi takes fear to its absurd extreme and then finishes it off with a satire of fantasy-quest movies long before fantasy-quest movies were really a big thing. There’s nothing quite like those three films.
Or there wasn’t before “Ash vs. Evil Dead.” Set 30 years after the events of “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” (1987), it finds the one-handed hero of the film still working as a stockboy and still cocky and clueless as ever. Ashley J. Williams (Bruce Campbell) is staring middle age in the face with a truss, dentures and an Airstream trailer for a home, when he gets high trying to score with a chick and reads from the Necronomicon ex Mortis, the Book of the Dead. That unleashes the forces unholy evil back into the world and Ash is forced to once again play the role of humanity’s defender. Teaming up with fellow big box store employees Pablo and Kelly (Ray Santiago and Dana DeLorenzo) and pursued by a state police officer (Jill Marie Jones) and a mysterious immortal (Lucy Lawless) with strange ties to the Necronomicon, Ash has to use his trusty boomstick and chainsaw hand to defeat the attack of Deadites and find a way to undo the mess he caused.
I love “Ash vs. Evil Dead” and if you loved the “Evil Dead” trilogy, not the crappy sequel, you will too. It’s a blend of horror, comedy and action that is not like anything else on TV. It doesn’t always exactly hit the mark and occasionally drifts into self-parody but when it works, you can’t look away from it. The show is gory, funny, sometimes actually scary and matches Bruce Campbell’s iconic portrayal of Ash with two very strong new characters. Pablo is more of a traditional sidekick, a Sancho Panza to Ash’s Don Quixote, but Ray Santiago does a great job making him for than just a foil for Campbell’s foolishness. Pablo plays the part of both Ash’s conscience and his link to something approaching normality. Kelly is bit more like Kato from the old TV show “The Green Hornet” in that she becomes almost as big an anti-Deadite badass as Ash himself. For a show that’s just trying to be fun, there’s a lot of care taken to make Pablo and Kelly’s transformation feel as organic and real as possible.
Comparing these two seasons, it’s kind of curious how both take these Latino-themed digressions that feel geographically inappropriate and both end with their heroes driving away from disaster but what’s most striking is that “The Walking Dead” is more consistent but a good bit simpler than the supposedly more frivolous “Ash vs. Evil Dead.” The ten half-hour episodes of the latter are both narratively and thematically more complex than the former. “Ash vs. Evil Dead” is trying to be funny, scary, gross, cute, surprising, exciting and dramatic, all sometimes at the same time and at a much faster pace than the longer episodes of “The Walking Dead.” The first episode of “Ash vs. Evil Dead” is more striking and energetic than the first episode of “The Walking Dead” but the following episodes don’t always keep all those balls in the air at the same time. “The Walking Dead” is more laid back and laconic but smoothly builds its storylines to an explosive non-conclusion that set the stage for it to become a massive hit.
While I’d like to fancy myself a primitive screwhead, I have to give this Throwdown to the first season of “The Walking Dead.” However, the second season of “Ash vs. Evil Dead” is already underway and is looking a lot better than the second season of “The Walking Dead,” which left viewers everywhere wondering “When the hell are they going to get off that damn farm?” We’ll have to see if season 7 of “The Walking Dead” can make up for one of the most frustrating and aggravating cliffhangers in TV history.
The Walking Dead: Season One
Starring Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Chandler Riggs, Steven Yeun, Melissa McBride, Norman Reedus, Laurie Holden, Lennie James, Irone Singleton, Jeffrey DeMunn, Michael Rooker, Madison Lintz, Jeryl Prescott, Juan Gabriel Pareja and Andrew Rothenberg.
Ash vs. Evil Dead: Season One
Starring Bruce Campbell, Ray Santiago, Dana DeLorenzo, Lucy Lawless, Jill Marie Jones, Phil Peleton, Hemky Madera, Peter Feeney, Mimi Rogers, Indiana Evans, Ido Drent and Bridget Hoffman.