It might seem odd, even for an ecumenical pop culture-obsessed blogger like myself, to do a joint review of two completely disparate shows.
But with both of these wildly different shows reaching the third episodes of their current seasons (for the The Walking Dead, it’s third and for The New Normal, it’s first) in the same week here in Australia, it made sense (at least at three this morning when the idea struck me) to proffer my humble opinion on how both shows are faring.
The Walking Dead continues to go from strength to strength with the latest episode to air here, “Walk With Me”, where we finally meet the much talked-about Governor and his civilised survivors’ enclave, Woodbury, channeling the macabre, the bizarre and the just plain creepy to devastatingly good effect.
Channeling The Stepford Wives, Leave it to Beaver, and The Truman Show in one big Hallmark-sized package, the Governor’s attempt to bring back civilisation from the brink of oblivion, the small idyllic town of Woodbury, population 73 (with one more on the way) looks, on face value, like the answer to everyone’s prayers.
But if ever there was a place to validate the idea that behind every enduring cliche – on this case “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is” – there is a kernel of truth, it’s this walled off slice of peaceful urbanity which exists only under the most draconian and brutal of regimes.
Not that the average member of the township is allowed to see this, of course.
Even after the Governor and his posse shoot down a military helicopter killing two (who quickly turn and are summarily dispatched with little compassion) and severely injuring one, and then summarily kill the remaining members of the platoon who are camped nearby in one of the chillingly efficient (and eerily silent) acts of mass murder I have seen in any TV show for some time, all the acquiescent members of the community see is a beneficent ruler looking after his people.
In one very bloody, almost pathologically-cold act, he does away with a potential rival source of power to his own – I pondered why he killed so many able-bodied men when there is a desperate for more manpower before realising that no matter how useful they might be, they could conceivably use their military expertise to threaten his hold on power – and acquires more trucks, guns and military hardware.
In effect, just what an aspiring dictator needs to cement his hold on power and acquire some more.
One person who doesn’t quite buy the benign protector schtick is Michonne (Danai Gurira), who feels vulnerable, even in a supposedly safe place, without her weapons close at hand and sees the Governor as little more than a power-hungry tin pot control freak of extremely doubtful motives.
Her perceptions of the man, who is shown at one point gazing painfully at a pre-apocalypse photo of his family before walking into a private room adorned by severed heads (including that of the downed pilot who was presumably summarily executed) floating in tanks like an aquarium of the damned, are, we know, spot on.
But she is unable to convince an exhausted Andrea (Laurie Holden) who desperately wants to believe you can turn back the clock to an pre-Walker idealised Norman Rockwell vision of America, of the validity of her suspicions.
Andrea, while remaining close to Michonne, quickly trades in her scepticism, and discomfort at the appearance of everyone post-apocalyptic redneck, Merle (Michael Rooker, thought lost in Atlanta in season 1) for a belief that it could all be as good as it seems.
It is a powerhouse episode that addresses, among other things, whether liberty and democracy, and yes even basic humanity, should be sacrificed to the great god of safety. Are they unaffordable luxuries in a world where even basic survival can’t be guaranteed?
Given that this show has, almost from day one put forward the idea that completely abandoning any semblance of humanity cannot be considered if the survivors aren’t to fall, in effect, to a level little above that of the soulless Walkers, I would say the answer is “no”.
But I imagine it will be a fraught season as we watch the Governor do everything in his power to make the case that while the bricks-and-mortars component of civilisation can continue in some form, its philosophical underpinnings cannot.
Meanwhile back at the prison (which wasn’t featured at all this episode, presumably meaning Rick and the others were sunning themselves in the prison yard … or not).
A sneak peek at episode four “The Killer Within” where Rick, Daryl and Glen discover their fortress may not be so unassailable after all, as it attacked from without … and possibly within.
Now The New Normal on the other hand, which started out promisingly with a stellar pilot that made good use of some obvious cliches isn’t faring so well.
At least for the 22 minutes it took for “Baby Clothes” to run its course.
Episode three of Ryan Murphy’s (Glee, American Horror Story) new sitcom’s debut season exposed, rather spectacularly, what I suspect will be its Achilles Heel as it grows as a show.
That is, it’s need to moralise, rather clumsily in this instance, at the expense of something fundamental to any sitcom – being funny.
Now I am not suggesting that a sitcom can’t be both – Frasier, Community and Parks and Recreation to name a few, amply demonstrate it is possible to be both erudite and hilarious – but you need to make sure that you stay funny while you are imparting whatever viewpoint you are seeking to dispense.
The New Normal largely forgot to do that in an episode marred by clunky dialogue, overly contrived situations and enough syrup to plunge anyone into a diabetic coma.
Any humour that did escape this void of moralising was lacklustre and feeble, relying more on hackneyed cliches than any real character-driven moments.
The intent of the episode was clear enough.
Demonstrate that the love between Bryan and David is as legitimate and real as that of any heterosexual relationship, which of course it is, and that they have every right to pursue their dream of being fathers to a son or daughter via their surrogate, and unofficial member of the family Goldie (Georgia King), regardless of the bigotry of others including a rather oafish man who verbally dresses them down for kissing in from of his wife and daughter.
It was an ugly bigoted tirade that demanded a thoughtful, well thought out response.
Unfortunately what we got was moralising so crudely messaged and brutishly delivered that even I, as a gay man who heartily endorses every last message this show endorses, found myself rolling my eyes on more than one occasion.
I do understand the temptation to moralise.
After all it is a show that aspires to be agenda-setting in its dissection of a cutting edge social issue that goes to the heart of who we are as a society and what we value.
I get it. A lot is at stake.
But The New Normal does itself a disservice by repeatedly clubbing viewers over the head with a messily-constructed message delivered by characters reduced to little more than cartoon-ish caricatures.
At its heart, The New Normal is about two people who simply want to be a family, a universal longing that just about anyone can relate to.
All it needs to do to get its message across is to simply portray that, and let the normalcy of their situation speak for itself.
It did manage that partially in this episode, neatly capturing the worries and concerns of any new parent about whether their baby will be healthy, when they should tell the world they’re expecting, and when they should start taking concrete steps, such as the buying of the titular baby clothes, towards their hoped-for new life.
The ability of the show to execute that part of the journey to parenthood with sensitivity and understanding, and Ryan Murphy’s track record as an intelligent writer and producer give me confidence that this episode is just a misstep, and that The New Normal can fulfill its early promise to be the genre and social defining sitcom it clearly aspires to be.
And here’s a quick peek at what I hope will be a step towards that goal – episode four “Obama Mama” …
And a wonderful article from Books and Review with another preview clip from episode 4 that showcases an all-too-infrequent moment of normalcy for our band of plucky prison-based survivors and an interview with Michael Rooker (Merle) discussing his return to the show.