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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

DVD Geek: Walking Dead Season Six

“The Walking Dead” zombies probably should be identified as “classic Romero zombies.” The drama is  compelling because it uses a fantasy horror premise to magnify human conflicts and emotions that otherwise could not be so readily highlighted. And to this invigorating drama, there is the constant suspense of a zombie attack. You never know where or when it is going to happen. Unlike realistic suspense films, zombie films are freed from the burdens of character motivation. Zombies want to eat people, because that’s what they do. Until their heads are damaged, they can be wandering around, they can be stuck under the wheel of a car, they can be hanging from a noose, but they will still do their damnedest to lunge at any living human who passes too closely. Their otherwise decomposed or damaged figures bring additional gruesome joy to viewers who are not hiding under the couch. The point is that they can appear at any time—during a scene of peaceful, contemplative conversation or during a scene of desperate action—and it never gets old or repetitive, because each situation is new. The show’s action sequences also feel fresh because they play out of and adapt to the horror premise, so that while providing plenty of human interaction and emotional insight, the episodes are often exhilarating, and even more so now that the show’s popularity has loosened up its budget.

But, as countless films, good and bad, have proven, zombie shows are not really about the zombies, they are about the humans who have survived or are trying to survive. The major narrative arcs in “Walking Dead” have always been about humans getting along with other humans, after the zombie apocalypse has diminished civilization. Do you trade and cooperate with the neighboring encampment of survivors, or do you fight and take their stuff? The best moments in “Walking Dead” have been the personal dramas, particularly when one character sees a loved one killed or worse, ‘turned,’ but the greater story lines have always been about the different modes of governing that develop in small groups of desperate survivors, and how much or how little they remain human when they meet others like themselves.

The worst parts of “The Walking Dead The Complete Sixth Season,” an Anchor Bay Blu-ray, are the first and last episodes, but that does not negate how fully worthwhile and even outstanding the season is as a whole. At the conclusion of the fifth season, the heroes had found a genuinely peaceful community walled off from the horrors that infect the land. In the sixth season, they become integrated with that community, devise a plan to protect the community from an enormous influx of zombies who have been freed from a large-scale confinement by natural causes, and then begin to interact with other enclaves of survivors in the region. It is these latter interactions that are rendered so superbly in the sixth season, to the point where it becomes tough to assess whether the heroes are heroes, or whether their plight has turned them into monsters in human form. In other words, which ones are really “The Walking Dead”? These decisions don’t just affect the heroes, either—the viewer is forced to choose whether to support or reject their actions and is thus, under the safety of the entertainment, obligated to examine their own values and priorities in order to share in the accomplishments the characters achieve. The center part of the season is outstanding in its mix of action, horror, drama, emotion and moral introspection.

Nevertheless, it is the first and last episodes of a season that define it to many, and to those many, the season will come up short. The first episode is needlessly complicated, and discards too uncaringly the cliffhanger from the season before. Either problem on its own would probably be surmountable, but the combination of the two is deadly. The episode cuts backwards and forwards in time (conveniently rendering the flashbacks in black and white), but in doing so, does not explain clearly enough what is happening. The story proceeds into several subsequent episodes, and once those have been viewed, then the beginning is easier to understand. But that is where the flaw occurs—once you watch the segment a couple of more times to understand what is going on and see around the shortcuts the writers took to maintain their awkward storytelling format, the more you see how rapidly the excellent premise at the end of the previous season was immediately and almost uncaringly discarded. In essence, that premise does carry forward in the greater themes that the season is exploring, but the immediate satisfaction of the outstanding dramatic conflict, which was so intricately developed in the previous season, evaporates in a flash, and the frustration this causes distances the viewer from the show.

The problems with the last episode are simpler. The actual cliffhanger, essentially a reiteration of the cliffhanger from the fourth season, but without the net, is outstanding, and will continue to disturb the viewer until it is finally resolved with the beginning of the next season (let us hope there is no zombie apocalypse in the interim to upset this schedule). But build up to the cliffhanger, something that either should have been stretched out, or thought out more carefully, is compacted into the episode in such a rushed manner that, once again, the program’s dramatic integrity is challenged. Basically, the heroes, who up to this point have been brilliant tacticians, start behaving with utter stupidity, just as flagrant coincidences all start working against them. It is as lazy an entrance to a cliffhanger as the first episode was a lazy exit to one, and it can only be hoped that the pattern will not be repeated the next time around.

Originally broadcast in 2015 and 2016, sixteen episodes are spread across four discs, running a total of 754 minutes. There is a ‘Play All’ option. The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio around 1.78:1. Generally, the special effects are seamless, although once in a while, an explosion or background effect will look off kilter. The 7.1-channel Dolby sound is wonderful, with plenty of directional effects and shocks, and a very impressive bass for a TV series. There is an alternate French track in standard stereo, and optional English and Spanish subtitles.

Once again, Anchor Bay has done a poor job in designing the menu for the commentary tracks. As with the fifth season, there is no indication of the presence of a commentary track on an individual episode until you actually select and play that specific episode. Either the episode starts right up, or a prompt appears asking if you want to hear the commentary. For the record, the first and last episodes on each of the four discs is accompanied by a commentary, while the middle two episodes are not, except for the second disc, which just has a commentary on the last episode. Most of the talks have a mix of cast and crew members, and share stories about the production logistics, discuss the narrative and the characters, and provide other little tidbits about the show. And once in a while, they even get wrapped up in the show’s moral quandaries. “It goes back to, it sounds clichéd, but it’s the Anne Frank ‘believing in the good of people.’” “We had a long talk about whether people are fundamentally good, and [we] still have that disagreement, which is that I do believe they are fundamentally good. He does not.” “I could take it a step further. I would say that people fundamentally don’t want to hurt other people, but that doesn’t mean they’re good.”

A fifth disc with special features is also included, and again, the flaws of the previous season releases have been replicated. There are 90 minutes of production featurettes, all of which are informative and include behind-the-scenes material, but many of them are divided up to show what went on during the making of each episode, and there is no ‘Play All’ option. Lastly, the final episode is reprised with a running time that is a minute longer than the broadcast version that appears on the fourth disc. The show’s producers, perhaps to get it out of their system, shot the final cliffhanger scene almost exactly as it had been presented in the graphic novel, with all of the Samuel L. Jackson-style cursing that accompanied the horrific mental and physical abuse rained upon the heroes in tact. They then went again and shot the version they could show on AMC, because after all, it’s fine to broadcast images of people wandering around with body parts hanging loose and heads being smashed, but perish the thought that somebody is saying the ‘F word’ a bunch. In any case, the poetry of the scene is improved, and it would be worth the effort to stop watching the fourth disc after the third episode on that disc, and switch over to the fifth disc for the finale.

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The Ultimate DVD Geek

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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh

“It’s not going to be huge. He and I had been corresponding for a while. When I finally met him, he said, ‘We should collaborate.’ When John Ashbery says that to you, you don’t say when, you just say yes. It has not been easy to conjure this out of nothing. Sean Price Williams and I spent time with him, and it will appear on FilmStruck before the year is out…. I have figured out how to streamline things. I still have dreams of making movies with bigger budgets, and they might be considered to have more of a voice in pop culture. I don’t want to let go of that. I also realize that you grow up a lot of your life with wishful thinking and waiting. I have figured out ways to avoid doing that. I am working on a bigger movie about Nikola Tesla, set in the past, so it is not an easy film to make. I am also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise.’ That seems more likely to catch fire.”
Michael Almereyda Steps It Up