Joe, a committed prepper literally bunkered down with his doberman and managed to duck out of the zombie apocalypse. He’s an amiable sort who had been fine keeping away from people before and after the zombie infestation… and communicating with like-minded people through the internet before it went down. The last person he messaged with was a woman called Sandra but as the power started to fade even that is reduced to rereading their old print-outs.
When, a year later, Gilligan, his loyal doberman, succumbs to frailty and the nearby undead, Joe finally decides to venture beyond his bunker and seek out Sandra who lived several states away. But when his motorbike breaks down he finds himself in a trap set by Evie, a new-age vegetarian with major macrame skills who is pining for an ex with a poison paintbrush.
They couldn’t be more different. But can these two-mismatched survivors find a way to help each other find lost loved ones?
For a concept that deals with a barren, post-apocalyptic setting, The Walking Dead seems far more alive and healthily in circulation than you might once have imagined it ever could. Apart from the original comic and the main live-action mothership, there’s been spin-offs such as Fear the Walking Dead and World Beyond, computer games and novels and we already have confirmation that when the main series ends later this year we’ll still have further separate series with Daryl (now minus Carol) and Maggie and Negan taking Manhattan. Even Rick Grimes and Michonne will re-enter the fray sometime thereafter.
In the meantime we have an anthology series Tales of the Walking Dead. The given premise is to see how various others dealt with the rise of the zombie walkers and if they can survive in the ‘new’ world. Some episodes will revisit known faces or places, others are totally new people and locales, set in the same time-frames. The first of these is Joe/Evie and sees the two new characters of the title (played by Terry Crews and Olivia Munn) and most of the episode is spent showing their differences but rounding off their sharper edges, reluctantly at first then starting to trust each other. They are both capable characters who end up working better as a team than apart, though they’re both going to get some surprises as they seek to fulfil their respective journeys.
The main show has got quite brutal and cynical over the years and this first entry in the anthology wing of the franchise, perhaps wanting things to begin on a less bleak note, goes for something more straightforward and bittersweetly optimistic, perhaps the closest thing to a shorthanded, amiable ‘buddy pic’ in some time. That’s not to say this opening salvo isn’t fun, merely non-essential – pushing no new borders or offering any new takes, but ably putting some familiar actors through their paces for our delectation. Watchable though it is, one can’t deny it may feel like it’s simply there to fill some of the waiting space until October.
Crews has long since managed to handle big-screen action and comedy, though the Walking Dead experience is a far more subtle affair in comparison to the likes of The Expendables etc. Joe is the kind of character designed for you to immediately start rooting for. The story may give him the background of a doomsday prepper but this isn’t the crazy loon ready to engage all-comers with an AR-15 and a sovereign citizen declaration sniping at anything that moves across his borders – though he’s certainly got a range of largely effective references ready for the undead. Rather, he’s just a brusque loner, not mean but irascible, not crazy but committed…the kind who you know will be revealed to have a secret heart of gold and tolerance before we’re done and it’s hard to imagine the probably tougher, possibly less pleasant guy who was around pre-apocalypse. But really, who wouldn’t love a guy who names his doberman Gilligan?
Munn was a regular on The Daily Show, The Newsroom and essayed the role of Psylocke in another apocalypse entry (in more ways than one) of the X-Men franchise, but despite working steadily, hasn’t been seen in many high-profile projects since (Apocalypse also earned her some flack for apparently exaggerated claims she made about doing most of her own stunts on that production). Her Evie could easily fall into parody and though she embodies some of the new age cliches, Munn’s Evie proves a good partner and counterbalance for Joe and is able to match Crews with all the wry and snark… but never letting any of the humour fall into broader and more obvious comedy. She does especially well given that she’s since noted that she was suffering bad postpartum anxiety at the time.
The secret of the episode’s success is the Crews/Munn and Joe/Evie chemistry on which it relies heavily, both of the characters being flawed but far from useless, each dealing with something broken inside of them that might be healed by the presence of other, yet resisting the opportunity to do so. As Walking Dead stories go, it’s certainly lighter and more whimsical, though that’s grading on a curve as we also get to see plenty of zombie kills and meet another character who is too far gone to ever come back. One wonders if some of these tales in the Walking Dead anthology are being perceived as potential back-door pilots for the characters to appear somewhere else, down the road. The production office could certainly do a lot worse than the Crews/Munn combo, though part of the winning formula is that we only get to visit with them for that limited time with them. Less may be more. It’s more likely that the TWD universe needs such brief moments of bittersweet levity amongst the more overt desperation, chaos and carnage but that further appearances of these travelling companions really wouldn’t have much more to say.
- Production Design / VFX8