Monday, March 27

Tales of the Walking Dead Series-Premiere Recap

Photo: Curtis Bonds Baker/AMC

I have a real Lucy-holding-the-football relationship with The Walking Dead franchise. I was absolutely wowed by the pilot for the original series — still the show’s best-ever episode — and spent years chasing that high, with increasing frustration, until I finally tapped out during the rise of Negan. I tried Fear the Walking Dead, hoping a new cast and location might inject some life into the franchise before bailing on that in season two. I even gave The Walking Dead: World Beyond a fair shake at this very website, though it quickly became clear that it was doomed to underwhelm as well.

So why am I taking a stab at yet another extension of the increasingly tired Walking Dead franchise? Because I believe that if there is still a Walking Dead for me in 2022, it’s an anthology series. Tales of the Walking Dead promises to discard everything that frustrates me about the franchise by telling a series of one-off standalone stories set in the Walking Dead universe and consequently unbeholden to the characters (or even the tone) of the series proper.

While Tales will never violate the series’ established mythology, it’s also set in a world big enough that basically anything is possible. As a bonus, it allows the series to rope in stars who might not want to commit to an entire TV show but are happy to square off against zombies for a single episode.

And with that guiding principle, how does our first foray into the unknown turn out? Pretty well! “Joe / Evie” is a lurid but remarkably genial look at two survivors, Joe and Evie, who form an unlikely but warm connection as they sift through regrets about someone else.

It helps, of course, that Joe and Evie are played by actors as charismatic and innately likable as Terry Crews and Olivia Munn. We meet Joe first — a doomsday prepper whose fears were vindicated by the zombie apocalypse and who spends his days in relative comfort, rewatching old Ohio State football games in his bomb shelter in the company of his beloved Doberman Gilligan.

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Forty-five minutes is not a lot of time to introduce a bunch of characters and tell a whole story, but it’s still a little jarring that Tales introduces Gilligan and then depicts his inevitable death at the hands of a hungry zombie horde in the span of about three minutes. It’s not long after that that Joe, lonelier than ever, decides he’ll abandon his bomb shelter and track down a kindred spirit: A woman he knows only by the screen name USHLDBSCRD, whom he flirtatiously swapped doomsday tips with online before the apocalypse actually broke out. (For those who can’t be bothered to decode that screen name, it’s pronounced: “You Should Be Scared.”)

So Joe gets on his motorcycle just in time to be caught in a trap laid by Evie, a chipper hippie with her own agenda. Like everyone in the episode, she wants Joe’s motorcycle for her own purposes: To track down her absent husband, who stormed off for a painting session in his family cabin shortly before the world ended. She’s not sure if she’ll find him, but she’ll learn something vital about his feelings for sure when she sees the style and tone in which he painted her.

So this odd couple hits the road, bonding and bickering like … well, like two people who have been alone for more than a year and who are rediscovering the joy that comes with close contact with thoughts that aren’t your own. Joe is grumpy and practical with a secret soft side; Evie is bright-eyed and optimistic with a secret penchant for capoeira. Their relationship isn’t exactly romantic, but there’s a sweetness that clearly touches both of them, and it’s nice to see a story in this relentlessly downbeat franchise that has so much optimism about what two random people might be able to do to each other.

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Which isn’t to say that “Joe / Evie” is, in Evie’s evocative phrase, all “puppies and poetry.” Against all odds, Joe manages to track down USHLDBSCARD’s bomb shelter. I was fully convinced the twist here was going to be some kind of Catfish scenario, but USHLDBSCARD is a lovely woman named Sandra who seems genuinely thrilled to see Joe. It’s a zom-rom-com meet-cute for the ages!

…Until Sandra feeds Joe a drugged brownie, ties Joe up, puts on some makeup, and reveals her own deeply disturbed streak. (It should probably not be a shock that someone with the screen name USHLDBSCARD turned out to be a psycho killer. And I don’t know, maybe blindly trusting a person you bonded with over the impending apocalypse is not the safest bet for a blind date?)

If Sandra and Joe ever had a real chance, it’s far too late. She reveals that she listens to music constantly to drown out the sounds of people desperately trying to enter her shelter and that she has a trophy case of watches she took from those she killed. It’s not looking great for Joe until Evie arrives. And her Manic Apocalypse Dream Girl tips turn out to be staggeringly effective. Evie’s own edible habit leaves her immune to the drugged brownie, and the crystal she gave Joe — which she said would dispel the bad vibes around him — blocks one of Sandra’s particularly brutal knife stabs. It’s enough to give Joe the chance to take Sandra out once and for all.

You can imagine Joe and Evie settling into this well-appointed bomb shelter, which seems like one of the safer places anyone could hope to ride out the apocalypse. But as the episode ends, we rejoin them on a bridge, ready for whatever comes next together. Joe spent most of his life preparing for doomsday; now that doomsday is here, he can start living his life instead. But we’ll have to imagine what comes next because — refreshingly, to my mind — this is where we leave these two for good.

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• Joe and Evie also adopt a little sheep, who Joe finally names — what else? — Skipper.

• If you’re digging this little experiment, it might be worth downloading Telltale’s acclaimed Walking Dead narrative video game and playing its side story, 400 Days. By letting the player control five different micro-stories centered on five different characters, it offers a similarly multifaceted look at life in the post-apocalypse.

• It’s almost definitely the lifelong Tales from the Crypt fan in me, but I’ve checked to make sure this series is titled Tales of the Walking Dead and not Tales from The Walking Dead like five times.

• This episode was directed by Ron Underwood, who has spent the past couple of decades as a journeyman TV director but is probably best known for helming the cult classic horror-comedy Tremors.

• “Joe / Evie” adds two more names to the Walking Dead franchise’s ever-expanding commitment to avoiding the word “zombies”: “toe-tags” and “dead-eyes.”

• In case you were inspired by the site of all these shelters, here’s a guide to building your own greywater system.

• And in case you feel like your own motorcycle karaoke session here’s Charley Pride’s “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’.”

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