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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

NO-air Extravaganza? CBS, Zombies, and Babylon Fields

Halloween season continues unabated here at Blackmarket Pies, and tonight I give you a look at the show that CBS decided we didn't want to see: Babylon Fields.

Babylon Fields was a drama (and it is a drama drama, with nary a chuckle in earshot) that features two of the hottest subjects at the moment - death and zombies. I'm guessing Pirates and/or Ninjas were out of the range of the budget. I say "was" because while a pilot was ordered by CBS for the fall 2007 season, the exec's decided to pass it up for the vampire series "Moonlight" instead. So this may be your only chance to get to know what a TV show about zombies would have looked like on a major television network. Go you!

Sounding like a spin-off from the idea behind the French movie They Came Back, Babylon Fields explores what happens when the dead return from the grave, and really aren't that keen on brain-eating: they just want to return to their old lives, even if the people from those lives had decided to move on long ago.


Jamey Sheridan ... Ernie Wunch (undead husband)

Kathy Baker ... Shirley Wunch

Amber Tamblyn ... Janine Wunch

Ray Stevenson ... Carl Tiptree (police chief)

Our story begins with a shot of a recently re-animated corpse clawing his way back to the world of the living - except he's not coming out of a cemetery, he's emerging from within a fenced-off lot marked "Private Property." Keep this in mind, it'll be important later.

Then we're introduced to two of the protagonists: the surviving Wunches, Janine and her mother, Shirley. They're doing what those about to be attacked by zombies typically do: the banalities of every day life. There's not a whole lot here other than typical mother/teenage daughter banter, so it's probably best if we move on.

Cut to: a small-town police station. Carl Tiptree (played by Ray Stevenson, he was in HBO's Rome, don'tcha know) the only police chief in the world who lacks any kind of personality whatsoever, is introduced here, as well as his girlfriend/sex-buddy, Louisa Ramirez (played by Leila Arcieri). They, uh, "flirt," I guess, and then go about their business.

Meanwhile, the dead-man-walking seen earlier has been shambling his way through the town, and the Wunches arrive home just in time to discover that he's cracked open a cold one and made himself at home.

It turns out that the dead man is Ernie Wunch, ertswhile husband of Shirley, and something of an ambiguous "monster." I'm guessing he was just a wife beater, although we are dealing with zombies here, so he may have actually been a vampire and/or werewolf. It is disappointing that we may never truly know.

Carl also has an encounter with the dearly departed. He's been called to his sister's home, where he discovers that her dead husband, Dick, has returned from the great beyond. And let me tell you, for a guy laid to rest way back in 1998, he doesn't look half bad. Dude even brags later about how he can still get it up.

You read that correctly, gentle reader: there is implied pseudo-necro-philia goin' on in Babylon Fields. At this point, you may be wondering why the show was not green-lit within seconds of viewing this scene.

Dick tells Carl to go down to Greenfield Cemetary, and "he'll see." And boy, does he ever.

Not only have dozens of the dead gotten up and started wandering around, but he even discovers that his dead wife's grave is now empty. That might get a little awkward.

After a few more scenes in which the two Wunches encounter the standard paranoid survivalist types who have taken to barricades and home-made weaponry, the police station is reported to be (but never seen) under siege from frightened citizens (and not, sadly, flesh-hungry zombies), and everybody's favorite dull Police Chief gets to play hero by saving a dead man from a mob of angry church-goers, we discover what was undoubtedly going to be the big mystery of the series (you know, besides why, or even how, the dead have come back to, uh, "life"): Ernie Wunch discovers that he was actually struck down by a blow to his head - with an axe. He implores Carl to discover who's behind his murder, and that's where our introduction to the idyllic town of Babylon Fields comes to a close.

Refreshingly, the show doesn't take the tone of a Tim Burton movie, or something like Dead Like Me or Pushing Daisies - in the town of Babylon, death is no laughing matter. When the dead return in the first fifteen minutes, there aren't any cutesy zombie moments, or scenes played for jokes: it's what we'd expect it to be if this actually happened. Everybody freaks out, most people lock themselves in their houses, and some grab rifles and commence "removing the head or destroying the brain" when they encounter people who should still be six feet under.

Another theme that was planted in the pilot was the idea that it would not necessarily be the zombies that are the problem, but that we would be our own worst enemy. The zombies don't exactly cause any trouble, but the living citizenry shoot at them, swarm them, and entirely lose their cool. In fact, it's the zombies who appear rational, despite the fact that they were just dead. This is a little perplexing, since the archetypal zombies, those of "Night of the Living Dead," were already supposed to act as a metaphor for people throwing each other to the wolves.

It also raises an interesting question: if you kill a zombie - but it's, like, a nice zombie - does it count as murder? Even worse - what if they don't die after that? Does it still count as attempted murder? Inquiring minds demand satisfactory answers.

It does drag on a bit. They spend far too long showing how people react to the dead returning then actually, you know, doing something. And it's all the visceral reaction: shock, anger, fear. Only one person ever starts to get to know their dead loved one again (remember that zombie intimacy I mentioned earlier?), everyone else is too busy freaking out for 45 minutes.

It would have been nice if we had gotten a little "day in the life" image of the town of Babylon before the shit started hitting the fan. Maybe they could have established who was dead before they came back, just so that we'd have a connection with the characters and be able to see things through their eyes. For example, we know from a few snippets of dialog that Shirley and Janine Wunch know Carl the detective, and that they were actually the ones who killed Ernie (well, guess it wasn't that big of a mystery after all then, huh?), and it would have been nice to see the relationship between the chief and those two, and if he had assisted in covering-up Ernie's murder. I would have also cared to see how much Carl missed his wife, and maybe finding out that it was especially difficult for him to finally let go, and how freaking horrible it's going to be for him to have to face her again.

So I can see why the show wasn't picked up. It's too meandering, too talky, and I didn't give one iota of rat's ass about any of the characters. I am perplexed, though, as to why they didn't decide to release the pilot to iTunes or a similar online service. When they made Aquaman available for download, it was snatched up eagerly by waiting comics fans. The inexplicable allure of the zombie in popular culture at the moment would have guaranteed some return on investment - and hell, it might have even given the series a second chance.

Favorite lines:

"Like the bible says: 'When there's no room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.' "
"That's from a movie."
"Not even; it's from the poster."

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