The Walking Dead: Working Despite Itself

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Mike Hannemann

WARNING – Full spoilers for the entire series so far for The Walking Dead are in the article below. Read at your own risk (or lack thereof, if you don’t give a damn). Oh, there’s also a pretty easy joke about Lost that may or may not ruin that so… use caution if you haven’t seen a show that ended in 2010, I guess.

The Walking Dead is back and has a few episodes under its belt for the final half of its fourth season. This is a peculiar show for someone who follows around a lot of pop culture for two reasons. The people I know who love quality television (and will debate it endlessly) watch every episode… and hate it. On the other side of the coin, the people I know who watch things like Duck Dynasty or Pawn Stars watch every episode… and love it. This is a very odd thing in 2014.

What is it about this show that has both sides of the spectrum coming back? What is drawing in people who lambaste it yet discuss it in length the next day and simultaneously those who will just post “OMG, Walking Dead!! So great!!” on Facebook every Sunday night? As someone well-versed in this particular undead universe, I’d like to try to figure this out.

Before the show aired its very first episode, I read the first 70 or so comics. The show is based on a graphic novel by Robert Kirkman, and he is involved in the show, so I figured I’d give the source material a whirl. When the first episode aired, I knew many of the characters already since they came from the books. I had my favorites and my least favorites. Ones I reviled and was looking forward to their on-screen demises. But… a lot of it just didn’t happen the same way. I can’t blame the creators, they needed to differentiate themselves from the source material so they could tell their own stories. “Ok,” I thought, “more time with these characters, I guess.” But then I realized something.

I don’t actually like any of these people. Why the hell don’t I like any of these people?

It’s because the show can’t recover from the shadow of its greatest and biggest character. Its break-out star. What made the show a ratings smash. I’m referring to the actual, physical, nightmarish world the characters live in. The world is a more important character than any person you ever see on screen. A show’s world is always a big part of the storytelling. Pawnee, Indiana is its own background character on Parks and Recreation. The Simpsons have a reliable backup every week: the town of Springfield. Hell, even a show with such brilliant characters as Breaking Bad gains a little bit of charm from the fact that it’s set in Albuquerque, NM. The Walking Dead turned this television trope on its head by making the setting the star attraction. Everyone else is just there as backup. The closest comparison is Lost, but that show had the narrative framework that included 20 minutes of flashbacks per episode and the possibility that “everything is magic all the time.”

This criticism applies to every instance the show slows down. When it stops for smaller character beats or long pointless monologues so you can learn how one survivor feels about religion, on the back of everyone’s mind is when we’re going to get back to the world falling apart. It’s not as much fun to watch people farming when you know just on the horizon is something horrifying. And because of this, when horrible things DO happen, (first major spoiler: things only sometimes happen) while it’s viscerally enjoyable, there’s no real emotional stake to it.

No one knew this was going to be a smash hit. It’s why the opening episode starts the same way the comics do. There’s an introduction to the sheriff for a few pages. Sheriff gets shot. Sheriff wakes up from a coma months later to find that the world has gone to hell and there’s no one really left. Why would you care, though? This is just some dude who it looks like woke up in a horror movie halfway through the second act. The show tries, desperately, to make you feel for these people on a deep level but it’s nearly impossible to because there’s no room for solid foundation. In a show about the world in ruins and only a handful of survivors, people actually can make the criticism “Well, nothing happened in THAT episode.”

I can only imagine how amazing this show could have built itself into if it had started with a slow burn. A first season of 12 episodes where we meet these characters, spread throughout Georgia, with occasional scenes of the world starting to go to shit. Give these characters something that’s worth caring about before pulling back the curtain to reveal the star of the show. Care about two characters’ marriage for a different reason than “Hey! They’re married! And marriage is supposed to be great, right?” Or, hell, care about a kid’s actions outside of other than “LOOK AT THE BOY ON THE SCREEN!”

It’s harsh criticism, but it’s true. The show’s writers do their best with the materials they have. Occasionally, there are times when you do care about the people on screen. But it’s not often enough to really drive the show anywhere. And, to be fair, most of the people who are watching this show aren’t asking for much more. They want to see a screwdriver to a zombie’s head and call it a day. They can get by with a character nicknaming a newborn “Lil’ Asskicker” because that isn’t important to them. And, maybe, a show like this doesn’t need to have compelling character arcs. But if you try to shoehorn them into the REAL reason everyone is watching, you’re just going come across as hacky. You’re working from a disadvantage, but at least acknowledge this and try to tell a fun story.

I’m fine, The Walking Dead, with you occasionally taking a breather from incessant mayhem to give characters room to grow. But you are a show about gross-out scares and the end of the world. It’s OK to not be better than that.

Image source: AMC

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