AMC’s The Walking Dead returned Sunday after a two-month hiatus. As a fan of the series I have sat on the edge of my seat for three and a half seasons now, week-to-week, looking forward to the weekly big twist that was inevitably on the horizon that would make me want to tune in the following week. After the most recent episode, After, which featured hardly any dialogue whatsoever and just a series of awful things happening and horrible, depressing imagery, I’ve come to the only conclusion that I think any rational human being can come to: The Walking Dead sucks and it has for quite some time.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll probably continue to watch if for no other reason than it’s one of the few shows that Mrs. Tastic and I can agree on so it’s at least mildly compelling and tolerable for me, but I came to the conclusion during the midseason finale that the series is not going anywhere as far as the plot is concerned and I begrudgingly accepted that fact after watching After. It’s simply not progressing the way a serial like this should.
Part of the reason why The Walking Dead became as successful as it did as quickly as it did is because it entered the television landscape at the perfect time when post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror-themed television was on the rise and it has copied the basic premise (that is, what the show really is about at its core) of all of its predecessors and contemporary counterparts. Despite what many fans of this show think, the show is not about surviving and it’s not even about zombies. What the show is really about is exactly what every post-apocalyptic series is about: How do we maintain our humanity (or if it is even possible to) when the apocalypse hits and the end of the world is at hand? This is a very common theme on television today even on shows that aren’t technically post-apocalyptic shows. If you want to examine this further, this theme shows up in popular literature as well, going back decades (think: Lord of the Flies).
So, that’s what the appeal of this genre is at its core. The problem with The Walking Dead is that though it meets the core requirements of the genre on a weekly basis, there is simply no endgame in sight, in other words, there is no point to this series. It’s just a weekly festival of stress and gore and the knowledge that any main character could be killed off at any point. This is inherently the problem of basing your serial television series off of a popular comic book serial that has been running consistently for over a decade. Comic books aren’t meant to have an endgame (unless of course they are limited-run), television serials are. At the end of the day, what is the ultimate goal, the big payoff, the cheese at the end of the maze, the light at the end of the tunnel, etc., for The Walking Dead? Can anyone tell me?
The first season actually gave us a goal: our survivors made it to the CDC and it was hinted at that they were trying to find a cure and if I recall correctly, something about working on a cure in France. Then the CDC blew up, we were all left with this cliffhanger that just made us want more, the series got picked up for a second season and since then it’s just been nothing but a long series arguments, killing the occasional zombie and main characters dying.
As noted, there is plenty of post-apocalyptic television fare currently on television with the same theme as The Walking Dead but they all do it better than The Walking Dead if for no other reason than that we know that eventually there will be a payoff, one way or the other.
TNT’s Falling Skies which is basically The Walking Dead with aliens instead of zombies but the difference is that the protagonists are taking the fight to the aliens instead of constantly running away from them and just trying to survive. The endgame is pretty obvious: either the humans will be victorious and defeat the aliens or they won’t.
NBC’s Revolution is a typical contemporary commentary on humanity with the post-apocalyptic theme and for all of its flaws, it is obvious that there is an endgame to this even if they haven’t ultimately spelled it out completely and they throw in mysteries along the way. Will the power go back on or not? Will humanity be able to start over?
CBS’s Under the Dome and ABC’s former series Lost aren’t post-apocalyptic, but they share the same commentary on humanity theme that the post-apocalyptic fare does through characters in situations where a small group of people are isolated from the rest of the world and their respective series examine how their humanity remains intact. Both series have obvious endgames.
The progenitor of the contemporary post-apocalyptic genre television series, Battlestar Galactica (2003) was nothing more than 75 episodes of morality plays and commentary on the human condition… but the endgame was made clear in the first episode.
So, without an endgame or anything else remotely resembling a goal for our protagonists, what exactly is keeping audiences so enthralled with this series? The answer is simple: smoke and mirrors.
The truth is that this series is surviving based on a purely visceral emotional reaction. We love to be scared or more specifically we love suspense and when there are characters that we have become emotionally attached to involved in the suspense it makes the experience that much more satisfying.
One thing that the series has done very well is character development. Character development is a key factor for the success of any series because the better that development is, the more the audience can relate to the characters, the more the audience becomes attached to the characters and thus, the more the audience becomes attached to a series. Character development seems to be the sole focus of The Walking Dead and the writers and producers appear to be hanging the continued success of the series on the audience’s emotional attachment to the characters (and average to slightly better than average subplots) hoping that they won’t notice that there really is no main plot to this series.
I’m sorry, but no series can survive on character development alone. There has to be some substance and not only isn’t there any substance to this series, it’s just becoming more depressing every week.
One of the traps of developing characters as thoroughly as this series has done to the exclusion of everything else (because it doesn’t have much else to go on) is that when you kill them off (see: Herschel, Dale, Andrea, T-Dog, Shane, Laurie, etc.) you invariably piss off your core audience. This is exactly why the meme “IF DARYL DIES, WE WILL RIOT” exists to begin with. The only thing that people care about on this show is the characters. You’ll never see a meme that says “IF THEY DON’T FIND A CURE, WE WILL RIOT” or any reference to anything else regarding the plot because there is no plot that the audience can discern or relate to.
That said, the death of a main character can be overcome if the death of the character turns out to be for some greater good and the audience can justify and rationalize the loss of the character. The problem with The Walking Dead in this regard is that all of these character deaths are simply pointless and they’ve made astute viewers like myself examine the series for what it is and what it’s missing.
Q: Why did Herschel have to die?
A: Because the writers are running out of ideas and needed to emotionally jar the audience by having the ruthless villain murder him in the most gory way imaginable in order to ensure that audience would return on February 9th for the midseason premiere.
That was a mistake, folks, because Sunday’s episode accomplished two things: being depressing and boring the shit out of me. It also made me be honest about the series in general, addressing what I rationally knew but didn’t want to accept during the midseason finale. After succeed in polarizing me very badly and I’m not the only one.
The truth is that even on the most dark and morbid series the audience needs some comic relief and ultimately some hope. The Walking Dead provides neither. As dark as Breaking Bad was, Vince Gilligan smartly inserted humor into it regularly and there was always an implied endgame to the series and there was always the hope that even if Walt were to go down that there would be some good fortune for his family.
There is simply no hope on The Walking Dead and there doesn’t appear to be any intention of providing any whatsoever.
Great writug, thanks Shawn although I did enjoy the episode
Nice post, Shawn! I can’t say I agree with you here that the show sucks, but I will admit it is beginning to lose me a bit. Actually, it’s been doing that ever since the first episode of season 2, however though, the show’s always found a way to reel me right back in with some awesome episode that has not only changed the game, but has me expect the best, but also prepare for the worst. That’s when you know you have a great show on your hands, it’s just a shame that it doesn’t always occur on this show, because we’d have a freakin’ classic on our hands here.
In all honesty, the headline (which I again repeated in the first paragraph) was decided on for purely sensational purposes in order to piss people off. Yes, I went completely tabloid, and I have shamed my children and their children and their children’s children. 😀
Truthfully speaking, it turned out to be an unintentional societal experiment. You would not believe the amount of hate that I have received in different forums in response to the article by people who only read the headline and not the article (it was obvious by their comments). I should’ve known that was going to happen because it happens every time someone posts a link on Facebook that has a sensational title. Yes, indeed, people want to disagree with you just for the sake of disagreeing with you. They don’t even want to want to bother to listen to what you actually have to say. There are eight comments on this post that were so offensive that I couldn’t even approve of them and I have very, very open standards when it comes to criticism of my work. Normally, I just try to edit and reword people’s comments so they aren’t nearly as “R-rated” (and that’s putting it mildly). It wasn’t possible with these comments.
Season two, episode one is where the show started losing its shine for me as well. When you think about it, it makes sense. Season one, episode six was the last time the show had any point as far as a plot line was concerned.
Like I said, how it hooks you back in is with not only the character development but the extreme situations of stress that our favorite characters are involved in, especially when there is a shock twist. As satisfying as that is in the moment, it really is all smoke and mirrors. It allows us to forget that the show has been losing us for as long as it has been.
Thanks for your comments and thanks for reading!
Under the Dome is so bad, haha. I thought it was going to be good because Stephen King created it. Geez was I wrong. I’m glad I never hopped on the “Walking Dead” train. There’s too many post-apocalypse and sci-fi shows on, I’m growing bored with them.
I wasn’t necessarily stating that “Under the Dome” is that great or anything, but in terms of a show with a similar theme, “Under the Dome,” like I said, does it better if for no reason then there is an actual endgame.
I think there’s something to be said about your suggestion that there are far too many post-apocalyptic themed shows on television. The only reason I have been tacitly supporting them is because for such a long time science-fiction on television was completely dead and this newfound enthusiasm for this sub-genre was an avenue to get more people interested in science fiction, again.
The post-apocalyptic theme has served its purpose. Audiences seem to be embracing many different sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy now across cable AND network television.
Now, if we can just get some good old big-budget space-themed science-fiction back on television. 😉
Oh yeah I know you weren’t necessarily stating that. It was just in your post and I wanted to expand upon it. Science fiction genre seems to be doing well on TV due to the stretched out story arcs the seasons have (you have to watch from the beginning to completely understand). The structure pulls people in and sort of “forces” them to maintain watching the show. Binge-watching habits on Netflix have helped fuel the promise of these shows.
Anyways, good post!
Thanks, Colin! I appreciate the kind words. Expanded story arcs were also something that was dead until recently, as well. I hadn’t put my finger on why all of the sudden they seem to be popular again (because until recently audiences simply didn’t have patients for shows that they couldn’t just drop and pick up at any moment) but I think you hit the nail on the head. I don’t know why it didn’t dawn on me that streaming services like Netflix and Amazon instant video and other mobile VOD services are fueling what is this rediscovered interest in serialized drama.
I think one show in particular is responsible for this: ‘Breaking Bad.’
It seems like everyone that I know, or have countered on the Internet, didn’t watch the show from the beginning. They got into it based on a recommendation from someone else and crammed the first three or four seasons into a couple of days because they couldn’t stop watching it. That’s what happened to me.
Late October, 2011, I watched the first three seasons on Netflix (and the fourth through – *AHEM* – “other means” if ya know what I’m sayin’) in 72 hours.
The landscape has changed dramatically for television viewing. No longer are we tied to having to sit in front of our television sets in our family rooms to catch up on our shows. We have a vast number of portable options that make it possible for us to do it anywhere.
Within that 72 hours of watching all four seasons of BB, believe it or not, I had a full weekend. I carved two pumpkins with those fancy kits you get at the grocery store with those tiny little knives, I went to two Halloween school carnivals, grocery shopping at both Costco and Walmart and I managed to do a bunch of chores around the house that my wife had given me. I just had the show on everywhere I went. If it wasn’t on my television, it was on my iPad. If it wasn’t on my iPad, it was on my iPhone. When I was driving, I simply mounted the phone to my dashboard and kept it running piped through the speakers in the car.
I think this ability to binge view on multiple platforms has given audiences a new patience that they wouldn’t have had otherwise with serialized drama simply due to the fact that they were tied to their home television set in order to watch it. Don’t get me wrong, I think the DVR is one of the greatest things that’s ever happened in home entertainment history, but you’re limited as to where you can actually watch it. Now with all these different devices and all of these apps for the various networks, you can get your shows anytime and anywhere you want.
Because of ‘Breaking Bad,’ I think consumers realized just how good serialized dramas can be and they can watch them at their own convenience.
Honestly, it is so rare that I ever watch a movie on Netflix. All I really watch are television series. Netflix has introduced me to so many series that I never would’ve watched in the past and I think it’s done that for a lot of people and it’s loads of fun to be able to just watch episode after episode and not wait a week for the next one to come out. I just finished all 5 seasons of White Collar in two weeks between Netflix and the DVR and have plenty of other series out there that I’ve never even seen before that I’m looking forward to.
With all the excitement surrounding the new ’24’ limited series, ’24: Live Another Day’ I got the hankering to revisit one of my favorite shows of all time. Do you know how satisfying it is to watch 24 consecutively without having to wait a week for the next episode? I had no idea it could be this much fun. I own the entire series on DVD and Blu-ray, but I’ve never actually watched it a second time. It’s like watching it all over again because I forgot most of the plots on each season.I’m halfway through the fourth season and I only started watching again as of a week ago Saturday.
Once again, thanks for your comments and the kind words. I really appreciate your insights. You had not one, but two brilliant observations in two posts that had not even occurred to me before. The next time I have a chance to, I’m going to steal those ideas and claim them as my own. 😉
Nicely put! I really enjoyed even the first couple seasons of this show, but at this point I feel like I’m just waiting for all of the characters to die off because, like you said, there is no end in sight. Hopefully they find some way to give the show some hope, humour, and life again because honestly, it’s getting too depressing to watch.
Jenna, you are a prodigy. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Concise, efficient and to the point. The only difference is that I’m just obnoxiously wordy. 😀