18 February 2014

Because it's on TV: Why The Walking Dead is Television's Best Worst Show

As far as television watching goes, The Walking Dead is an enigma. It consists solely of niche genre material, but it's massively popular. It swings between moments of horror, gore, flighty drama, and unintentional uproarious laughter. Lately for me, it's been mostly the latter. Ever since this moment, these singular six seconds, I haven't been able to take this show seriously. This past Sunday night, for the first time in the long time I didn't watch the episode when it was on. Okay, I caught like, the last twenty minutes. It's still the best show to hate on television.

After its rousing first season, The Walking Dead found itself in a unique predicament among its genre - where the hell to go? Most bits of zombie fiction find ground in serial form, not episodic. After all, everyone has to die eventually. The world collapses and is screwed (Dawn of the Dead [2004], 28 Days Later [2003]), sometimes maybe it gets better (World War Z, Warm Bodies [2013]), but there's not a whole lot out there that deal with getting on with daily life after the event. You've got your Day of the Dead (1985) bunker party, and sure, the romping fun of Zombieland (2009), but these are still movies. Singular looks at a time in the lives of these characters, sure it's a post-apocalyptic time, but sooner or later, you've got to think that death is going to catch up. Maybe not for Tallahassee, but how much can you do in the face of complete societal annihilation?

Apparently one first season and like, four, maybe five Governor episodes. I'm not sure why the comic book version of The Walking Dead was so palatable while the TV version lost sense of its characters so quickly. Maybe it's because Robert Kirkman only has to deal with Robert Kirkman and not the ebb and flow of actors moving on to other projects, a string of good and bad showrunners, or just the trickiness inherent to the adaptation of any fiction to a medium that doesn't quite support its storytelling process as neatly. Needless to say, the following will include a hefty dose of recapping plot and character events of the past few seasons, in particular the abysmal last halfsie we just got, so catch up now. We'll wait.

Let me tell you about this guy we used to have named T-Dog...

For whatever reason, the show has lost a good deal of traction of its characters, or just any kind of motivation that makes sense for anybody. I think my breaking point for this kind of stupidity was "Indifference" (S4;E4), which features a constant stream of frustrating moments. On multiple occasions, Tyreese just kind of gives up while fighting walkers for no real reason other than to create tension, because he's such a badass that nothing should really pose a threat to him. He's the Optimus Prime of The Walking Dead. He's kind of bummed about Karen being killed (yeah, I had to look up her name. There was never  reason to care about her or remember her. She's basically a fridge chick), but it's not like he's so bummed that he can't fight eventually. Daryl doesn't save him or anything, he's just apathetic until he's about to die. All the while he actually has a really good reason for once to be an angry black stereotype, which he never has been.

To this we can add Carol's suddenly growing insanity, from raising a child army to being the one that actually did kill Karen. There are also these constantly shifting dichotomies between Rick and Herschel, and then even Rick and Carl, that never really have a lot of background. The Walking Dead has just such an immense need for plot, it finds itself lurching forward constantly and forcing all these dramatic issues that aren't really there. Why, at the apex of his power, after crawling back from nothing, and with both sides in agreement, does The Governor make Herschel into a pez dispenser? Because he's crazy for the sake of craziness, and apparently without redemption, even though the smarter ploy for him and his manipulative character, if he really hated Rick, would be to absorb himself into the society and break it down from within.

So the show just spins its wheels and creates these artificial moments of drama. It no longer has any real story but simply the continued survival of the characters. In stark contrast to Zombie cinema, where almost everyone eventually succumbs to virus and death, or maybe it ends with some vague "hope" like I Am Legend (2007) or the film adaptation of World War Z (2013), but things always need to end. The Walking Dead, solely because of its medium, is instead concerned with survival. Which, despite the relatively egregious lack of character shields, makes it a less interesting show.

Because of The Walking Dead, or perhaps in spite of it, there have been a handful of other horror shows popping up on mainstream television, most notably FX's American Horror Story and Fox's Sleepy Hollow. Unlike The Walking Dead, however, these shows don't concern themselves with melodrama or try to build up these moments of sincerity that the show so desperately tries. AHS and Sleepy Hollow wear their insane camp on their sleeves and deliver some of the most entertaining, if not batshit crazy programming on television.

AHS also gets around The Walking Dead's peculiar survival problem by billing itself as a mini-series and recycling the cast each year into a new location and time period. Even though Coven had one of the roughest crash and burns after starting out with some hefty promise, it's had a ton more fun than the overly self-serious Walking Dead. Especially with its big fake "Awww, Nooo!" moments. And Sleepy Hollow just fucks logic in the ass without abandon. It's awesome.
I would have been okay with
an entire Plissken season.

The Walking Dead does have these really exceptional moments, though, when it slows things down and explores what's left of humanity and how we got there in these little vignettes, sometimes through entire episodes like "Clear" (S3;E12). It's best at experimentation and following these little moments, like just about all of the episodes centering around The Governor at the tail end of last season (before you know, his needless descent into poor decision making, and his beaux's inability to watch her on child you know, during the ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE going on). This is despite all these really obvious metaphors like the Governor and his chess set. Yeah, he's the king, everyone else is his pawn, we get it. I've wondered more and more if this show is so popular because it makes people feel smarter for having understood the fabulously simple symbolism that runs through it.

The one hope I have is that so far, this latter halfsie of Season Four looks to be separating and breaking down its characters more and giving them a chance to grow without the overbearing pressures of sudden plot. It's The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - split everyone up, beat them to shit, and let's actually grow some characters with a little more focus. It's "Clear" again. Which is a good thing.

And while we're here, before we go this is a great time to chat about The Talking Dead, which could be the worst show to ever hit television. It's just a sort of awkward recap show that mostly offers fan service rather than any real criticism or critical insight. Chris Hardwick is insufferable as this anointed representative of geeks who is the worst kind of geek, who exists only to regurgitate pop culture while being sponsored by the pop culture he's regurgitating. It's rough.

The Walking Dead comes around again this Sunday at 9 pm on AMC. I haven't really decided on if I'm watching it or not. Are you?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails