Walking Dead, what happened?

It was Halloween.

Illuminated by the glow of the monitor, I sat drawn and curious watching Days Gone By. My eyes drank every detail – colour, shape, movement – ears pricked for the slightest sound. This was a world I both recognized and didn’t, with its growing layer of chaos and fear veneering the hospitable landscape that echoed the one outside my door.

Civility is a fragile thing, my mind agreed, and perhaps a superficial one.

Like millions of viewers, I tuned in for the rest of the first season. The panoramic scope of Atlanta felled and in ruins, the scans of empty or flooded streets, the stark unraveling of suburbia, the hardships of the road, the realities of outdoor survival, and the blight of the unprepared and struggling impacted me. It was the horror of having everything to lose, everything we take for granted in our daily lives, and nowhere to go to escape all that endangers it and us. Over the course of six episodes, I watched America refocus its priorities and rethink its values, and I fell in love with this vehicle, this show, that had the power to do that by telling a simple story using the medium of television.

The Walking Dead was more successful than AMC thought it would be and it was the kind of success they’d been hoping for. Another season, a full one, was ordered. Like other viewers, I was pleased and looked forward to its continuation. This certainly aligned with my priorities and values. I am referred to as what’s called an EmPrep, or someone who is prepared for realistic emergencies like injuries, malfunctions, contingencies and natural disasters. We tend to have basic survival skills so we can be of assistance to ourselves and others. In other words, it’s a lot like being a Scout.

In the anticipation of season two, America was ablaze with talk of safety and preparations. The discussions included social issues like prejudice, racism, sexism and the moral grey of life and decision-making. We were excited. Social media lit up. Even the CDC used the renewed interest for its outreach programs. I could not have been more pleased with the show or these results if I tried. However, my enthusiasm would be short-lived.

Season two introduced not only a change of pace but focus. It became more about personal interactions than situations. This disappointed and annoyed many viewers and, although it had its ever-growing audience, The Walking Dead struggled to find and hold on to its identity as well as its direction. This may or may not have been due to the personnel changes, most notably losing its original show runner Frank Darabont and the vision that he had in bringing the show to fruition. What we loved about the debut season just wasn’t there any more, and for those of us who appreciated the sophisticated storytelling of post-apocalyptic life, this change was most regrettable.

One indication of how the show has been swallowed by its own success is the season two debut of its companion show, Talking Dead. Producers wanted to capitalize on the success of the first season, creating a whole other show whose only point was to talk about the actual show. It was supposed to be for the fans. Unfortunately, it turned out to be another way to keep interest, control bad press and market to the masses. The show itself was now a brand, and it was willing to pander to its audience as well as sacrifice quality in order to sell it.

There were many arguments. The feel of the show had changed. It was becoming a marketing machine. The original fans suffered but were determined to remain loyal to the concept. Fans of the graphic novels became a jury that was out, waiting before deciding how the many changes on the show would manifest. Meanwhile, the show picked up in viewership, collecting new fans with different expectations based on the reinvention of the entity it was becoming, and its success seemed to have no limitations. By the time season two’s finale Beside the Dying Fire aired, the critical reviews were mixed even with the increase in viewership.

The buzz between seasons was notably different. The public was focused on characters like Daryl Dixon (played by Norman Reedus) rather than any of the potential issues that were being presented. Truthfully, less issues were being presented. The drama of season two was personal but lacked real intimacy and, although there was character development, it wasn’t necessarily real development. The potential of the show to tell a story was diminishing. It was slowly being replaced by the cult of personality and celebrity. For many viewers, this was enough. For more discerning viewers, this was an insulting replacement.

Season three changed with the coming and going of Glen Mazzara, the next custodian of the show’s creative direction, and seemed to capitalize on its own fame. This should have been an exciting time, ripe with possibilities as it would issue the introduction of The Governor (long hailed as the graphic novel’s first real villain to our perceived hero Rick Grimes) but that was not to be the case. Poor delivery of anemic plots, predictable devices, and two-dimensional characters were targeted to a broader (and often simpler) audience. There were critical changes to the story that also impacted other characters, most notably Michonne and her potential to be the truly ground-breaking character book fans know her to be. The graphic novels had punch but the show rewrote the plots to accommodate a less offensive, more neutered arc leaving many knowing fans wondering if AMC was safely cashing in on its commercial interests by trying not to isolate anyone the actual plots might offend.

The most horrific example of this unexplained phenomenon of unnecessary rewriting would be the show’s treatment of Andrea. Andrea’s character, never quite true to form, monstrously morphed into an unrecognizable rendition. A pale shadow in spirit and deed, the backlash from hardcore fans was incredible. I don’t know if it was the way actress Laurie Holden played the character or if she was playing a character that was so poorly written. After all, viewers were supposed to hate Rick’s wife Lori, that was the intention and they would use it to their advantage later on, but everyone at AMC seemed shocked that the public didn’t love Andrea. In fact, many viewers detested her and Andrea remains the one thing devoted novel fans can’t seem to forgive: it was a betrayal of trust to ruin such an heroic and revered character.

The complaints continued. By now, most people were wondering if being black on this show was the equivalent of wearing a red shirt on Star Trek. It seemed there couldn’t be more than one black character at a time. The introduction of another meant the others would die. This led many to quip, “There are only a handful of black people in Atlanta? Have the writers been to Atlanta? ” and perhaps rightly so. There is a decided lack of diversity of any kind on this show, making it seem unrealistic and filtered through the lens of mainstream America. Again, intelligent viewers wondered if AMC was playing it safe in hope of guarding its new cash cow, the massive merchandising machine that had become The Walking Dead.

Is it all about the money?

Talking Dead had literally become a way to wash controversy. The show was used to placate viewers and tried to bring them on board by showing them how great it all was. Problem is that it just wasn’t so great. Talking Dead promised satisfying episodes that weren’t and attempted to explain away, rework or ignore bad story lines. They used the show to focus on celebrity – often banking on the popularity of characters like Daryl Dixon – in an attempt to soothe disappointed and angry viewers while creating every opportunity to market the show’s merchandise like a nineteen fifties sponsored radio show.

Season three wrapped to a split audience and divided reviews. It was announced that Mazzara was out and Gimple was in to replace him for season four. Averaging a show runner a season now, fan thirst for the concept had not diminished but faith in it had. Massive campaigns were launched in an effort to bank on its popularity rather than its content during the down time between seasons. The commercial push of the video games was at an all-time high and merchandising became a primary mission.

AMC played The Walking Dead like the brand they built it to be. They used the popularity of characters like Daryl Dixon to spearhead manufactured and controlled “controversies” – the “if Daryl dies, we riot” memes are a response  – in an attempt to maintain the frenzy and counteract the criticisms of the show while issuing sporadic press releases promising that season four would be a more fulfilling one.

New show runner Scott Gimple wants us to believe that season four is making an effort to get back to the meat and bones of the premise. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening. The season opened by trying to make us care about unknown and bit characters we have no investment in while never endangering the characters we have invested in. This only furthers the disconnect. A few episodes in and it’s easy to see that we’re just getting a rehash of what’s come before. It’s as if the writers, obviously fond of recycling, sat down and said “What successful moments have we had in the past and how can we recreate them?” rather than tell an original story. While plot devices like mechanical injury and disease are again being reintroduced, they’ve managed to do this in a way that depletes the effect. The writers have a three season history of reacting to criticism and viewers instead of taking the lead to deliver powerful stories and well-fleshed characters, so I don’t see this bad habit changing any time soon.

Clearly, I’m one of those discerning viewers. If you want an hour of my life each week you need to give me reasons why I should devote that hour to you. In exchange, you give me something worth trading it for; however, we’re at the four year mark and The Walking Dead still doesn’t meet that criteria. Honestly, if I don’t have anything better to do I might watch – but I’ll usually have better options because there are more fulfilling ways to spend my time than this.The Walking Dead is not a bad show but it’s also not a game-changer, and the real sadness is that it started out that way but quickly lost it.

Great television breaks rules. Groundbreaking television, which is what AMC touts the show to be, creates the rules, sets new standards, and redefines itself through quality, originality, grit and controversy. It takes risks and it’s genuine. Repeating clever slogans doesn’t change the truth: The Walking Dead wastes its potential as it safely prioritizes merchandise over content, and that’s just not good enough for me. 

22 thoughts on “Walking Dead, what happened?

  1. Seriously, Gen, I like totally love you. I could never quite put my finger on what changed after the first season much less why, and I think you kinda nailed it.

  2. I find the writers overlook simple things… simple logistical things… like in tonight's episode, Herschel is bandaging up Rick's hand after Rick goes all psycho tough-guy, and Herschel's doing this under an electric lamp – that works. Are the zombies manning the power plant and keeping it going? Is it coal-fired, or do they just throw another zombie on the fire? Little things like that annoy me. I agree. This show could have been so much more. The first season grabbed your attention and imagination with both hands and kept it. It was new, it was fascinating. It was reasonably well thought out about what a zombie apocalypse would look like. Now it's all high school drama crap and I'm waiting for the cast of Glee to come rocking down the road in a big yellow school bus for a cross-over episode.

  3. The writing is often sloppy and reactive to (what they think) viewers (want, or what will sell), and AMC's marketing is reactive to critics without acknowledgment of the actual criticisms, most of which (like yours) are valid. As for the cast of Glee, it's an interesting image.

    Note: Thank you for your assistance tonight, by the way. You were a great acting editor and I appreciate your efforts. It's been a long week and my dyslexia's kicking my backside. Go team!

  4. Daryl may be a fan favourite (as well as yours) but he's merely one character on a show that houses him. The Walking Dead fails for me for the reasons I give in my commentary. However, I will say that I like the new longer hair look on Dixon, although I'm not sure I like the new direction his character's taking. Also, I was wondering who'd they get to replace Andrea as the new female go-to character to hate on. Apparently, it's Carol. Not a shock but what a shame and such a waste. Ah, I've said too much and yet somehow not enough. Go figure. I'll reserve my little grey cells for content less insulting and more deserving of their simple capabilities.

  5. I'm an average simple guy. I don't think on things like you do. You go so deep sometimes. I like how everything becomes an intellectual exercise with you. It brings meaning where there wasn't any before.

  6. I never read the original graphic novels so I come to the TV show with no idea of the way the novels handles ideas.so I think that makes me more open to the TV series. I'm not blind ti it's faults, some of which are major. The whole problem of the absence of PoC is, of course, the most obvious. I've been disappointed in many storylines and bored by others. But, for me, if I enjoy a character, it sometimes makes blah TV / movies bareable. There are several characters I enjoy besides Daryl. Also I have never liked zombie shows. Zombie are NOT my favorite monster. So when I first watched The Walking Dead I was very leery. But the first season caught me despite the zombies and I enjoy some of the characters so I keep watching. Could it be better? Certainly. But I don't really expect “ground breaking” for mainstream TV. Is it pandering to make money? Certainly. But it is produced by a company in the business to make money so that doesn't surprise me. If the show were to do a major re-do and suddenly become more original and groundbreaking I would be very happy. But I sadly don't see that happening. Despite that, there is enough in the show as it is now, to keep me watching.

    Plus, I admit, I just get a kick out of running around yelling “Daryl! Daryl! Daryl!” :d

  7. I think I identified one thing that bothers me, and it's so obvious. I mean, I knew it bothered me before, but I think I know why. (SPOILER ALERT) The introduction of the new zombies. A great antagonist has a back-story that means something, either to the protagonist or the audience. The new zombies have no back-story, there's not even any real mystery to them, it's just a cheap plot device to try to amp up the tension. It's like the new character that is suddenly and inexplicably introduced to a flagging show, or the shark that a certain character has to jump over.

  8. You've no knowledge of the comics or novels; yet you predicted to me, upon hearing of the tank, that this was a plot device to introduce it.

    At episode three, I called out each episode and what it would contain, even though the show greatly differs from the comics and novels.

    This is not great television. This is television that wastes our time.

    I admit I watched the “Brian” episodes.

    I was fascinated that the writers would choose to introduce Brain (who Phillip Blake is really supposed to originally be) and pieces of his back story from the novels into the current story line. They borrowed from it as inspiration, stealing the pieces that seemed to serve the plot device (his absence, introducing the tank, getting the name “Brian” into the show?) and it was better viewing than I anticipated.

    But, just like the writer in the link you cite above, it only served to prove what the show could have been had it actually made an effort to tell a story instead of sell a brand. The first Governor episode was actually somewhat sophisticated. It depicted aspects of post-apocalyptic life well, and did so in ways the show never seems to portray with accuracy.

    Unfortunately, the same writers (stealing plot lines, never delivering quality) seem to be in place, and it wasn't long before even that brief hope was dubiously quashed. The tank is merely a plot device and we;re left wondering if this was supposed to be filler to extend the season.

    Ironically enough, those two “filler” episodes have been the best episodes since season one. David Morrissey can act his flat ass off (sorry ladies, boy has no backside) – so much so that the other actors struggle to maintain screen presence when performing with him.

    The Walking Dead will never learn. It's clear to me they're in it for the brand and they will milk the populace for however much they can bilk. Sadly, it doesn't have to be that way. You don;t have to pander to the lowest common denominators to have a runaway hit. The original show runner Frank Darabont proved this and they've been riding his coattails ever since.

  9. 1) You don't have to know anything about the comics or novels to understand exactly what I'm saying.

    B) Okay TV is good enough for you? Not for me. We get stuck with it because people accept it and don't demand better. When we, the viewers, demand better quality television, we get things like All in the Family, Twilight Zone, Star Trek and Game of Thrones.

    Last) Your excitement over Daryl (esp so early on in the show) denotes that the branding is working. It was a superficial character that took off, without reason other than Norman Reedus is good looking, and they developed it to suit the fans.

    It's a brand. It works because you let it. It's our money they;re after. If we don't buy the fluff, we'll get the quality we deserve. You say you'd be pleased it the show became more original. Demand it or it never will. As it stands, your part of the masses sending the message to AMC that half-baked crap works as long as they pretty it up when they dish it out. No thank you.

    Game of Thrones. The Wire. Deadwood. Homicide. Twilight Zone. I'll put my viewing power there so executives know to deliver the goods and give us quality programming.

  10. T shirts, mugs, dolls, pens, key chains, hats, shoes, notebooks, decals, belts, video games, calendars, DVD's. phone cases, watches, posters, trading cards, bumper stickers, denim patches, jackets, business card holders and more.

    Look what I found.

    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-the-walking-dead-wants-to-brand-your-apocalypse-survival-20140122,0,7803300.story#ixzz2rDnDu8R9

    “But AMC and “The Walking Dead” are teaming up with emergency preparedness company My Family First to put out “Walking Dead”-branded survival kits. So what do you get in the $130 kits, which are available now for pre-order? Enough supplies to “assist two people to survive for 72 hours.” That includes emergency food rations and water, first aid kit, LED flashlight, two mylar space blankets, two ponchos, leather-palm work gloves, waterproof match booklet and four procedural face masks (in case you need to amputate something).”

    Last year in the forums Gen said she feared this would happen and told us all why she was so opposed to it. I wasn't convinced then but I know she's right now. It won't be quality. An over-priced gimmick, this won't help, educate or save lives. $130 for what's sure to be cheap branded crap that will break on use if it functions at all? No thanks.

    Gen, you were right. Consider this my very public apology. The Walking Dead is a cash cow willing to sacrifice its viewers for the contents of their wallets.

    Captain Sebastian

  11. CS I remember that thread well. It was 33 pages long. Gen took a lot of crap for speaking out in favor of safety and health. She was concerned that useless or inferior products would be branded and marketed to the masses for consumption and that the public would be cheated and duped for it. The kits described in the article won't meed the needs of the individual and are drastically over-priced. You can get far more value for money by building your own and tailoring it your needs. Gen is known for her sarcastic response to detractors “I'm only psychic on Thursdays between twelve PM and noon – It's a slim window so you might want to park a lawn chair and camp out for next week.” but I'm starting to wonder if she isn't clairvoyant after all.

  12. Didn't that thread go down at the end of 2011? I remember Gen posting “Merchandising health and safety concerns” that December. If I'm thinking of the right thing (and it sounds like it) she said she was worried about the quality of merchandising in general and that they would brand low quality Bug Out Bags with inferior products in them. She took a serious beating on that thread for months for expressing her concerns. Wonder how all the participants feel now that it's actually happening.

  13. Blythe Lovely is correct. Gen started that thread not last year but December of 2011. The last post to it was in 2013. She has taken a lot of abuse on it from rabid show fans. Because of this, I cross-posted my original comment here to that thread (now 37 pages long) with a link to this blog article. Eating my own words isn't easy but they're mine and I was wrong. I just never thought AMC would stoop this low.

    Captain Sebastian

  14. Captain Sebastian,

    Thank you for this. As I said many times in that forum, I hoped this wouldn't happen. I'm sorry it's happening now. Some of our readers have requested more informational posts on the contents of Bug Out Bags/72 Hour Bags/Go Bags (specifically mine as I'm currently in flood, drought, fire and earthquake country) and maybe now it would be a good time for me to post that. I look forward to your support with this and any helpful comments you and others can provide.

    Kip. see you between noon and 12 PM today.

    Blythe thank you for the corrections. That was one hell of a thread but I wore my fire retardant unnerwares when reading and posting on it. I'm not looking for apologies but I would like very much to think this would open constructive discussions that would be helpful to everyone in emergency situations.

    Thanks to everyone reading this. I'm sorry that The Walking Dead sucks. If I can encourage you to enjoy the books, graphic novels and show but not purchase merchandise I'm going to do that. Please vote for quality and vote with your wallets. if we don;t demand better we will never get it, and we deserve quality television.

    Love to all, Gen

    PS: Thank you Cheryl for being my editor and sounding board this morning. Dyslexia – it's not for sissies 🙂

  15. Unfortunately at the end of the day no matter how good (or bad) a TV show or film is inevitably it will always be about the money.
    The money-makers last concern will be how useful or effective their merchandise is. As long as it is making cash they just don't care.
    The very last thing they will be thinking about are the people who pay $130 for a survival/72 hour pack and end up with a pack worth $40 that doesn't help them survive longer than half a day.

  16. They're going to kill off Michonne in season four's return. They screwed up her character and its arc so bad I'm not sure they have any use for her anymore.

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