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.