The Walking Dead Malaise
Great article from Vanity Fair about the storytelling malaise that is growing at a similar rate to which the ratings are plummeting (still the biggest show on cable) on The Walking Dead…
It’s no secret that the critical tide has largely turned on AMC’s zombie series The Walking Dead. Though it’s still a ratings giant, the show saw major viewership atrophy in its seventh season as a result of eroding goodwill, thanks to its tendency to employ death fake-outs and gruesome cliff-hangers—not to mention 16 episodes that felt directionless at best. Can The Walking Dead be saved and returned to its glory days? Or should it be allowed (like Game of Thrones) to bow out gracefully despite the still-high viewing numbers? A new interview with executive producer Greg Nicotero indicates that if the show can be saved, the first step will be admitting it has a problem.
Though Robert Kirkman’s comic books have found a way to squeeze a continuous story out of Rick Grimes and his embattled band of zombie survivalists, it’s clear that at 99 episodes, The Walking Dead is unsure of how to keep a story about the undead, well, lively. A show that once got major juice from jump scares, dazzling set pieces, and bumping off major characters will, of course, naturally run the risk of audience fatigue.
But the real problem The Walking Dead faces is a major misconception that Nicotero (and presumably others) have—that the way to solve audience fatigue is to turn their attention to the dead, rather than the living. “After seven years of making sure the audience does not get fatigued and goes on this journey with us, it’s pretty important,” Nicotero said in a recent interview with the Empire podcast, referring to the show’s experimentation with special effects. He added that his team has “been able to express ourselves more powerfully visually”—by, say, adding a tiger in Season 7. But visual spectacle alone does not make good television if the human drama can’t keep up.
Nicotero went on to say that he and show-runner Scott Gimple tried to keep their effects experimentations tied to the plot—but throughout Season 7, it often felt like the undead tail was wagging the dog. Nicotero explains:
Scott will come up with some ideas and he’ll immediately reach out and say, “I have this idea for this art installation-type zombies” The walkers who were in the Oceanside episode with Tara who were in the sandpile. We really wanted them to look different. The idea that they were buried under the sand and desiccated and lacking any sort of moisture. It’s really good after seven years to – it’s a constant thing.
The Oceanside creatures, though, are a perfect example of a plot that felt invented just so Gimple and Nicotero could test the extremes of prosthetic barnacles. Tara’s detour to Oceanside in all its grisly, water-logged glory is given much more time and weight than, say, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment later in the season where she finds out that her girlfriend, Denise, died while she was away.
The same goes for the other (admittedly impressive) Season 7 set pieces Nicotero mentions with pride. Whether it’s Michonne and Rick cutting down a freeway full of zombies, or the weaponized battle zombies that menaced our heroes in the back half of the season, Nicotero points out that the show has “to remind the audience every once and awhile that the world is dead.” But not at the expense of the living.
The desire to go home on these set pieces may explain why some of the more important character-driven action of the season was sidelined. Nicotero himself mentions budgetary concerns, while over on Vox Aja Romano distilled the issue like this:
I realize a lot of that sidelining might be down to budget concerns — it’s understandable that it might not have been in the production budget to show Sasha full-scale blitzing Negan’s compound, for example — but I’ve been continually baffled that the Walking Dead writers can’t find any other way to take us on these journeys than by telling us after the fact that they happened.
Many of the most portentous plot points that have happened this half-season, like Sherry freeing Daryl and escaping herself, or Ezekiel finally deciding to join the Alexandrians, or Sasha’s suicide run, have been narrated by the characters afterward when they could have made for compelling moments of drama if actually depicted. The show’s handling of them has contributed to the overall feeling of ambivalence and lethargy.
In other words, you can’t make a satisfying series out of listless human drama that’s occasionally punctuated by visually experimental zombie action. And you certainly shouldn’t spend an entire season building up to a battle everyone knows is coming, only to ultimately defer it to Season 8. You’d think the show had learned its lesson about the dangers of delaying satisfaction by now.
But what’s to be done, really? The Walking Dead is still one of TV’s most popular series, meaning that this hollowed-out version of the original show is still working for plenty of people. And those ratings imply that even if the creators themselves thought it was time for Rick and the rest to hang up their hats, the show would almost certainly keep shuffling along. Will The Walking Dead learn its lesson in Season 8, and turn its focus back to the characters that once made the show’s grisly premise work? It seems unlikely. Instead, we may continue to see this reanimated version of a once-lively thing shuffle and groan its way onto the Sunday-night schedule for several more years to come.