Monday, November 2, 2015

The Walking Dead: Lazy Writing or Audience-Pleasing Genius?

I wrote yesterday that I have a love-hate relationship with The Walking Dead. Allow me to elaborate.

I came to the show about a season late and binge watched all of Season 1 (just six episodes) in a week. I was hooked on the tight, intense writing and passionate interplay of characters, particularly drawn to the way the show examined macro-level social issues like gender roles (which I wrote about here) and racial intolerance through the micro-level drama of individual characters.

I have tuned in regularly from that point on, joining millions of other Americans in what is frequently billed as one of the most successful television series of all time.

Indeed, the numbers don’t lie. The current season (Season 6) premier brought in 14.6 million viewers, and its DVR rating has surpassed every other show for a long time. While live-viewing ratings have stagnated some this season, it’s probably because the show was competing against major sporting events. When you add in the DVR numbers, the ratings return to their previous glory.

Add to that all of the different spin-off projects in the works (including prequel series Fear the Walking Dead, and star Norman Reedus’ pending motorcycle-based reality show) and it’s clear that The Walking Dead has the audience draw that most shows only dream of. Compare, for example, TWD’s viewership to American Horror Story (a popular, critically-acclaimed show that is also horror-genre based and filled with gore, so there is ostensibly some viewer overlap potential). AHS’ Season 5 premier (airing around the same time as TWD Season 6) brought in only 5.8 million viewers, or about a third of TWD’s total.

So when I say I love The Walking Dead, I’m clearly not alone, but what about when I say I hate it? Well, I’m not really alone, then, either.

Anything with 15 million viewers is bound to draw some haters, but even those of us who watch the show willingly and for enjoyment find ourselves with some serious criticisms of the delivery. Consider this list from Funny or Die detailing the problems with the Season 6 premier or virtually any of the show recaps like the ones from The Atlantic or Slate. Much of the buzz around the show is generated from people talking to one another about what they wish the show had done better. I have to ask myself how many people are only watching the show to imagine a better version, and do I count myself among them?

This brings me to last night’s episode, which I was fully prepared to hate. (And there are spoilers for everything up to this point, so be forewarned). The previous week’s episode, “He’s Not Here,” exemplified everything I’ve grown to hate about the show. It was flashy, over-dramatized, and full of cheap thrills. It catered to meme-able images and social media hashtags.

I fall into the camp of those who believe Glenn is probably not dead, but I think he should be because otherwise they’re just messing with us. Too often, the show writers seem to fall into predictable patterns of who they kill and who they leave alive, and it makes the true horror of a post-apocalyptic landscape (the sheer, raw brutality of it all) fall away, leaving us with static characters and one-dimensional plotlines that rely more heavily on fancy make-up effects and bloody carnage than actual psychological turmoil. If anyone starts talking too much, the joke goes, you know they’re going to die. If the moral compass starts to gain footing, they’re going to die. If a character gets introduced haphazardly with little backstory, they’re going to die (I’m looking at you, Ethan Embry).

And then there are the times when the show writers seem to reach out from behind the screen and behave like gleeful children peeking into boxes when they can’t wait for their parents to get up on Christmas morning.

For instance, this season there are a bunch of zombies heading back toward the safe haven of Alexandria, and though multiple characters had already said aloud that they were heading toward the town, and though we should be well programmed to know that any settlement our protagonists find will be quickly unsettled, the show writers felt it necessary to make the pack of zombies walk through an empty field with a giant arrow proclaiming Alexandria to be the direction they’re heading. I get it. For real. How stupid do you think your viewers are? Just trust me! A little. Please?

For the first three episodes of this season, I left each one feeling more and more frustrated with the show and less and less engaged. I was contemplating a break up (much as I once did with Scandal). I’d given them years of my time and attention, but I felt toyed with and played for cheap thrills.

Then last night’s episode happened, and I loved it. All of the overwrought drama and bloody gore for the sake of bloody gore fell away as we got a quiet, measured, slow drumbeat through Morgan’s transformation from bloodlust-filled killer to steadfast pacifist. We see the Art of Peace and learn about the principles of Aikido. It was about as different from the previous three episodes in tone, delivery, and pacing as a television show that’s still about zombies can be.

I could wax poetic about what I loved about the episode at length (and you can read some accounts that fit the bill pretty well here and here), but that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I now am left with a question.

Are the show writers lazy, or are they geniuses?

In short, are they depending on the easy thrill of a dramatic kill (or in Glenn’s case “kill” wink, wink, know what I mean?) instead of having to spend time on tight writing and thematic development? Or are they playing to multiple audiences at once? Have they figured out the formula of exactly how many ridiculous, stunt-filled, cheap shocks someone like me will sit through before they have to give them a slower, more nuanced, philosophy-laden episode? (Three. It's three.) Are they monitoring viewership and adjusting accordingly until they provide just enough carrot at the end of the stick to keep each of their different audiences tuning in? Are they, like Darryl and Sasha, figuring out just how fast they can drive ahead without losing the bulk of the zombie horde or being overtaken by the mindless masses?

I mean, it's pretty obvious that if they made every episode like last night's, they'd lose a lot of viewers.

So maybe the haphazard pacing of the episodes and frustratingly shallow treatment of the characters is a calculated move to ensure that the bulk of the audience stays squarely tuned in.

If that’s the case, they’re still toying with us, but maybe for something deeper than laziness and the drive to phone it in on the writing. At some point, I am going to have to accept that what I like in a television show is not necessarily what the majority of America likes. Here are a list of some of the television series I consider superb and their reception: Carnivale (hovered around 2 million viewers; canceled), Deadwood (also around 2 million viewers when it was also canceled), The Wire (almost cancelled because of low viewership), Treme (cut short because of low viewership) . . . I think you see where I'm going with this. 

If The Walking Dead is able to weave in deeply philosophical themes and meaningful character development while maintaining incredibly high ratings that give them the power to keep going, then maybe I should just suck it up. Maybe, just maybe, the show writers are smarter than I think, and maybe they think I'm smarter than I think they do, too.

Keep on steering this zombie horde, TWD; we have no choice but to follow.

NaBloPoMo November 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment