Monday, April 4, 2016

Advertising, Postmodernity, Greed, the Fourth Wall: Breaking Up with The Walking Dead

I am done with The Walking Dead. Like Scandal before it, it has come time for me to write a public break-up letter to a television series that has been able to count me among its many faithful viewers for years.

My husband has no problem breaking up with shows. He does it flippantly, like he's tossing out a crumpled paper cup.

The metaphoric aftermath of a night of my husband's Netflix surfing. 
For me, it hurts more. I feel invested. If I've been watching regularly, I've given you my time and attention, and that was a conscious choice. I believed in you, and I likely weathered through some rough patches (which I already wrote about with TWD), giving you the benefit of the doubt that the chemistry was momentarily off but that you would get it together eventually.

But I'm done with you, The Walking Dead.

The Season 6 finale with its maddening cliffhanger was the breaking point, and I will take with me the memories of a tightly-written, character-driven plot that drew me in but could not sustain itself. Or (as I will explore here in a moment) perhaps could have sustained itself but chose the route of greed and flash instead of art and respect for the viewer.

Spoilers for the Season 6 finale from here on out.

I am not the only fan who is disappointed. Here are some reactions from Twitter last night:

Many critics were likewise unimpressed. Writing for Vareity, Brian Lowry had this to say:
Still, to borrow one more baseball metaphor, with such a murderers’ row of aces in its bullpen, “The Walking Dead” shouldn’t have to resort to throwing the creative equivalent of junk pitches. And that’s why despite its highlights, the finale simply drove home the sense that while this season wasn’t a complete swing and a miss, those in charge continue to make aggravating unforced errors.
 Matt Fowler writes on IGN:
But to have the audience on the edge of their seats for so long and then NOT give them an answer? Well, that sucked. And, unfortunately, it's almost become textbook Walking Dead at this point.
Matt Brennan, in a review for The Week titled simply "The Walking Dead Season 6 Finale Was Really, Really Bad," said this:
After all that hype, Negan turns out to be a leather-clad lesson in overplaying your hand, delivering a risible monologue sprinkled with phrases like "pee-pee pants city." It's at once disappointing and unsurprising; it's rare for an episode this atrocious to pull off the necessary Hail Mary. Still, for Negan to fail so spectacularly to live up to the hype is like rubbing salt in the wound.
 Tim Surette writes for TV Guide that:
This was a mind game to The Walking Dead instead of a real story. Imagine how livid we'd be if Glenn was killed. We'd be lining up to see Season 7 to watch how Rick and the group got out of this situation, or how they'd retaliate. But nope, we're only lining up to find out who died, which is a completely different and entirely empty motivation for watching. 
But Surette ends by saying, "Sigh. It worked, though, and we'll be watching Season 7."  Other critics were harsher. David Sims at The Atlantic promises that this is:
certainly the end of my relationship with this show, a decision that was solidified by me catching the first few minutes of Talking Dead (the after-show debriefing that airs every week on AMC) and seeing the comic-book creator Roger Kirkman promise that Negan would drive The Walking Dead’s story for 'several seasons' to come.
I'm with Sims. I'm done.

I don't care who died. I don't care who lives or how they get revenge. I don't care about any of it anymore because the show runners have failed to hold up any respect for their viewers and have instead made it clear they see us as nothing more than mindless pawns that they can manipulate into clicking across their multiple platforms to feed them advertising dollars. I no longer have any faith that they care about the plot or the characters or the art at all, and it's an ugly thing.

In the same Atlantic discussion, Lenika Cruz writes that "Unfortunately, this last season of The Walking Dead points to the sad fact that the show views the question 'Who will die?' as its only narrative currency—" My focus is definitely on the word "currency." She mentions that other shows (like Game of Thrones, which is also in the midst of a gigantic fan-frenzy-filled cliffhanger) use that question to their advantage, but they respect the viewers enough to give us more than just that. The Walking Dead no longer shows that respect.

I'm also with Melissa Leon who calls the show "trolltastic." That's exactly how it feels. And it's not just the ending on a ridiculously overblown cliffhanger that has me feeling like I've been trolled. It's the entire atmosphere that has surrounded the show. If you watch The Walking Dead as it airs (the only way to avoid a social media swarm of spoilers), then you can't miss the commercials, and the commercials are desperate.

Between promotions for Fear the Walking Dead (a spinoff that isn't spinning off very well), interjections from Talking Dead, clips of Fear the Walking Dead's airplane sequence that's only available in one-minute bursts and has to be pieced together like a really boring jigsaw puzzle, promotions for the show's official online game app, and replays of the scene you just watched before the outcome of it has been resolved with a voice over telling you to tune in online to see how it was filmed, I don't know how they even manage to save space to sell to actual advertisers. It's clear that fan interaction with side products is a real (perhaps the real) motivating force for the show. (It's almost like someone running for president so he can hock his lines of steaks, but I digress.)

But when they do manage to make room for traditional commercials, the commercials are often trying to cash in on the loyalty and interests of TWD fan base. Several commercials have specifically had zombie tie-ins and references to the show and zombie culture. Everything from fitness bands to cars have been shoehorned into the theme.

I understand that a show needs to make money, but this obvious cash grab has to be balanced with the viewers' artistic needs.

Scott Gimple, the show's executive producer, is attempting to explain the cliffhanger and asking viewers to have faith in the show runners:
I think if you approach it from a place of skepticism or with the idea that there’s some sort of negative motivation or cynical motivation behind it — if you come at it that way it’s difficult to convince you otherwise. I do think we’ve done enough on the show, we’ve delivered a story that people have enjoyed.  
I ask people to give us the benefit of the doubt that it’s all part of a plan, all part of a story. I truly hope that people see [the season 7 premiere] and they feel it justifies the way we’ve decided to tell the story. That is the way it is in our minds. I know what [the season 7 premiere] is and I feel that it delivers on what [the season 6 finale] sets up.
Fans don't owe that kind of dedication, especially when the fans' artistic needs have been neglected, and I suspect that they might have finally tipped the balance too far with this one. For one, the show hasn't been enjoyable for me for the entire season. Watching it with all the interruptions has made the suspension of disbelief necessary to get lost in the fantasy world absolutely impossible. How am I supposed to be concerned about the characters' fate when I'm being interrupted by a "see how this scene got made" promo merely moments after it happens? You're not even giving me the illusion of a narrative escape. And for what? The off-chance that I will go click on the website? Don't you think I can find that on my own if I really want it?

I'm reminded so often that I'm watching a show while watching The Walking Dead that it has become an exercise in postmodern meta-ness. All of the commercials for the side gigs create an ever-growing web of interconnected marketing ploys that I can see as nothing other than marketing ploys. I'm not asking interesting questions about the characters and their motivations or futures. I'm just swatting annoying distractions away until the show comes back on. It's like watching TV in a room full of giant gnats. It's not fun, and it's not heart-wrenching. It's just annoying.

When the fourth wall is broken for the sake of narrative complexity and formal experimentation, I'm all about it.

But when the fourth wall is broken so that you can sell a couple more downloads of your gaming app, I'm out.

I sincerely hope that The Walking Dead's commercial success is not a harbinger of the TV to come. I love television as a narrative tool, and I think that some of our best writing and art is coming through the medium, but if we don't find a way to balance the interests of greed and artistic development, that wave may have hit its high water mark, and I fear that the aftermath will be nothing but gross remnants of decay left on the shore.

So, I didn't mean to make this post sound so melodramatic, but I guess that's where we are: Save TV. Break up with The Walking Dead. 

Images: Rene Schwietzke, weisserstier

No comments:

Post a Comment