* Nights of the Living (and thriving) Dead.
AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, based on the Robert Kirkman graphic novel series, used to be must-see television for me. When new episodes aired I ignored my phone, rescheduled most socializing, and basically put my life on hold for that one hour on Sunday nights when a new TWD premiered. It was much the same for me whenever a new volume of the graphic novel series came out as well. Had to read the whole thing in one sitting…then I could breathe.
The ongoing trials of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his group of zombie apocalypse-survivors had me riveted. It boasted feature-film quality, compelling characters (Daryl, Michonne, Glenn and Carol were my personal favorites) and an amazing cast (Norman Reedus, Danai Guirira, Steven Yeun, and Melissa McBride, respectively). It was also unique in that it was the first zombie apocalypse TV series I’d ever seen.
TWD was essentially a weekly George Romero zombie movie, delivered by the same quality cable network that birthed two other favorite series of mine; “Mad Men” (2007-2015) and “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013). TWD was no slouch in the quality department either.
The first year of TWD, overseen by feature-film producer/writer/director Frank Darabont (“Shawshank Redemption,” “The Mist”, “The Green Mile”) had a genuine feature-film look to it. Shot on 35mm film with slightly desaturated color to give the look of a world gone to seed, it was one of the most vivid visions of a zombie apocalypse yet realized (in TV or in cinema). Sadly, after infighting over budget and other issues, Darabont was unceremoniously fired; and yet the show’s quality didn’t seem (at first) to suffer too noticeably.
Producer Gale Ann Hurd (“ALIENS,” the “Terminator” movies) and creator/producer Robert Kirkman seemed to ably pick up the slack in Darabont’s absence, although the initial cinematic look of the series became slightly more television-looking afterward. For some reason, TWD never quite regained that cinematic look of its first season. I’m not sure how big a hand Darabont had in the cinematography of the show (if at all?), but TWD seemed to have lost a bit of its theatrical sheen after his departure. Luckily, the writing and characters became more and more compelling; especially with the introduction of comic books’ favorite Michonne (Danai Guirira looked like she’d just walked off of the pages of the graphic novels; complete with katana sword and her two jawless zombie ‘watchdogs’). Between the arrival of Michonne and the made-for-TV-series character of Daryl Dixon, the characters of TWD are what made it must-see TV for me.
The first few seasons stayed somewhat true to the early volumes of the graphic novels, using characters (Herschel, his daughters Maggie & Beth), villains (the Governor) and settings (the farmhouse, the prison) culled from its pages, though they were often used in slightly different ways. Some of the changes were interesting and subtle, and defied expectations a bit. As a fan of the books, I appreciated that; I didn’t want the series to be a 1:1 copy of the graphic novels. That would’ve been less of an adaptation, and more of a reprint. I liked that the TV series captured the books’ tone, and brought many of the familiar elements to life, but I was also glad that there were still plenty of surprises.
The sadistic community leader, for example, known as ‘the Governor’ (David Morrissey) was changed from an eyepatch-wearing, heavily-tatted, over-the-top Mad Max-reject of the books to a smooth-talking but no-less-sinister politician for the TV series. While smoother on the surface, he still had many skeletons in his closet (or in this case, severed zombie heads living in aquariums). The Governor’s signature eyepatch later followed, but it was much more interesting to see what led to its need, rather than seeing it already in use. This was typical of many of the smart adaptation choices made for the TV series from the graphic novels. Characters (beloved or not) were occasionally killed off, and not necessarily in line with the graphic novels, either. Once again; there were surprises. Some of them smart surprises, others less so.
Other new characters came along in later seasons, such as burly redneck Abraham (the perfectly cast Michael Cudlitz), on-the-spectrum mullet-sporting genius Eugene (Josh McDermitt), and future “Star Trek Discovery” star Sonequa Martin-Green as Sasha. By this time (the fourth and fifth years) the show had began to lose some of that must-watch luster it had early on, and it’s difficult to say exactly when this happened. Maybe it was an issue of warming up to new characters only to have them killed off a season or two later (?), or maybe a bit of sameness was setting in…
* Kill. Rinse. Repeat.
Storylines and situations began to repeat; each time Rick and his group found a new sanctuary (the prison, cannibal-haven Terminus, Alexandria), it was either invaded by hostile outsiders, or Rick and his group were treated as hostile outsiders themselves. The show was still very watchable largely for the characters, but it was becoming increasingly formulaic.
Now I was starting to see why the late George Romero’s zombie movies worked better as standalone feature films; there are only so many stories to tell in a world gone to s#!t.
* Zombies and other disposable characters.
Ravaging groups of rogue living humans, just as in the graphic novels, were a far worse threat to the survivors than hordes of reanimated corpses. The ‘walkers’ themselves (they are never actually called zombies on the show) were slowly being downgraded to something more akin to inclement weather than wet-your-pants walking nightmares. Scary yes, but not as shocking or horrific as they were in those early seasons. Killing zombies on the show became more of a chore, like cleaning hordes of spiders out of a long-shuttered, cobwebbed basement. Despite their consistently brilliant makeups (realized by makeup genius/producer/director Greg Nicotero), the zombies had, excuse the pun, lost their bite.
Even with the titular threat being reduced to a metaphor for the survivors themselves (taking a cue from a line of Rick’s from the graphic novels, “We are the walking dead”), the show was still consistently enjoyable though by the end of season 5, it began to feel tired. TWD was still a good show, but no longer a great show.
Season 5 was also when the show began to seriously cheat its audience by playing cheap shell games with the fates of characters. Arguably, this is what all writers do with their creations, but we (the audience) should never see the strings of the manipulation. With TWD, they were becoming as thick as suspension bridge cables. Great new characters, such as ‘Doctor Denise’ (believably realized by Merritt Wever) and ‘Noah’ (charismatically played by “Dear White People”’s Tyler James Williams) were introduced and then killed off in almost an assembly-line fashion. The deaths on the show became predictable and less impactful. Warming up to new characters seemed increasingly pointless.
* Fool me once…
Season 6 took it one step too far with the fake-out death of series’ original Glenn in the midseason finale; Glenn appeared to be killed as a horde of ‘walkers’ (the series’ euphemism for zombies) seemed to be ripping out Glenn’s guts on camera. But it turns out, thanks to blatant camera cheating, that a corpse had landed on top of Glenn (thus providing the entrails) and Glenn somehow (inexplicably) crawled to safety. I think I literally yelled “Bulls#!t” aloud at my TV that night.
At the risk of sounding a bit like “Misery”’s nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), Glenn’s fake-out death reminded me of those silly one-reeler Saturday matinees of the 1930s-1950s, where the hero’s car would be seen careening off a cliff. But by the next installment we’d see a newly inserted shot of a brick being placed on the gas pedal just as our hero jumped to safety in the nick of time. These were the kinds of cheap theatrical tricks TWD was engaging in now, and my passion for the show dimmed considerably after that. I don’t mind having my emotions manipulated (that’s what good drama is supposed to do), but it shouldn’t resort to cheating.
And things would only get much worse for Glenn Rhee soon.
* Batter swings and misses.
The end of season 6 and the first four or five episodes of season 7 were where I officially checked out, with the introduction of the graphic novel’s favorite foul-mouth, baseball bat-wielding sadistic bastard Negan (“Watchmen” star Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
As a fan of the graphic novels, I knew that the uber-villain Negan and his beloved barb-wired bat “Lucille” were coming sooner or later. As I said earlier, the series was loosely following the general guidelines of the graphic novels, so I anticipated the characters’ arrival. But what happened with his introduction of Negan was a change in the show’s perspective; this was no longer Rick’s show; its perspective was being gleefully handed over to the sadistic Negan.
As in the graphic novels, Negan’s first act was to use Lucille to graphically bash in Glenn’s skull (far too graphically, in my opinion). The image of Glenn’s eye outside of its socket was simply too much, even for this show. This wasn’t just sadism; it was torture porn. And to make it worse, the beloved character of Abraham was also murdered in the same fashion, on the same night.
TWD was becoming less about empathizing with the show’s heroes and more about sitting back and enjoying the torture porn through Negan’s eyes. It had crossed a line for me, and I’d had enough. I tried watching a few more episodes after Negan’s introduction, but I was now thoroughly numbed to the plight of Rick and the survivors. None of it mattered anymore.
Yes, Glenn Rhee met the same fate as his character in the graphic novels (and even the same way), but the TV series predicated its season 6 midseason finale around a blatantly manipulative cheat of Glenn’s death… only to kill him off a few episodes later (?). What was the point?
* No return on my emotional investment.
Why bother investing in lovingly crafted/acted characters only to wait in gleeful anticipation of their labored and cruel deaths a few episodes down the road? This was more than just torture-porn; it was deathwatch porn.
I also found myself asking a similar question with the graphic novels, as they became more and more about ceaseless wars between rival tribes. TWD (in both incarnations) rapidly devolved into never-ending tribal feuds; ever-escalating, and increasingly immune to common sense. TWD was now the Hatfields and the McCoys but with zombies. Apocalyptic ‘war’ arcs between rival tribes were happening all the time now.
Frankly, it was all becoming a bit boring. Death of characters in drama without emotional investment is precisely why Star Trek has the redshirts; they’re the pawns that move the story along, nothing more. No one cries at a redshirt funeral. Everyone cried at Spock’s.
* Hold that tiger.
Oh, and the introduction of ‘Ezekiel’ (Khary Peyton) and his pet tiger (?!) was just f–king ridiculous in both versions. How the hell does this creature maintain its bodyweight in a post-apocalypse? Tigers need a hell of a lot of fresh meat, and it’s not as if there are meadows full of grazing livestock in the zombie apocalypse, or Rick and his gang would be chowing down on fresh steak every night. Not to mention that local grass is always maintained (as are trees, and other vegetative growth). Female characters also seemed to have an ample supply of cosmetics on hand; not to mention that the cars and generators always seemed to always have ample fuel as well (?).
* “Fear the Walking Dead”; another nail in the coffin.
It was around this time that I tried to watch TWD’s spinoff series, “Fear the Walking Dead”, which was supposed to a prequel to its mother show by showing viewers the beginnings of the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of all-new characters based in Los Angeles. I managed to sit through the first entire season and three episodes of the second, but soon gave up. It was boring. The new series felt like a retread of its mother series, only with less interesting characters. Hard to imagine a show that makes otherwise colorful Angelinos look boring, but…well, there you go.
I’ve heard through the grapevine of fans that “Fear…” is getting better now. Some say that “Fear…” is, in some ways, superior to its parent show, but frankly I’m not interested anymore.
* No Longer a Dead-Head.
The one constant of TWD was that its characters tried mightily to hold onto their moral ground despite the circumstances. Characters would cross the line, but they almost always tried to find their way back. Or, in the case of Carol (Melissa McBride), they would accept exile from the group as ‘punishment.’ TWD was as much as tale of redemption as it was survival, as evidenced by the emergent humanity of Daryl and Michonne. Hard choices were often made, but they had consequences as well. It wasn’t enough to just survive; it was about living to be something more than future zombie chow. The survivors struggled to remain human in the face of increasing inhumanity.
During the show’s earlier seasons, there were moments of fleeting hope, such as the group’s caring for baby Judith, Glenn’s courtship of Maggie, survivors tending the prison gardens, Rick and Michonne falling in love, or even something as whimsical as Rick’s son Carl finding (and eating) a restaurant-sized tin of chocolate pudding all by himself.
During the later seasons, sadism and the degradation of fan favorites such as the crossbow wielding ass-kicker Daryl (who was made to be brutal Negan’s houseboy for a few episodes) were becoming par for the course.
Just sitting through an hour of the show felt like I was being bludgeoned by ‘Lucille’ every week.
After five fairly solid seasons, a cynically manipulative sixth, and a few episodes of an unbearable seventh, I decided it was time to get off “The Walking Dead”’s carousel of torture, degradation and cynically sadistic glee.
Maybe the show will get better, or maybe not. Either way, I don’t care anymore. I’ve stopped watching the show and I’ve stopped reading the books.
In an increasingly brutal and tribal political age, I can simply turn on CNN or my local news to see human beings acting irredeemably horrible to each other on a daily or weekly basis.
12 Comments Add yours
It’s funny because I’ve never seen an episode of The Walking Dead or read the graphic novels, but I still identify really strongly with what you’re saying here. It feels like this is the trajectory of all our media and story-telling now. It’s all just about wallowing in awfulness and misery with no hope in sight.
Now, I like dark stories, but there has to be some positivity as well, or it just becomes numbing and grating.
I know you’re not into games, but there was one I played aways back that I had an experience with similar to what you’ve had with TWD. Was called Life Is Strange. It was a beautifully made, impeccably artistic game, and initially I loved it, but it was just so relentlessly bleak and unhappy. Not violent like TWD, but very emotionally brutal. Tragedy porn as opposed to torture porn, I guess. And it never got better, and by the end I just wound up feeling kind of beaten down and traumatized.
I don’t mind a dark story either (see: my blog for “Annihilation”) but there has to be either a crumb of hope, or at the very least something worthwhile to say. TWD’s only ‘message’ (last time I bothered to watch) was “Life sucks, then a bully will come and take it all away… again.”
Thanks, but no thanks.
Once again you hit the nail on the head and captured my sentaments much better than I could articulate. Keep up the great reviews 😀
Thanks! Glad to see I’m not the only disillusioned former Dead-head. 😆