Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Walking Dead: How to NOT Become a Zombie

This is not a defense of The Walking Dead. I refuse to write one. Why? Doing so admits that the attacks against it have some sort of potency. They don’t. Rather, what this is about is what I have found in every negative review and critique of the second season--a disconnect from the basic reality of the show.

“It makes me wonder if we’re even watching the same show.”

If I'm watching a show with any intellectual depth—from Survivor to The Walking Dead—inevitably I or one of my most trusted and respect friends utter that statement at some point. It's hard not to after hearing such derisive responses to what is so obviously so good. That confusion was exactly what was behind my indignation when I read an article on's Grantland that says the following:
It’s important to remember that someone actively chose for it to play out like this, to begin the eagerly anticipated sophomore season of a highly rated show with a never-ending traffic jam and end it stalled out in a field. Whether the blame belongs to executive producer Frank Darabont (who was relieved of his duties at some point during the production of these episodes) or the bean-counters at AMC who decided that, post-Mad Men contract extension, the network could better afford a show in which characters argue about killing zombies rather than actually killing them (sort of like subbing in truffle oil for actual truffles or casting Stephen Dorff after Brad Pitt turns you down), this wasn’t a case of natural storytelling progression or even following the blueprint laid out by the comic. This was an independent and wildly wrongheaded decision to transform a promising series about surviving a zombie apocalypse into an overheated soap opera about rural campsite tension.
(The bolding is mine.)

The surety with which this writer stakes his claims is so disturbing because he omits something that is so on-it's-face obvious that it's laughable. That's right, it's both disturbing and laughable at the same time. Let's start with why it's laughable. The crux of the writer's problem is the second bolded selection from the quote above--that the show purported to be about the zombie apocalypse isn't actually about the zombie apocalypse anymore.


Once the zombie apocalypse starts happening, it doesn't stop happening. That's kind of the definition of an apocalypse (unless we're talking about the show Angel). Even if it's not the apocalypse and just a zombie outbreak, the zombies haven't been shown being cured or exterminated yet, so it's still happening. Why when watching would you ever think to yourself "man, it's like there isn't even a zombie apocalypse going on"? Do you not understand the literary concept of a "premise"? When you have that thought and see the characters trapped on a barren farm, making runs into a destroyed town, skulking through the woods in search of a missing little girl, debating the point of living, and cowering in fear of not only the world but each other, do you think they're all just irrationally emo and paranoid? Yes, part of storytelling in the television medium is visual, but these people aren't running around in Disney World trying to get on the teacups. They're navigating around abandoned, stalled, and destroyed cars. They're breaking windows and creeping around corners in a washed out and somber high school. They're wearing the same sullied outfits and sullen expressions. Why? Because there's a frickin' zombie apocalypse going on and they're always surviving it. You don't have to kill a zombie every episode for the story to be about that, obviously.

Not as obvious is what makes the writer's perspective so disturbing. Another excerpt from the article displays how:
But nothing summed up The Walking Dead’s creative rigor mortis more than the episode’s big reveal. As the smoke cleared from Shane’s barn-exterminating service and a skinny blonde child growled and hissed her way into the light, my first thought wasn’t “My God!” Or “Oh no!” It was: Who the hell is that? For a full minute, I honestly had no idea. Equally anonymous both before and after she had a hole in her head, Sophia was a meaningless MacGuffin from the start because we were never given a concrete reason to care about her.
Sophia was...meaningless? Anyone who knows me knows I am far from the hippie-namby-pamby-love-everybody type but, seriously? First I have to wonder how you forget who Sophia is and that she's missing when the characters mentioned her in every episode. Maybe it's the writer in me, but knowing this was the "mid-season" finale I was waiting for the reveal of Sophia's fate all episode. This forgetfulness is about more than plot mechanics though.

Sophia was, as the author acknowledges, a child. Doesn't that do anything to stir you at all? Are children not a value, especially in a world where the future of humanity is in doubt? Not only that, she was the child of a main character who we saw suffer through her daughter's disappearance--the disappearance which was the result of a mistake by Rick (the show's hero) much to his anguish. Actually, Rick's mistake and Sophia's disappearance directly affected every character and event this season. If it's impossible to drop the context of the zombie apocalypse for the seroes, it's impossible to drop the context of Sophia's disappearance for this season. Still, there's even more going on here.

Sophia was the concretization of the basic question of this season: "Is there any hope in this new world?" Her disappearance revealed the basic psychologies and values of each character. They were forced to take a stand--where they might not in a non-zombified world--on whether to search for her or not, whether to stay or go. Even Carl, the other child member of the cast, took a stand. Why? Because he cared about her and he cares about the life he has. He wanted it to be better and the premise forced him to decide how to do that. How do you not care when even the kid who got shot because of Sophie's disappearance cares? The callousness of this opinion is best demonstrated in the opening to the review:
And so ends the first half of The Walking Dead’s deadly second season, thankfully not with a whimper but with a whole lot of bangs. Still, that’s all there is to be grateful for after seven episodes in which absolutely nothing happened, outside of Carol losing a child and Lori learning she's carrying one — which, when you think about it, is kind of a wash.
The death of a child is a wash? Moral incredulousness aside, I understand that this is fiction and no one's going to care the same way they would about actual people, so I'll turn to the grand point that all this culminates in: "absolutely nothing happened." Already I've discussed how the zombie apocalypse is all encompassing and the zombification of a little girl was emotionally defining, yet somehow nothing happened. How can that statement possibly be true? The only way to understand it is to look at what the writer would consider as something happen.

Return to the original selection I quoted. In it, I bolded the author's dichotomy between nothing and something: arguing about killing zombies vs killing zombies. He reinforces this point later by adding, "If the characters have nowhere to go, then there’s no reason for us to go along with them." The definition of "somewhere" and "something" here is completely physical. It is an understanding of storytelling that is completely devoid of humanity. As I stated before, television is a visual medium, so yes, wandering characters should end up in a new physical location to visually concretize their journey. However, if a character's journey is only physical--if it is only about going somewhere and doing something--then it's not a journey at all.

Look at other shows. How I Met Your Mother is an easy example. The physical location/action is laid out in the title. The end point is seeing the mother and Ted, the main character, in love, be it at their wedding, their family home, or some other romantic location. But the journey isn't simply just meeting her. Ted doesn't just date a bunch of women until he meets her. No, he finds himself in unique romantic situations that he learns from to come to a better understanding of romance, himself, and being a father. It's easy to see how a show about relationship would be less physically motivated than the zombie apocalypse (err, I hope, unless killing zombies is like sex to you), so I'll turn to another example.

As an avid Survivor fan, I see a similar "physical first" perspective when people discuss the quality of the show. Since it focuses on a game about voting people out where there is a winner, the emphasis is usually placed on who gets voted out, how they get voted out, and who wins. Zombie kills are blindsides (when a player is voted out without any foreknowledge). The basic argument is that blindsides are more exciting and the game is the point. But, like How I Met Your Mother, the journey isn't simply just people voting for each other over and over again. They interact, forge alliances, and literally survive on a deserted island together. An editing emphasis is placed on how the vote came about, not just what the vote was. If the latter was the case, episodes would be five minutes long. They're not though because good storytellers understand what happens when you take this "physical first" mentality to its logical conclusion.

A friend of mine told me about the time a director/producer came to speak at his job. The director's discussion concerned how he approached filmmaking. One "rule"in particular disgusted my friend. They insert an action scene every 20 minutes to keep guys from getting bored. Guys, men, I don't know the exact word that was used (this is second hand information), but think of the kind of person who would write for ESPN, the stereotypical "man." You know, the kind of person who would watch a Michael Bay movie where the emphasis is on explosions and action. You know, the kind of person who would watch The Walking Dead and say "more zombies, more killings." I'm not the only one to make this connection either. Actor Norman Reedus who plays Daryl recently said:
I know when people watch the show they go, "More zombies. More death." But you have to do a bit of talking. Otherwise it's "Transformers."
What Reedus is basically saying is that to include the dating, voting, and blindsides you have to earn it (to use a bit of writer lingo). "Earning it" essentially means explaining its meaning, explaining why things are happening. Now the "physical first" crowd is going to respond that the meaning is the premise. Ted dates to meet the mother. The players in Survivor vote to win the game. Rick and company kill zombies to survive. This definition of meaning though ignores one question, the one that only humanity faces--why. Why does Ted want to meet the mother? Why do the players in Survivor want to win the game? Why do Rick and company want to survive? I hope it's apparent now why I included the other examples. The answer to the last question seems obvious. You survive because there is no other alternative, there is no choice. Except there is, a fundamental one--life or death.

To choose to live is to assert that you want to live by knowing why you do what you do. It is to consciously select your values and the actions you must take to realize them. Doing so is not a "physical first" task. Just like a television show should have a physical end that concretizes the journey the characters have gone on, what you do is the physical concretization of the journey you're on. In television, both combine to make "the show." In reality, both combine to make "your life." You see, a story is at some level a reflection of life. I'm not saying it's not important to kill zombies and go somewhere. I'm saying it's important to do that as long as you know why it's important to do that.

In life it's nearly impossible to know the psychologies of other people and to understand the reasons they do something. Think of how difficult it is to understand yourself. Now consider figuring it out without being inside your own head. Nearly impossible, right? What fiction provides us with is the opportunity to be inside the heads of others, to know their psychologies and understands the reasons they do things. Yes, they're fictional, but that's the best part. It's a safe place to learn about how people different from--and the same as--ourselves think and interact with the world, which gives us an opportunity to improves ourselves.

Let me be clear here. I'm not saying enjoying fiction should necessarily be an introspective process. Rather, human beings are thinking creatures and if that reality isn't acknowledged, it's simply bad storytelling like say, Transformers, or any number of zombie features that only focus on killing zombies. Every person acts on some sort of motivation. If they didn't, they would be dead. Of course, isn't that exactly the question Rick's wife Lori asked this season? What's the point of living in the zombie apocalypse? Maybe there isn't one and they're just The Walking Dead.

Get it? The title of the show reveals it's theme, an ambitious use of the fantasy genre to ask the audience, "what does it mean to be alive?" By placing it in a far fetched premise, the audience is removed from the discussion enough to ask the question without feeling that they have a personal stake in it. Once again, I'm not saying you have to ask the question to watch the show. Rather, you have to understand that the show is asking it to watch it. Otherwise you'll be writing reviews screaming "physical first," "more zombies, "more death. That is why I find that perspective so disgusting. It not only ignores the identity of the show, it ignores what it means to be human. And why it does isn't an issue of intelligence or ability. It's an issue of effort. And if someone won't even try, what does that make him?

If you don't know why you do what you do, all that separates you from a zombie is that the zombie doesn't have thoughts it ignores. If we all don't know why we do what we do, then we're living in the zombie apocalypse already and don't know it. And when work that is so obviously so good is treated with reviews that miss the mark so badly, not due to a lack of intelligence but due to a lack of effort, that is what I fear--and it's scarier than any fiction that could ever be produced.


David said...

Great post and great analysis.
It baffles me that people don't understand that the Walking Dead is not and never was an action show about killing as many zombies as possible.

Anonymous said...

I agree with David, this is a great post. If the show was just about killing zombies the show would end up being boring. However since the show gets you invested in the characters stories, it becomes very engaging. For example, I literally shed tears when I saw Sophie come out of the barn. That's just plain good writing. I hope the show keeps up the good work.

Adam said...

I agree with all of this. The Walking Dead was NEVER about a bunch of hicks grabbing shotguns and blowing the brains of zombies away, like it seems like many of these people expected. I mean, do people not realize how stale that would be. It would be awesome for one episode, but then get older than a Russell Hantz confessional.

It's far more important that a show like this invest in characters and storytelling. Not to mention repeatedly blowing off the heads of zombies would NOT be an accurate portrayal of a zombie apocalypse at all (unless you're trying to die). The way the show does a zombie apocalypse is a lot more fascinating and interesting to me than just some blood and gore. I guess people these days just want dumbed down entertainment.

Anonymous said...

I do believe most people understand that the show is about the people, and that "The Walking Dead" is tongue in cheek irony, because the main characters are the walking dead. In other words, most of the audience understand that the point of the show is that the zombie virus represents the evil and cruelty humans inflict upon each other.

The reason that even people who watch the show still dislike it is that the characters are not likable or relatable in any way, and the acting is so poor. Listening to a Brit and a New York Jewish guy doing southern accents ripped straight from Brad Pitt's Aldo in Inglourious Basterds is just cringe-worthy. The show so blatantly tries to steal the atmosphere and keen dialogue of Lost (which was an actually brilliant show), but it fails every scene. Lori is more boring and useless than Kate. Rick makes Jack look like Han Solo, and given the choice, I'll take Hurley/Charlie as my comic relief over Glenn any day. The Sawyer-wannabe is the only likable member of the cast, and I agree with the general consensus that the show would be better if everyone else were killed off and the title were changed to "Adventures of Darryl".

I do realize that the show is based to some degree on the comics, but that just means the comics can't be very good either. Did the author(s) seriously reunite Rick with his family in issue 2/3, rather than let him search for a while? What is Rick's motivation now besides Survival? In a television show, staying alive is the bare minimum for an onus. Wouldn't Mad Men for example be a terrible show if Jon Hamm only had to worry about not dying?

The plot twists are contrived, and nothing we haven't seen in a soap opera, Lost, etc. but again, that wouldn't be so bad if the actors and characters weren't godawful. This show is honestly terrible, and I continue watching in the hopes that it will get better, even as it keeps getting worse.

To anyone reading this comment, if you'd like to watch a truly brilliant show, I suggest Breaking Bad. It is the most excellent program on TV right now, and possibly ever. The acting is flawless, the tone deliberate and intense, and the characters are watchable.

This article seems to condemn WD's viewership for not appreciating what you consider a fine jewel, but maybe the rest of us can just see it's zirconium.

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