Last season’s finale of The Walking Dead attracted 10.5 million viewers, helping to make it the most popular dramatic series in basic cable history for men, 18-34. The show has legions of diehard fans, it’ll probably break more records when it returns on Sunday, and on top of all that, it’s about dead people who come back to life and eat your face. All of those things should add up to awesome. Instead, The Walking Dead is one of the most frustrating and consistently disappointing shows on TV. Most weeks, in fact, they manage to do the impossible: make zombies boring. How does it happen? By picking the wrong stories to tell. Here’s an example…
To begin the fourth episode of last season, our hero Rick Grimes and his gang of survivors need to pull a bloated zombie out of a water well. So they hook a rope around the brain eater and slowly pull him to the surface. The zombie is displeased, as they usually are, and struggles, gurgles, and resists the procedure as best he can. Finally, after great discussion and close-ups of furrowed human brows, the group hoists the zombie up to firm ground, only to have his midsection pull apart and body rip in half. The undead legs and lots of undead blood tumble over the edge and back down into the well. End of scene. Humans frustrated.
Here is my question for the show: How did you manage to turn the zombie apocalypse into an episode of Little House On The Prairie? Plus, like, a little blood. People’s best friends, their children, their spouses, have all turned into flesh-eating monsters, and the story you want to use to explore that is about fishing something out of a well?! As Seth Meyers would say, “Really?!” Any other farm work you want to capture in this week’s episode? Maybe you could clean out the rain gutters? How about shooing zombies away from the cornfields? Or maybe you could build a fence? Nothing more dramatic than a nice sturdy fence. Oh wait, it has to vaguely involve zombies. How about a fence with some blood on it?
OK, I’m being a jerk, but this is the how frustrated I am by The Walking Dead’s wasted potential. There is no show on television with a premise as unbelievable juicy as this: the world is ending, you must fight the undead to survive. But the execution often feels drier than a PBS documentary. Mad Men is about an advertising agency. That’s it! They sell ads. Sometimes they don’t even sell ‘em. They just think of them and talk a little while, then have a cocktail. And it’s riveting. Why can’t The Walking Dead be even half as suspenseful and dramatic as a show about the best way to market a pack of cigarettes? I think it can. Here are some ways things I’d do to pump up the brain eating action.
Less Talky, More Shooty: Season 2 of The Walking Dead felt a lot like going to the most boring summer camp on the face of the earth. Every other scene was about a group of people sitting around a campfire, talking about what happened that day and what might happen in the future. “Do you think we should find a new campsite?” “I don’t know.” “I’m hoping to get my merit badge in gimp.” “Oh, cool.” Mercifully, guitars don’t seem to have survived the apocalypse, otherwise I’d expect a chorus of “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” to burst out. Halfway through last season, I gave up and started rooting for the zombies. Again, you have built flesh-eating monsters into your show — use them! Every minute spent discussing plans instead of literally fighting for your life is a wasted minute.
How About Making It Scary?: The Walking Dead producers are careful to point out that the show is a thriller, and not a member of the horror genre, but come on. You’ve got people with green skin, no eyes, and blood coming out of their mouths. If you can’t scare me with that then why bother waking up in the morning? To those who argue that television can’t be terrifying, may I direct your attention to American Horror Story? The school shooting was one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen — TV or otherwise — and don’t even get me started on Baby Frankenstein. And if you can’t scare me, at least give me laughs. George Romero’s zombie films define the genre, and they always have a dash of comedy. Screams or smiles, please!
More Set Pieces: Any great TV show should have you asking “Remember the amazing scene when…?” Friday Night Lights, Sopranos, Seinfeld, Cheers, The Wire, Breaking Bad — just say their names and countless amazing scenes jump to mind. Say The Walking Dead, and you know what I think of? The pilot, when Rick is stuck in the tank, surrounded by zombies with no weapons left. And then a bunch of other scenes that I think are cool and realize are actually from 28 Days Later. The last memorable moment was over two years ago! Come on guys, wow us with something we’ll never forget.
Give Me Some Characters!: What can you tell me about the characters on The Walking Dead? There’s Rick, the leader. He’s meticulous, moral, and is dedicated to his group sometimes to a fault. Now, for one million dollars, can you tell me another distinguishing personality trait of a single other character on the show? There’s Herschel, who owned the farm. He likes The Bible, I guess, and not killing zombies. Until he killed a lot of zombies. There’s Crossbow Guy. He believes in… shooting things with a crossbow. Then there’s the black guy who… wears that green shirt a lot. And wife woman, short-haired lady, Asian guy, and the little kid. They’re all… uh… well, they talk sometimes. And then kill things sometimes. How about this? Can you tell me any of their names? Nope? Personally, I’ve had to look up Rick three times just to write this article, and I’ve seen every episode of the show. Not a good sign. If you can’t remember who these people are, or describe quickly what they’re like, chances are it’s because the show hasn’t given you the ability to. In a recent interview, showrunner Glen Mazzara said that for The Walking Dead to work, it needs to be character driven. Which means he’s got his work out cut for him, because right now, these people are flat, one-dimensional story machines. They do what the plot tells them to do, with no individuality or creativity. Think about Lost. A similar story about a group of people trying to survive, and think of how well we knew them. Each had their own identity, their own story, their own way of handling things. On The Walking Dead, everyone has their own weapon. That’s pretty much all you can say for them. If they can fix only thing on the list, this is the one.
But all that being said, I’ll still be watching on Sunday night. I guess I’m just a sucker for a good face eating. How about you?