Slogging Through The Walking Dead
The curse of being an apocalyptic long-hauler
Last week was the mid-season premier of The Walking Dead, the long-running AMC television series. As is the case whenever there’s a new episode, the show was trending on Twitter. But that night, it was trending largely because of a popular question someone had asked of the Twitterverse:
When did you stop watching The Walking Dead?
Nearly everyone had an answer, which shouldn’t have been surprising. The series has managed to hold onto only a tiny fraction of its viewership that, at one point, rose to over 17 million people. These days, it’s not uncommon for that number to dip below 3 million.
For this week’s ‘Daly Grind’ newsletter, I figured I’d pipe in on this topic. But first, I think some background is in order — both on me and my relationship with the show…
I love zombie movies. I believe the first one I saw (as a teenager in the early 90s) was 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, directed by George Romero. Those familiar with Romero know that it wasn’t his most famous horror film, or even his most famous zombie film. Still, I really dug it… and the reason had very little to do with the zombies themselves, and even less to do with the gratuitous gore (which I’ve never been a fan of).
It was the premise that drew me in: desperate strangers from very different backgrounds (ethnically, occupationally, and academically) stuck together in an apocalyptic situation, and forced to rely on each other to survive. This, of course, is a common theme of the zombie genre.
In this case, the film’s characters took refuge inside a shopping mall as the world outside (and inside, at times) fell apart around them.
The genre was famously and masterfully revived (after a long break) with 2002’s 28 Days Later, followed by an underrated sequel and a pretty decent remake of Dawn of the Dead (whose cast amusingly included Modern Family’s Ty Burrell as a pompous, well-to-do playboy).
Other not-so-good zombie flicks followed, but I got pretty excited in 2010 when I started seeing commercials for a new zombie-themed television show about to debut on the AMC channel. It came at an especially good time, being that both Lost and 24 (my two go-to shows) had just ended their respective runs. It was called The Walking Dead, and it additionally appeared to incorporate some modern-day western elements that felt intriguing.
I didn’t know at the time that it was based on a popular graphic novel. I just knew that it looked very cool.
The show debuted on Halloween night that year, and I was immediately hooked. Sure, it borrowed some material from other zombie features (one scene in particular was pretty blatant), but it didn’t take long before the show stood on its own and produced some very strong characters, intense moral themes, and edgy storytelling.
Andrew Lincoln was perfect as small-town sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes. So was Jon Bernthal as Shane, his hot-headed partner. Their supporting crew, including three actors plucked directly from 2007’s The Mist (another apocalyptic tale), was very well cast. Add in the unique (on-location) Georgia backdrop, and some brilliant writing, and you had must-see TV every week that only grew more compelling (and better financed) with each season.
The show drew enormous ratings and created a pop-culture phenomenon that was good enough for three spin-offs (one of them has yet to be released).
Even for a show with a lot of action, The Walking Dead’s drama was spun methodically and purposefully. Brewing tensions and background story-lines were built up carefully over several weeks, and drew to emotionally powerful pay-offs.
Here’s one of my favorite such moments (where the fate of a long-missing character is suddenly revealed):
Unfortunately, things began to fizzle by the seventh season (which I suppose, in retrospect, amounted to a pretty good run). The cast had grown a bit too large, some longtime characters (those who hadn’t been killed off) had become less interesting, and the storytelling had lost some of its bite (no pun intended).
I’ve long contended that the show’s “jump the shark” moment came in season six, when Glenn (Steven Yeun) was seemingly torn to shreds by an alley full of walkers, in what was one of the most intense, shocking, and well-done scenes in the show’s history… only for the audience to discover several episodes later that he had, rather ridiculously, escaped harm.
Still, I kept watching.
Glenn’s original death scene was really how the character should have died... because it was his actual death, in the following season’s premier, that compelled many loyal fans to actually abandon the show. This was one episode after the graphic novel’s most famous villain, Negan (leader of “The Saviors”), had been introduced. Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan took on the role.
From what I understand (though I’ve never read it), the graphic novel depicts Negan executing Glenn in the most brutal, visually grotesque way imaginable. And the writers of the show, despite having deviated from the novel’s content countless times, decided — in this particular case — to stay true to the material. They even added the execution of a second well-liked character for good measure.
Well, the prolonged, over-the-top-gory scene was so disturbing (to the point that some viewers reportedly became physically ill and at least one had a heart-attack) that many fans threw in the towel. I didn’t really blame them.
Still, I kept watching.
Unfortunately, the writing steadily worsened after that. Within a few weeks, the Negan story-line had become unbearably repetitive and exhausting. So had the character, from his long-winded, trollish monologues to his obnoxious swagger. To make matters worse, every general in Negan’s army of Saviors shared several of the same debilitating characteristics. It was a real drag.
I don’t blame the actors, of course. I’m sure they performed their parts exactly as written, as did the rest of the cast, which grew hugely as the broader story expanded to other groups of people living in multiple communities.
Bizarrely, some of the new characters seemed more suitable for a Lord of the Rings spinoff than a modern-day zombie tale. I’m talking about people like the Shakespearean-speaking King Ezekiel and his terribly-CGI’d (and impossibly cognizant) pet tiger. I’m also talking about people like Jadis, the leader of the “Trash People,” who, along with her loyal followers, inexplicably communicated in fragmented words rather than sentences. Man, were they annoying.
The show’s writers could at least blame Ezekiel on the graphic novel, but Jadis was a character they had come up with on their own, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone thought she and her gimmick would be a good idea. In fact, the bartering scenes between her and Rick amounted to some of the show’s all-time worst attempts at charming comedy.
Still, I kept watching.
Meanwhile, established characters were shedding the perspectives and years of development that had made them interesting. Some would find themselves suddenly paralyzed by introspective analysis, and weighing different life-views (aka finding themselves) in reaction to the latest tragedy.
That type of thing made sense in the early seasons, when the zombie apocalypse was still new, and characters had yet to grow accustomed to the perilous world they now lived in. But so many seasons in, the melodrama felt labored and more like filler material than anything else. The internal struggles were sometimes so ridiculous that they’d prevent a character from taking an absolutely perfect opportunity to — once and for all — end the threat of Negan.
Even the actions scenes — which were once intense, gritty, and unpredictable — felt grandiose and insultingly telegraphed. In some cases, one could even describe them as swashbuckling, which is not a good thing when you’re trying to present a serious drama.
Still, I kept watching.
The Negan era dragged on for a full two seasons before finally drawing to a somewhat gratifying conclusion. During that time, however, the show lost millions of viewers who’d understandably run out of patience.
Half a season later, in what felt like the abandonment of a sinking ship, Andrew Lincoln left the series. Rick Grimes’ departure didn’t go down the way the show’s remaining audience was expecting, and that was actually a good thing. Still, his absence made the show even harder to watch.
Still, I kept watching.
There have been a few glimmers of hope since then. Samantha Morton turned out to be a pretty strong villain as Alpha, and the Whisperers story-line wasn’t terrible. Also, Negan (yes, he’s still around) is finally tolerable as a reformed good guy. But the show never did regain its footing. It’s still largely a mess, and often feels like it’s on auto-pilot, as are many of the new characters they’ve introduced (who I couldn’t care less about, and sometimes can’t even remember the names of).
As I mentioned earlier, the show’s mid-season premier aired last week. Unsurprisingly, it was crap. The writers really do appear to be just running out the clock.
Still, I keep watching.
“Why?” you might be asking (if you’ve read this far). Why would I subject myself to this torture? Part of it is my affection for the genre, but it also has to do with brand loyalty.
The Walking Dead is a pop-culture institution — a gutsy, extraordinary endeavor that I fully invested in early on (at a time when few others had). I weirdly feel inclined to see it all the way through… until its ugly, assuredly disappointing end.
The show’s final season will start later this year, and while I’m really hoping for some pleasant surprises to usher things out, I know they’ll be outnumbered by continued frustrations.
But I’ll be there… watching… along with the remaining stragglers. And if you choose, for that reason, to deem people like me the real “walking dead,” I will not protest.
“My mercy prevails over my wrath.” — Rick Grimes
Is there a show that you stuck with until the very end, no matter how bad it got? Which one?
Obligatory Dog Shot
When you’re supposed to stay out of the kitchen, and big sis gets to your front-row seat first.
One of my favorite albums back in college was “Throwing Copper” by the alternative-rock band, Live. The group’s unique sound, led by Ed Kowalczyk’s spirited vocals and spiritual lyrics, spawned multiple hits… including their biggest one: “Lightning Crashes.”
Like everyone else, I liked Lightning Crashes, but I think its huge success overshadowed what was really a great album as a whole. While other radio releases like “Selling the Drama” and “I Alone” certainly got their due, I wish more people knew about the amazing songs like “Pillar of Davidson,” which is many hardcore fans’ favorite.
Still, the band had to be extremely happy with the album’s reception. It built them an enormous fan-base, and paved the way for more strong albums to come. I’ve remained a big fan. In fact, Live’s “Dance with You” was even my wife's and my wedding song.
The album pictured below is actually a two-LP deluxe 25th anniversary release of Throwing Copper. Along with the original songs comes previously unreleased material, and also the band’s live set from Woodstock ‘94. It’s a very cool listen.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!