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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
When it premiered back in fall 2010, The Walking Dead was an instant ratings sensation for cable channel AMC. Before TWD, AMC was primarily known as the network that aired Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two critical and awards-show darlings with mostly meager ratings (both average in the two to three million range in viewers). TWD, on the other hand, averages around seven million viewers, and even more when the midnight repeat is factored in. What lead to such huge ratings for this show? Let’s examine the smoke and mirrors behind the phenomenon of The Walking Dead.
The zombie-craze has caught many people in its web, so much so that indie zombie movies are now a legitimate genre (just look at the glut of upcoming ones if you don’t believe me). So, what lead to the zombie resurgence in recent years? Arguably the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake reignited the public’s fascination with flesh-eating, mindless monsters, but I’d argue that zombies never really went anywhere at all; they’ve always been a popular genre convention. The 60s had Night of the Living Dead, the 70s Dawn of the Dead (and The Crazies, technically), the 80s had the Return of the Living Dead franchise (as well as Day of the Dead, the underrated Romero one), the 90s had the Resident Evil video game franchise, and the 2000s belonged to the Dawn remake, 28 Days Later, and other “re-imagined” genre fare, as well as an increasing number of video games (the Half-Life franchise, the aforementioned Resident Evil games, etc).
So if zombies never really went away, why is The Walking Dead so extremely popular? This is a concept that’s hard to grasp for me, and I’ll probably be way off base here. Though I have no empirical evidence (only anecdotal, sorry), I have noticed, especially so within the past five years or thereabouts, the tendency for nerd-culture to often imagine fantastical end-of-the-world scenarios wherein you are the ultimate survivor of the so-called “zombie apocalypse,” and so now you must figure out how you’re going to survive. This template has proven so popular that college campuses play week-long games of Humans vs. Zombies (I’ve seen this, and it’s stupid) and popular comic book and animation conventions often have a “How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse” panel, as if this were actually a real, impending thing. Books like The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z by Max Brooks set up this scenario as well, expanding the zombie-genre into literature.
Yes, catering to nerds is what has pushed the genre into territory known only as “insufferable” to decent hardworking folks like me. I’m usually one of the last people to decry fans for “ruining” something in pop culture (I’m just now starting to feel that way about Bronies, months after people started caring – I guess I just stay away from certain sectors of the internet) and I am very, very forgiving of many things in pop culture. But I have to step up here and call people on their bullshit. If you are one of those people who think that the zombie apocalypse is actually going to happen, and that you’ll be the last man or woman alive (you won’t be), then you are a complete and total idiot. Likewise, if you think The Walking Dead is the best show on the air (it’s not by far) then you are also a complete and total idiot. This brings us back to the original point: Why does The Walking Dead suck so much? Here goes…
Reason This Show Sucks #1:
The Cast is Awful
I really don’t know how hard it is to cast actual Southern actors, but it can’t possibly be as hard as this show makes it out to be. None of the principal actors speak with a convincing Southern accent. I’m not asking for Foghorn Leghorn to appear or anything, but when your main characters are British (Rick), Washingtonian (Shane), and Illinoisan (Lori), there’s a problem when you try to realistically depicting them as if they just stepped out of a peach farm in rural Georgia. Of the entire cast, the only character who even seems remotely Southern whatsoever is season two’s Herschel (the excellent Scott Wilson, who is actually from Atlanta). Daryl and T-Dogg (yes, that’s a character’s name) are also Southerners in real life (from Florida and Atlanta respectively) but neither of those two, like Herschel before them, are main characters. Several episodes go by with little spoken by all three of these actors.
Let’s talk Rick (Andrew Lincoln) for a moment. As the main character, Rick should be the lynchpin in the success of TWD (outside of the excellent special effects that is). But every time he opens his mouth, I just can’t take him seriously. How atrocious is his accent? So atrocious that he goes in and out of his caricature of a Southern man not just from scene to scene, but from moment to moment. His voice work changes based on his pitch and intonation. So if he’s whispering, his accent is different than if he is talking normal. And if he’s shouting, like in a recent season two episode, he sounds even more different. How hard would it have been to cast someone like Josh Holloway in this role instead? Was it necessary to cast a British person who knows nothing of the American cultural way of life in the South?
So who dropped the ball here? AMC shows have generally done a pretty fantastic job of casting their lead roles. Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston have anchored their shows, earning dozens upon dozens of awards and accolades. Andrew Lincoln (Rick) is almost a complete non-entity on TWD. The less said about Lori (who just seems to be channeling Lady Macbeth) and Shane (who seems more like he belongs in a gym on the Jersey Shore) the better.
Reason This Show Sucks #2
There’s way too much wheel-spinning going on
In season one this wasn’t as noticeable because the show only ran six episodes. But the seeds of it were planted when it took the final two or three episodes to get into the CDC bunker and get situated. It was much more apparent in season two when it took something like seven whole episodes to find a single little girl (honestly the less said about this stupid plot deviation the better). Since the fate of the girl was revealed, it has taken the show another three or four episodes to decide what to do with a prisoner our main characters captured. Each and every decision on TWD seems to take the characters days and days to figure out. This may be because they lack a clear leader, but it also because the writers have no idea how to handle this massive hit.
Y’see, the problem here is that AMC, realizing they had lightning in a bottle, probably decided this show needed to be spread out as long as possible in order to ride the gigantic waves of cash it was bringing in. When the entire first writing staff, as well as show runner Frank Darabont, left the show (or were fired, whatever), TWD’s new staff probably sat down with AMC executives and purposely mapped out a long, needlessly deviated tale for the majority of season two. This has allowed the show to slow down and suck in those huge ratings. But it also means that a good ten to fifteen minutes of plot time are all that’s really allotted from week-to-week. Situations that could and should happen one moment to the next never really do, leaving a disjointed feeling from new episode to new episode. Which is the same exact problem another serialized dramatic show about a small group of survivors had, leading us to…
Reason This Show Sucks #3
The Walking Dead is basically LOST with zombies
Honestly, this sounds great on paper, but obviously fails in execution. The similarities between LOST and TWD are really pretty amazing. The first season of TWD revolved around getting to the CDC, which was almost exactly like the hatch story from LOST’s first and second seasons. In season two of LOST as well as TWD, the main characters take a prisoner who is bound, beaten, and tortured by the group’s outcast character (Sayid in LOST, Daryl in TWD). In TWD, the prisoner also tells the group purposely misleading stuff about his people, which is exactly what happened in season two of LOST with Ben.
Characters are almost analogous to each other, including Lori/Kate, Rick/Jack, Carl/WAAAAAAAAAAAALT, and Shane/Locke (and even Daryl has some Sayid and Locke in him too). Some of these have to be merely coincidental, and yet I can’t help but feel that some of it was done on purpose as well. It’s almost too obvious to not be noticeable. One of the things LOST is best remembered for is its characters. Of course the main difference is that LOST actually had some likeable characters (Sawyer, Jin, Hurley, Juliet), whereas TWD has like two characters I actually give a crap about (Daryl, Herschel).
Stylistic and artistic flourishes between each show are also similar, and the woods/swamp of Atlanta serves nearly the same purpose as the deep jungle did on LOST. There’s a potentially “evil” rival camp of survivors in TWD, just as there were “The Others” on LOST. It keeps going on and on and on. The wheel-spinning we mentioned earlier is another eerily similar problem that both shows now share.
Reason This Show Sucks #4
The show has no idea what to do with its characters
The biggest problem TWD has had (and a problem first pointed out by the AV Club if I recall correctly) is that this show has no real villain. Sure, they kill zombies now and then (but mostly they just argue with each other), but zombies are not really the villains of this story. Shane was ostensibly a villain, but his character was so all over the place, that it was kind of hard to see him in that role because he just looked crazy most of the time. There’s supposedly another group of survivors nearby (ones who murder, rape, and pillage – if the prisoner is to be believed), but we haven’t even met them yet and obviously won’t until the third season next fall. So what we have is a big group of people who have no purpose being together other than just surviving. Thing is, that may have been cool at first but now that we’re way into the series as a whole the novelty has almost completely worn off.
When season two began, the characters met a group of folks living on an idyllic farm and crashed there in order to get their bearings and rest up before heading off to Fort Benning. The farm folks seemed nice enough, except that we never really got to know each of them at all outside of Herschel and daughter Maggie (another unconvincing Northerner playing a Southerner). I’m not entirely sure how many people even live on the farm. Characters appear and disappear at random. There is a 16 or 17 year old boy who I haven’t seen on the show in literally months. There are a few older ladies, one of whom must be Herschel’s wife I guess. Maggie has a half-sister who wanted to kill herself, but I don’t even know her name (which made it hard to care about her decision – note to all other shows out there: you can’t just drop in a character randomly and expect anyone to give a shit when they do something like that). Even main characters (and I use the term ‘main’ loosely here) like Daryl, T-Dogg (again, seriously this is his name), Glenn, and Andrea disappear for long stretches of time, sometimes having no lines at all for weeks and weeks.
In order for the audience to be as engaged in TWD as we are in shows like Mad Men etc, then the characters are simply going to need to get better. I’m not sure that’s possible at this point. So maybe kill off half the cast or make time for people to have more lines and do more things. Do something to get us to care. Make an effort even if it may already be too late. And if you do kill off half the cast, kill off the half that no one cares about. This show really needs to do something drastic to get the audience to care again, and soon. Being a show about surviving and occasionally (once or twice an episode) killing zombies just isn’t going to cut it in season three.