What Went Wrong With The Walking Dead?
The Walking Dead is my favorite TV show of all time. But it hasn't always been a smooth ride. The series has been plagued with issues from the get go. Even the most forgiving hardcore fans of the original show began to question their faith in the overall franchise after two spin-off series – Fear The Walking Dead and World Beyond – failed to impress. The up and coming, but heavily delayed, Rick Grimes movies have yet to materialize adding further frustration to a worn-out fanbase that has mostly dropped off at this point.
So what happened? How did such a promising product end up getting shafted in so many ways and still manage to limp across the finish line with its 11th and final 3-part season on the way? This is the last chance for the series producers to impress. Will they do a decent job of wrapping things up? Will the fans who are still tuning in be satisfied with the results and forgive any transgressions of the past? Will we ever get to see the Rick Grimes movies?
Who's To Blame When Things Go Wrong?
Ever since Frank Darabont chose to bring Robert Kirkman's comic book creation to the small screen, The Walking Dead was always going to face an uphill struggle to gain acceptance from a mainstream crowd. As much as lifelong zombie and gore fans lament that everyone is not like them, most people were really not that interested in these genres in and of themselves. That said, a little contextual gore or other horror elements were creeping into popular TV shows such as Dexter so the ground was being laid for something like The Walking Dead to take off. Even so, HBO rejected the proposition based on the amount of violence and gore contained in the screenplay. AMC were not so squeamish and possibly took a risk to see where this would lead without knowing how much of a breakthrough hit the show would be. It certainly looks like they were surprised by how well the show kicked off. Their reaction to this success? Immediately restrict the budget and stretch seasons to 16 episodes to maximize advertising revenue. Oh... and begin proceedings to fire Frank Darabont for complaining about the budget restrictions.
After a long drawn out legal battle AMC reached a $200 Million settlement with Darabont.
AMC have a lot to answer for when it comes to the overall poor management of a potentially huge, industry-transforming franchise that was offered to them in good faith. As far as I can tell, they were inexperienced at handling such projects themselves and got greedy... very greedy!
From that moment on, and after a more or less successful opening season, The Walking Dead started to suffer from poor management decisions and long drawn out plot contrivances that only existed to match the streamlined budget and clunky, cable TV advertising model that other next gen shows are not lumbered with. Writing around advertising slots and mid-season breaks are elements that weaken the overall story performance of The Walking Dead, but, unfortunately, that's what we got, and the same format has stuck to the bitter end.
Bones vs Thrones
Much as I hate to bring up Game of Thrones on a Walking Dead post, it has to be said... the way that HBO handled their product from the very beginning is enviable.
- Digital camera format as opposed to TWD's dated analog choice.
- A budget and reinvestment practices that put most movies to shame.
- Incredible casting and attention to detail.
- Ten episode seasons to avoid filler.
- Paid service so no nasty ad breaks.
- Musical choices.
Everything just smacks of quality production whether you're a fan of the actual product itself or not. Shame about the last season though. Let's hope that doesn't happen to TWD.
As the two show's fanbases began to grow, so did the animosity between them at times, to the point where it felt like troll hate campaigns were being run. Throners were riding high on their superiority complex backed by high production values and undeniably better quality writing and acting of the early seasons. Of course, many were and still are fans of both shows, and the rivalry was mostly childish and misplaced since they are completely different genres even if they share common elements such as zombies.
What I can agree on is that The Walking Dead could have benefited greatly from the same treatment that HBO bestowed upon Game of Thrones. And despite the problems with TWD, I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic, survival, horror narrative much more than I did the story elements in GoT. I also grew far more attached to TWD characters and felt heavily invested in their arcs more than any character in GoT. Personal preferences override superficial production values every time. At least for me.
Even within TWD's own fanbase and the more general casual viewership, we always had a problem that affected production, writing, and depiction of violence and gore. Nudity and swear words were never an issue because AMC doesn't like to piss off their advertisers even though kids being torn apart by walkers... well that's just sweet and dandy! Can anyone spot the hypocrisy?
Anyway, back to the problem. The Walking Dead comic book series by Robert Kirkman was specifically designed for fans of the zombie horror genre made popular by the legendary George A. Romero. This species of fans tends to be religiously enthusiastic about all other types of slasher horror movies which would make the majority of people puke up their lunch and run for mommy.
This is one group of fans. And they got their bellyful of gore in season 1. I'm not in this group. I'm in the other group, the group that has never cared for zombie fiction or slasher horror movies at all, but stumbled upon The Walking Dead and fell in love with the well-crafted characters, the drama, the setting, the relationships, the action, and all that other good stuff.
Many viewers may enjoy a combination of the two, but a divide definitely exists and this has always created a difficulty for the producers when it comes to knowing which fans to please. Not many series had this problem previously. You either liked the material presented by a niche product or you stayed away. This time, the audience was mixed and yet it was surprising how quickly the non-gore fans adapted to their newfound pastime, maybe closing their eyes or hiding behind the couch through the most gut-wrenching moments of the series.
This divide very noticeably came to its over-the-top, nasty-as-possible conclusion in season 7 episode 1 when two of our most beloved characters get their heads bashed in by a gloating Negan. The regulars – especially the comic book followers – knew what to expect and the episode itself was a masterpiece in my humble opinion spoiled only by the previous episode's terrible cliffhanger and some unnecessary timeshifting and retelling of the story.
The thing is... millions of newbie casuals had tuned in especially for this episode after hearing the hype and boy did they get dropped in the deep end! I imagine for many it was their first venture into Walking Dead territory – with kids in tow! Not exactly family entertainment. I even witnessed one reactor's kid throw up in his mouth a little as he tried to brave the scenes unfolding before his eyes. I mean shit... even the adults are still traumatized from the Glenn and Abe massacre. What were people thinking?
Three Men And A Woman For All Seasons
Frank Darabont's replacement, Glen Mazzara, did an excellent job as showrunner during seasons 2 and 3 despite all the behind the scenes drama created by AMC. Fans at the time complained of a "boring" season 2 on Hershel's farm endlessly looking for Carol's daughter Sofia. For many, including myself, season 2 now has an almost magical, nostalgic aura. Times gone by. The good times when the show was fresh and unpredictable. The payoff was great too. One of the best I've ever seen. And all before the mid season finale. The second half is still one of my favorite arcs of the whole show. So no complaints there.
Season 3 is a mixed bag but Mazzara managed to deliver some iconic moments such as the epic confrontation between Michonne and The Governor. What is a little more controversial is the extremely early exit of Andrea. In the comic books she sticks around for a lot longer eventually getting together with Rick in a romantic relationship. The actress Laurie Holden didn't want to leave the show that's for sure.
Scott Gimple took over as showrunner in season 4 and I have to say I was impressed with the general improvement in the tone, the cinematography, the writing, and other aspects of the storytelling.
The problems began for many with what people call bottle episodes where the focus narrows down to one or two characters instead of narrating the overall story by switching between different things happening in the world at any one time. Bottle episodes tend to slow everything down and can be boring for some viewers as well as making us wait a whole episode or two to see what happens next. I happen to enjoy bottle episodes or flashbacks as they give us a peak into a characters background or motivations, but much of the time they exist as filler in the 16 part season model.
Season 5 brought us the very poorly handled death of Beth which came after a few too many bottle episodes focusing on Daryl and Beth's relationship and Beth's adventures at Grady Hospital. Again, I enjoyed some elements of this arc, but I probably could have come up with a better final scene without too much effort. Why they thought Beth stabbing Dawn with the tiny scissors was a good idea is beyond me.
I have no complaints about the latter part of season 5 leading up to Rick and the gang's discovery of Alexandria. Season 6 is also one of my favorites, but with obvious flaws. Viewer numbers were already in decline and season 6 became too much like a situational soap opera drama for the action freaks. There was no need to use black and white in episode 1 to depict the past either. A very jarring, pretentious choice. But then faded grey color filters and other visual design choices have always been a problem for this series. Natural lighting and crisp rich colors would have given the show a more contemporary look.
The Season 6 finale was intense and prepped the ground for one of the most iconic character entrances in TV show history. The episode was ruined and earned a much lower IMDB score than deserved because of a botched cliffhanger leaving millions of fans on tenterhooks for more than 6 months!
This was a disastrous fumble by Scott Gimple, AMC and whoever else thought this was a decent way to handle the most climatic scene in Walking Dead history. The season 7 premiere did a good job rescuing the fumble, but had to start from scratch flipping between the aftermath nightmare and multiple flashbacks to the Negan head-bashing extravaganza.
I would have kept it simple... comic style. Complete the Glenn death in the season 6 finale to keep the tension high. Fade to black. No music. Fans blowing into their hankies all over the world. Come back after 6 months to show the aftermath and the amazing scenes between Rick and Negan. Abraham lives on to fight the great fight during All Out War and dies heroically saving a bunch of people. There... much better.
Moving on, season 7 suffered horribly from a general lack of quality and very dull settings, namely the Savior compound. Fans were subjected to a long drawn-out storyline of misery, dragging Rick and gang through the mud. The garbage patch people with their Yoda speak were also a strange addition that felt like something out of Star Trek more than The Walking Dead, but I grew to like Jadis as a character and enjoyed her eventual transformation into Anne and the creepy role she played for the CRM.
The season 7 finale with the Battle for Alexandria satisfied fans yearning for a turnaround, but there was a lot of amateurish, goofy, and corny treatment of the whole affair that diminished the intensity, the seriousness, and the realism that would have given us a classic.
Season 8, in my opinion, is where the show really took a nose dive. There was huge expectation built up in the minds of the loyal fans. All Out War!! This was going to be epic! A whole season of Negan and The Saviors vs Rick and his merry gang of survivors. What we got was some ridiculous opening scenes where thousands of rounds of precious ammo were wasted on windows at the Savior compound (Yes I know about Rick's "keep the windows intact" story, but it's still ridiculous), very long Shakespearean speeches to rally the troops every five minutes (thanks King Ezekiel), most of the budget spent on Shiva the CGI pet tiger, overuse of music montages, the death of Carl controversy, and a finale where two grown men chase each other round a tree!
Add some silly ambush warfare and plenty of other scenes where we are not present in the moment, but superficially retelling the events with a musical overlay. Not good enough.
I always use as a reference the moment that Rick is under a bed with Joe's gang stomping around the house. Season 4 I think. That's intensity. Tell the story straight. Keep it simple. Place the cameras well. Let the actors do their job. Then edit for awesomeness. No flowery twattery and other pretentious nonsense required.
Enter Angela Kang, or rather, Kang steps up to the plate to helm Season 9. Can she work some magic and bring about the much desired improvement that was sorely needed already in season 8, but unfortunately didn't materialize? That's not to say that there weren't some excellent and memorable moments throughout season 8, but season 9 proved that the writing, pacing, and overall quality could have been improved at any time. Thank you Angela Kang for delivering a very healthy return to form which was greatly appreciated by the loyal fanbase.
Season 10 was an enjoyable romp following the rise of the Whisperers and their eventual demise. The final Beta battle and death scene could have been a lot more epic, but overall the season was pretty good despite most of it taking place in the same bit of woods that has become a Walking Dead trope.
Carol's arc, in general, began to wear thin and much like Morgan's flip-flopping in earlier seasons between Clear Morgan and Mopey Morgan, she ended up looking like a schizophrenic, bipolar, multiple personality sufferer all in one. May the real Carol Peletier stand up please!
Talking of Morgan, I think it was a horrible mistake to move him from the main show over to the struggling Fear The Walking Dead spin-off. It was also one of the most unrealistic plot contrivances of the whole franchise. A bit like bringing Morales back for a few minutes just to kill him off in the name of fan service. God, I hate fan service!
So here we are tucking into season 11 as it rolls out. It looks promising. I just hope the producers can wrap up what was once a truly great story with some dignity. The quality looks good, the writing interesting so far. I'm sure many character favorites will meet their demise in this final season. It's only to be expected, but I do hope that the series ends on a relatively positive note and gives us a glimpse of where the story could end up in the future. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the Rick Grimes movies are in production and end up being a huge success. I don't think they need to go through theaters anymore. Straight to TV would work perfectly well in the current environment.
Beyond that, I would expect to see more spin-off shows in the future, possibly opening up the story to new environments, possibly other countries, as long as the storytelling is better than what was dished up in World Beyond! That was simply embarrassing. Kids with no experience, 10 years into the zombie apocalypse, traipsing across half the country, because... yeah, whatever.
The Walking Dead will always have a place in my heart. The show inspired me to write my own stories. Maybe someday, some cocky article writer will critique my stories as harshly as I critique Walking Dead products. I would consider that a huge win.
Long live The Walking Dead.
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