Criticised for its flaws yet still persistently watched by millions, The Walking Dead features an apocalypse as cosy and homogenised as we’d like it to be.
The Walking Dead has just limped to the close of its fourth season and the question needs to be asked: what will you do to survive another? Hardly compelling television, people still flock to the show in droves as if it smells of fresh meat (or at the very least of cheap metaphor). Based on show writer Robert Kirkman’s original – and still highly entertaining – comic book series (which has recently celebrated its tenth anniversary), the TV counterpart is now one of the most successful cable shows ever made.
Given there might even be a spin-off (though they’re not sure about that), the show’s march of success doesn’t show any sign of letting up. It’s unfortunate, because The Walking Dead TV show fails on nearly every level. And yet it’s huge, its regular and consistent critical drubbing seeming to do it no harm, indeed to not even stop the people that criticise it from watching every week. So what gives?
The Walking Dead’s critical drubbing does it no harm, stopping not even those that criticise it from watching every week
The show started off promising; original showrunner Frank Darabont, who seemingly excels in translating the work of others to the screen, masterfully lifted the rough basis of the original narrative in such a way that the characters from the source material, alongside their new compatriots, really live in the moments they occupy, in which the viewer is engrossed and compelled to follow their struggle. And then, once the show was picked up for a second season, executives decided to slash the budget and fire Darabont. Cheers gang.
Though, as much as The Walking Dead’s second season is truly the lowest pits one could hope to find themselves in, one can’t help but feel that they clearly knew what they were doing. Not, I wish to stress, in the creative sense – Darabont’s plans for season two sounded bold and sublime. But the realisation clearly was that people would surely watch this show even if it was utter dreck. And so Glen Mazzara was brought in to replace Darabont with the outright ludicrous instructions to limit the amount of special effects used and to keep location shooting to a bare minimum. That’s great guys. Nice going.
The series, both comic and televised, prides itself on its strong characterisation and its no-holds barred examinations of the human psyche. These ideas were clearly jettisoned, along with the notion that the characters should go to different places and interact with dead people come season two; beyond the inherent racism, the show has its marginalisation of black characters at this point in its run (it has since confronted this head-on in all fairness) with such figures as T-Dog – the ONLY black character at the time – often left out of shot or given no scripted lines for entire episodes at a time.
You also have the idiocy of the writing (several wells available? No one is going to drink out of the well with the zombie in it surely? Oh.) and the cypher-like lack of defined personality in the main protagonists. Judith’s behaviour is awful, but why? Because she’s a woman? Shane is a bad guy, and has to be killed? But then Rick announces he’s going to run things the way Shane, who saved Rick’s sons life, was suggesting they should have been all along? And it seems like they never leave that damn farm, or at least do leave so irregularly that you might as well be watching The Darling Buds of May mixed up with The Day After. Season two’s final episode then had a number of cast members, some of whom the show never really took the time to introduce, eaten by the undead. And no one even mentions them come series three.
The constantly changing team of writers never seems to find replacements that do anything differently to their predecessors
Series three of The Walking Dead was, by comparison, a huge improvement. More zombies to break up the whiny monotony (though they only seem to ever represent a threat when the writers thinks it’s handy for pacing) and some of the more aggravating cast members were out of the saga come the end of the series. Regardless, the constantly changing team of writers never seems to find replacements that do anything differently to their predecessors, and so the development of characters and the actions they commit is perpetually leaden and laden with exposition about how, why, and whatever it is that is happening to who.
The Governor is a good man, but actually a bad man. Daryl is a bad man, but actually a good one. People are losing their humanity. And so on. All ground that has been covered, badly, previously is now being covered, badly, currently. A new showrunner for season four (Scott Gimple, after Mazzara apparently threw in the towel) washes, rinses and repeats this idea, albeit with more zombies than ever before.
An alternative opinion: Is The Walking Dead actually the best thing on TV?
Which brings us to the issue in hand. Zombies, along with their undead cousins, vampires (and the peeps what turn into the dogs too, I suppose), have fascinated us for years. Centuries in fact, but in their current, most familiar guises, the last few decades. And out of these studies of the uncanny in the human, of what the ‘inhuman’ will do, the Romerian zombie apocalypse is still the most frightening and real. Not, I hasten to add, because zombies are scientifically believable, but because the fear of the collapse of everything haunts us, fascinates and terrifies in equal measure.
We watch The Walking Dead because we want a homogenised and ‘safe’ representation of the end times, lowered to entertainment
We are committed, whether we realise it or not, to the functional society we are in. If you disagree with that statement, then don’t forget that you’re on a computer, on the internet. And we are horrified of the thought of that ending. All that comfort, all that excess. Gone, replaced with nothing. And what The Walking Dead does is present our fascination with that idea, only stripped of the realistic elements that would be too chilling, as in a work such as The Road, and makes it palatable as a source of entertainment, by loading it up with sweet zombie kills and shots of Daryl looking rugged.
We don’t watch The Walking Dead because it’s a quality show – we watch it out of a voyeuristic morbidity about seeing what we could possibly lose, a pornographic representation of the end times that we can lower to entertainment. We watch it because we want to see our collapse in a homogenised and ‘safe’ representation. We watch it because we are the walking dead. I’ll see you all come autumn for season five. If we’re still here.
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All images: FX