I am not the biggest fan of AMC’s popular zombie-drama, The Walking Dead, but I wasn’t always a critic of it. When the show first aired in its abbreviated, six-episode debut season, I was one of its early converts, impressed by its production values, epic scope, and excited by the prospect of a long-running television format for a post-apocalyptic undead narrative. As a fan of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and zombie pop culture in general, I thought AMC’s adaptation of the ongoing graphic novel series of the same name sounded like the perfect format for the subgenre.
And then Season 2 launched in 2011.
No film or television franchise has soured my original opinion of it quite like The Walking Dead (henceforth, TWD), though Transformers (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2017) is in the same area code. Unlike my first reactions to the original Michael Bay cash-grab, however, my initial reaction to TWD was more than warm, and both the source material and premise showed immense potential in this modern golden age of television; AMC might have another Breaking Bad (2008-2015) or Mad Men (2007-2015) on their hands, expanding their rivalry with the likes of Showtime or HBO, or so I thought.
What I did not expect was for TWD to devolve into a flat, boring disaster. While the series “recovered” somewhat after its dull, plodding, aimless bore of a second season, which played like a laughable parody of an antebellum Southern melodrama with awkward guest appearances by the titular zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies , anyone?), the show never recovered the momentum of its debut season. It has since remained content with a wandering, incoherent narrative propped up by increasingly laughable character conflicts.
I suppose even the first season showed warning signs of where the series was headed; numerous scenes in the first six episodes halted otherwise riveting zombie chase-sequences to focus on an uninspired love-triangle or poorly delivered monologues, and the entire sixth and final episode of Season 1 felt like it was treading water. Still, I did not anticipate TWD as a whole to emphasize weak melodrama, weaker and more pervasive dialogue, and to undercut its already inconsistent main cast with an even less impressive supporting cast.
TWD continues to enjoy immense popular support and baffling levels of critical acclaim. It has already been renewed for an eighth season in fall 2017, and has dominated cable TV ratings as the most watched fictional broadcast program since its third season in 2012. At times, I feel like Screen Junkies and I are living in an alternate universe with regards to this franchise, as if most everybody else is seeing some Oscar-caliber undead drama and I’m stuck with a B-grade, gore-porn ripoff.
I could rant about how irritating I find this show till I’m blue in the face, but I’ve narrowed down five (5) main reasons why the show doesn’t work for me and is perhaps the single most overrated phenomenon in 2010s television. They are, in no particular order:
1.) Unfocused, nondirectional story — Perhaps the most immediate, noticeable problem with TWD is its lack of a clear, directional, cause-and-effect storyline. There’s nothing wrong with a series of episodes or even a season that focuses on specific character studies or thematic analyses of a particular narrative conflict (The Sopranos [1999-2007] arguably perfected that), and in a series based within an undead apocalypse, one would expect the primary story to take its time. TWD, however, does not take its time doing anything, because it doesn’t go anywhere. TWD’s story is wandering and aimless to the point of nonexistence; it does not evolve or progress into a more complicated narrative structure, nor build stakes for even a straightforward, simplistic end goal.
TWD’s overarching narrative, if it even has one, is defined by the vague concept of “survival,” but the show’s initially promising cable TV format has revealed the painful limitations of such a loose narrative structure. Numerous pop culture works, from The Road (novel , film ) to the Mad Max film series (1979, 1981, 1985, 2015) to The Last of Us (2013) to George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy (1968, 1978, 1985), portray the end of the world by exploring similar thematic territory, but don’t take their sweet God damned time with it. This long-running television series format, which at first I thought would be to the post-apocalyptic concept’s benefit, has proven to be one of the series’ biggest weaknesses. TWD concerns an amorphous band of survivors wandering the undead landscape for various supplies, safehouses, and respite from the undead hordes and rival human tribes. And that is about it.
This “story,” or theme as it were, does not deserve 50+ hours to tell, regardless of its production values or the scale of its admittedly impressive set-pieces. While I have often lamented at the time restrictions of previous zombie feature films, I now concede those format restrictions may have been blessings in disguise. TWD lost steam after its first 5-6 episodes and has never recovered. Our principle characters encounter various recurring villains from time to time, yes, but they never change the overall rhythm of the series nor streamline any sort of coherent, overarching narrative that drives those characters. Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Deryl (Norman Reedus), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Carl (Chandler Riggs), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and others simply move from shelter to shelter, scavenge supplies ad nauseum, and offer laughable emotional pep talks when various minor characters expire. Wash, rinse, repeat.
2.) Weak supporting characters and terrible child actors — TWD’s supporting cast is difficult to define given how fluidly newer characters interchange and replace older main castmembers, how nonchalantly the series discards everyone from guest-stars to principle stars in increasingly gory and silly ways. Unlike Game of Thrones (2011-present), which utilizes painfully mortal, complex character ensembles played by a talented cast to make points about established fantasy archetypes and build toward a clear narrative climax, TWD’s supporting characters are neither interesting nor are their deaths used to any meaningful narrative ends.
TWD exemplifies the textbook definition of killing off characters for shock-value. There is little narrative closure for the deaths of irritating characters like Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies), Bob Stookey (Laurence Gilliard Jr.), Deanna Monroe (Tovah Feldshuh), or Andrea (Laurie Holden). TWD contrasts them with a series of even more tiresome characters who don’t die (as of this writing), but you wish they would so as to spare you more of their self-righteous diatribes and comical emotional breakdowns, such as Sasha Williams (Sonequa Martin-Green), the aforementioned Maggie Green, Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz), and Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt).
It’s unclear in certain cases whether these characters are annoying because of their underwritten nature, bad dialogue (see below), or just bad acting, but their deaths or would-be demises are only satisfying in their characters’ departure from the show. Every sendoff is either manipulative or a melodramatic parody of a gore-porn zombie film.
This is small potatoes, though, compared to the show’s laughable child performances. In every season, TWD refuses to forgo an underage supporting cast to disastrous results. These child performances are on the level of Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace (1999) or those Jedi-in-training twerps from Attack of the Clones (2002), most notably in the laughable Season 4, Episode 14: The Grove, which features a weak riff on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937). That being said, no child actor or character is more aggravating than Chandler Riggs’ Carl “Corral” Grimes. If I ever have to see that kid act again, it will be too soon.
3.) Poorly written, pervasive dialogue — I have already commented on this aspect of TWD, which I believe is the show’s most debilitating Achilles heel, if not its most readily apparent. In part because of the show’s aimless nature and also because of the show’s poor teleplays, the majority of every episode is dedicated to soap opera-type introspection and unnecessary dialogue-driven melodrama. Instead of embracing the haunting quiet of a plague-ravaged landscape, TWD elects to have its characters discuss, in intimate detail, the particulars of gardening, dating, farming, machete practice, and of course, gun safety. It’s as dumb as it sounds.
What’s worse is when minor characters or family friends die off — usually via a comical devouring by zombies or improbable headshots — and then various characters attempt to assuage the ones most affected by those unpleasant events. Instead of depicting these characters’ mourning or emotional growth in a visual way, the show almost always has its characters talk each other to death as if they were in a Jane Austen novel. Hey, executives, you’re developing a grindhouse zombie story, not Bleak House (1853).
4.) Desensitizing levels of blood ‘n gore — This would seem like a puzzling criticism for a show about undead devouring the living, but much like the series’ overarching lack of narrative ambition, buckets of blood ‘n gore lose their impact after 50 hours of material. In addition to the fact that every zombie’s skull has the hardness of paper mache, the nauseating frequency of various zombie juices, blood, slime, drool, and guts draws too much attention to itself, turning the franchise into a nonstop gore-fest, which clashes even further against the shows’ dependence on bad melodrama.
5.) Miscast villains — One of the best examples of this is David Morrissey as The Governor, a poorly acted, far from terrifying rendition of the infamous comic book villain of the same name. The Governor feels like he should be played by an actor with a different stature, personality, and vocal chords. Morrissey looks like a character from a family sitcom, not a gritty, ruthless villain from a zombie apocalypse.
This is in stark contrast to Michael Rooker’s Merle Dixon, an original character developed by the television series, who feels born and bread to be a post-apocalyptic villain in the vein of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) from Fury Road (2015). Despite a bravado performance by Rooker (one of the best performances in the entire show, along with Norman Reedus as his brother and principle castmember, Daryl), the character was dismissed after one notable appearance in Season 1; it took till Season 3 for him to be upgraded to a starring castmember, after which he was an enforcer for the aforementioned Governor, played by Morrissey… instead of playing The Governor himself.
The series’ trend of underplaying or miscasting its villains continues with set-pieces like the cannibals at Alexandria or the Wolves in Season 6. Given the series’ lack of narrative structure and the show’s own censorship on basic cable, none of these would-be despicable antagonists are explored in enough detail to be interesting nor portrayed brutal enough to be considered truly threatening. Aside from a plethora of blood squibs, The Walking Dead’s villainy, much like the show itself, is all bark and no bite.
And people tell me Dawn of Justice (2016) takes itself too seriously…