Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dead Show Walking?

Disclaimer; This post is inspired by this article.

AMC's "The Walking Dead" just ended the first half of its mid-season. This post will contain spoilers for the show, as long as a few surprises. Tread at your own risk.

This show started out very promisingly. It took a familiar concept and expanded it beyond the realm of cinema to allow for an expansive world, homage, and character development. Something, unfortunately, got lost in the shuffle.

"The Walking Dead" starts off with Rick, a southern cop. We learn throughout the first episode or two that Rick is a humble, just, empathetic character. He fights for what's right no matter what. The first few episodes of TWD are very character-driven as we meet Rick and, through his eyes, find out about the world he is in. We see the familiar ruined cities and shuffling bodies expected in any zombie story. Rick's story quickly becomes a story of adapting his old-world sensibilities to a warped, post-apocalyptic world. We see him try to adapt the traits that made him a successful sheriff to a world where the law no longer exists. As a guide to this quest, Rick is given two huge plot threads; 1) Find his wife and son, and 2) try to help Morgan and Duane Jones, the father-son duo who introduced him to the world he woke up to, to safety.

So what goes wrong? With Rick, his plotlines are wrapped up (in the case of his family) or placed on the back burner (The Joneses and their fate) until it's convenient. The problem with this is that it immediately sucks all the drive of Rick's character, and therefore the drama, out of the show. As soon as Rick meets the rest of the supporting cast, the show begins to unravel. This is not to say that the show should be about only Rick, or that multiple characters cannot be handled well in a weekly serialized drama. Say what you will about where it ultimately ended up, but "Lost" knew how to make you care about a character. A few examples;

-We care when Jin begins to come around to Sun's independence because we saw the difficult origins of their life together and the obstacles they overcame to make their marriage work.
-We cared when Locke was murdered because we saw the struggles he had with his faith and with his fellow survivors. We saw his goal to get everyone back to the island and how it was stopped short by his murder, despite the passion he had for the goal.
- We cared when Desmond finally reunited with Penny via phonecall because we saw how hard he fought for her father's approval and how he was betrayed while trying to win it.
-We even cared when Ben, the show's villain, had his daughter executed in front of him by this point we understood how difficult it was for him to form a loving relationship after seeing his childhood and the abuse from his father.

With TWD none of this character depth exists.

It tries in very few instances. As I said before, Rick gets some development in the first few episodes. He is set up and established right away. Unfortunately, despite the ever-threatening zombie hoard, his character is never challenged. Any challenge is immediately overcome and tossed aside. The character set up simply coasts through the show, never having any kind of real challenge to his methods or mindset. In fact, his methods are proven to be correct most times, leading to a rather boring main character. Wife is pregnant? Fine. Wife slept with your best friend? Okay. Young girl goes missing? No problem. Rick stays in is comfort zone and never budges. We simply get to see him take it on the cheek and never get his feathers ruffled. The sad truth is that Rick's character arc plateaus as soon as he reunites with his wife and son. Even witnessing his son being shot mere feet in front of him has a minimal effect on him as a character. He panics at first, and begs to give all the blood he has, but his choices are reaffirmed when his son pulls through and everything turns out fine.

The supporting cast has a few gems, but most suffer the same one-note personalities as Rick.
Carol, Sophia's mother, is not a character at all. She's a plot device. She exists only as a vessel for the audience to feel sympathetic toward. Name one personality trait she has. I'll wait.

Carol is written only to appeal to our base emotions. Her husband beats her. That's bad. her daughter goes missing. Oh, that must be awful for a mother to go through! But not once do we see her do anything about it. She cries. That's how we know she's sad. She'll urge other people to go the footwork all day, but she just sits and camp and allows the audience to feel bad for her. Sophia, her daughter, suffers from almost all the same problems. She's around just so we don't feel bad when her father, who smacks her around, gets eaten alive my zombies. We're glad to see him go.

The real problem comes with Sophia's fate. In the mid-season finale, Sophia shows up as a zombie, and without hesitation, Rick steps up and shoots her down in front of her mother. Where is the character development? Just days before, Rick saw the same exact thing happen to his own son. Where's that pause? Where do we see Rick doubt his actions and have a self-reflective moment? When does he look at Carol and convey that look that says "I'm sorry I have to do this"? Hell, with all that happened, why can he do it so easily? Wouldn't it make more sense in the context of the show for Shane to kill Sophia? The character continuity just isn't there.

There are other examples in Andrea and T-Dog, but those are explained in the link above. This is just the most interesting one to me.

There are two supporting characters, however, who are actively getting some development. Shane, whose jealously of Rick is eating him up inside and destroying his psyche (making an interesting allegory/comparison between his losing his mind and the zombies, who are mindless) and Daryl, who found himself on the verge of death and hallucinated his racist brother, who seems so foreign to him after all he has gone through with the group of survivors. Interestingly, both of these characterizations are purely products on the show, suggesting that the problem may actually be with the source material.

Who is not on that list? The Joneses. They haven't shown up since Rick left them, but I'm sure we'll be expected to care about them when then finally pop up down the road.

So what IS the show doing right? Well, fans have blasted season two for not doing a lot so far. Zombie attacks have been few and far between, and the characters have been trying to solve problems amongst themselves and ignoring the huge, undead elephant in the room just outside the gates of the farm. I argue that this is exactly what the show needs.

Rick and company stumbled across Hershel's farm this season. Hershel runs it the way he wants to, and they have to abide by his rules if they want to stay. The problem is that Hershel sees the zombies as sick people and does not approve of Rick and company's urge to kill them on sight. By this point in pop culture we've seen zombies, well... done to death. Aim for the head, don't get bit, we don't have a cure. It's tired. This new angle and the shift in the norm are exactly what the show needs to bring to the table. Use the old, but don't be afraid to innovate.

The sequence with the Well Zombie is exactly what TWD is doing right. It's a unique, small-scale, day-to-day problem that serves as a synecdoche for the world of the show, itself.

Homages to "Dawn of the Dead" (The whole mall sequence) and "28 Days Later" (waking up in an abandoned, zombie-infested world) are fun, but the show is going to survive by presenting audiences with subversions and genre-expanding scenarios of zombie tropes they already expect.

Overall, TWD suffers from a lot of the same problems "Heroes" suffered from a few years ago. They both featured large casts and fantastic but familiar ideas. Both had great starts, but neither was sure where to go beyond the initial pitch to the network.

TWD still has time to turn things around before they get to the point of discovering a magical circus in the woods. I hope. They need to steer clear of "Heroes"'s character inconsistency and handling of the idiot ball or I'll be convinced that something has devoured the writers' brains.

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