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TV/Media Commentary and Societal Insights. With a Beard.
Yeah yeah, I know. I apologize in advance, since The Walking Dead has already been written about ad naseum by everyone ever, but instead of discussing what you’ve already heard from more competent writers, I’m going to discuss a bit of my own personal experiences and pose a theory of why many might feel the way they do.
So, the second season finale happened less than a week ago, and if you’re reading this, chances are you’re either extremely excited for where it’s going and what happened, or want to flay yourself alive from how much you despise the show’s drop in quality…or…something. Either way, just a quick glance at reviews makes it apparent that it’s one of the most hotly-contested shows out there–mostly because the people who hate it really really hate it. And not always in a “it’s a terrible show” way like people see things like Glee (though there are certainly plenty that do) but many do because they feel betrayed one way or another–betrayed that it’s worse than the comic, or betrayed that the second season is so much worse, or something.
Before I go on, I’ll put it out there now that The Walking Dead was never one of my absolute favorite shows. I don’t mean I never liked it–I’ve caught it week-to-week since day one–I just mean it never made it to a top 10 list at any given time, even back when people were fawning over the show in season 1. I enjoy watching it because of an interest to see how it plays out, to have something to talk to people about, and just genuine curiosity. Was I ever wholeheartedly invested? Not really–I felt for characters sometimes, but I never found myself screaming at the TV as much as I have with other things. The only character I really paid attention to for a long time was Dale, and I think that was just because he had a beard and a cool hat and an RV and made funny faces.
So while I can appreciate that I might not understand certain parts of the show that cater towards feelings, I’d like to think I’m pretty objective when it comes to looking at it as just a TV show. I’m not hugely invested, but I do like it and certainly don’t harbor any hatred. I watch it, enjoy it, and when it’s really good (according to me) I enjoy it more. So from a typical viewer standpoint, the amount of dissension among the fanbase about the show is the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen. People absolutely adored this show when it premiered, and gushed over it more than Tumblr posts GIFs of Sherlock. There were some people who pointed out flaws, but generally they expected it to only get better and there was agreement that it was a solid, engaging show. Then season 2 happened, everyone lost their shit, and it became the most hotly debated show on the internet. There’s always going to be dissension for everything ever, but in this case it’s either awful or brilliant, never in between. People generally don’t think The Walking Dead is “okay” or “decent.” It’s either the best show on TV or the most disappointing show of the 2000s.
I could be wrong, but it’s got to be one of the most Twittered shows on right now. I mean, AMC has its own post-show. The last time I remember a network actually alotting time to gush over a show was when G4 did it with Heroes, also during its controversial second season. And we all know how that turned out.
And I have to be honest, that’s kind of weird, because Walking Dead never struck me as an amazing or terrible show, just a solidish show. It could do better, but it could also do worse. And don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of crap the show does wrong from all sides you can’t deny. Like how there’s a black guy named T-Dog, and said black guy named T-Dog never gets character development. Or there’s Lori getting on Andrea for using a shotgun and fixing cars instead of “cooking and cleaning and caring” because “the men can handle this on their own, they don’t need your help” — Actual quote from the female lead. In 2012.
Those things are kind of obvious complaints, but the more divisive problems usually deal with the show’s very structure or overall direction. Initially, I blamed the backlash on people already having rose-tinted glasses on after season 1 and overhyping it to the extreme. Moreover, there are of course fans of the comics that will always be quick to compare and be generally unpleasable. To an extent, I still think those ideas are completely true, but there’s another more off-the-wall theory I came up with that’s not going to make any impact on anything, but you’ve already read this far so why not keep reading?
Basically, I asked myself: what do I think of it overall? Well…maybe if I never read any reviews, I’d have a different opinion, but hearing the constant dissension often makes me question whether or not I really do anymore. I know that’s lame that I can’t form my own opinion, but in that weird situation where you basically agree with what every side says, it’s very surreal–and that’s what I’m actually going to attempt to explain.
Here’s my wacky thought process. There might be some official thingamajiger a sociology person put together already, but in my head, there are 4 general “tiers” of TV Drama we usually see:
Simply the programming that’s relatively safe. Procedural shows like Law & Order, typical relationship dramas, and any show that loses steam from its concept after a while but keeps going, like House. Anyone can watch it and get some enjoyment out of it, and while it’s capable of having substance, most of the time it just exists and people don’t really “fangasm” over it. It’s harped on by magazines, but ignored by more academic critics.
A lot of genre shows, like The Vampire Diaries, play into this, and even Glee fell into this after losing mainstream appeal. Fans know why they love it, and see it as really great, but most critics and the general mainstream just don’t like it, or even bother to give it a chance, so there’s no way to agree if it really is good or bad because each side is either a super fan or doesn’t watch it at all.
Respected, but not artsy enough to win lots of awards and never really hitting the masses. Even if it does catch the mainstream to an extent, like Buffy eventually did, it still never gets the ratings that the CSIs will. Think anything from Joss Whedon. Community is also a great example…even though it’s not a drama .
4) The Breaking Bads — Adored by critics, often seen as pretentious by the masses.
Doesn’t necessarily hit the mainstream because it’s a little too intellectual or artsy, but still gets enough attention to be influential. Think Mad Men or Sopranos…or any HBO programming, really.
Considering this, the problem with The Walking Dead, I think, is that it rides all these tiers. In theory, that’s a wonderful thing. Lost’s success came from its ability to to touch many different kinds of people for different reasons; it was smart for people who wanted to think, but still had enough action and pandered just enough to keep the interest of people who didn’t feel like keeping track of it. It had plenty of celebrity cameos and publicity stunts, but mixed it with very good actors and well-handled plotlines. It was great for the watercooler, but just as good for in-depth critical analysis. Even if you weren’t a fan, you can’t deny that it was still a well-made show, and it was never so-bad-it’s-offensive (finale notwithstanding.)
The Walking Dead promised the same kind of appeal–AMC! Zombies! Comics! Writer/Director of Shawshank Redemption! Lots and lots of money! People had high expectations, and were excited for different reasons (though mostly because of the zombies.) Most people loved season 1. And then everyone started raging, and now it seems like very few people can actually sit back and enjoy the show. If you thought one shocker was really great, go on Twitter and come to find that everyone else thought it was a cop-out. In fact, here’s a quick little chart to help you navigate what each criticism/defense will be said for any given episode:
Crazy zombie action! <–> Boring! Too much talking, not enough shooting!
Character development. <–> Everyone’s a stereotype and it’s all been done.
Interesting exploration of attitudes in dystopian America. <–> 90% of the show is on a farm, WTF.
Big shockers! <–> Nothing ever happens except in THE LAST FIVE MINUTES!
However, my thesis here is that The Walking Dead’s problem is not so much about failing these perspectives I listed, but simply not living up to any of them enough individually. Therefore, when someone goes in expecting it to live up to the show they want it to be–a kind of show it very well could be–it inevitably fails on one end or the other. The show could reinvent itself a million times over, but just by the nature of what it’s trying to be makes it, unfortunately, really really hard to succeed. The big problem is viewers’ perspectives, and how the show wants itself to be perceived. Which, unfortunately, isn’t something that can be easily solved. Someone expecting Breaking Bad-levels of character depth and intensity gets disappointed by some stereotypes and action sequences, while another person wanting easy Smallville-y action and could tolerate less-than-fleshed-out characters if it’s fun will be bored by all the talking and not enough action. No matter what, some facet of it is going to fail, because no side of it is good enough to completely overpower the other at any given time, nor are they in a good balance.
Like how the show balances out all the characters’ screentime equally, right?
For me, I don’t really expect it to be a cinematic Breaking Bad, or an action-y Smallville guilty pleasure, or have the charm of a Buffy. So when the show does things, I don’t really have an opinion for whether I like it or not, I just…feel things. I’m watching and enjoying a TV show, and get enough of a kick out of it that I don’t mind writing about it. Part of the reason I don’t know what my opinion is, I think, is because I do like many different tiers of shows, and therefore when anyone looking at it from any perspective writes about it I’ll usually agree with them. Everything they say from one perspective is completely true, but so is another person looking at it from a different perspective, even if those two thoughts contradict each other. The perspectives are simply incomparable.
I mean, look at the examples I gave for tiers–could you really compare Breaking Bad and Buffy and say objectively which is the better show? They’re in completely different realms of realism, tone and structure; Buffy is great because it utilizes cheesy B-movie monsters and fantasy, while Breaking Bad is great because it doesn’t do any of that. The same can be said about The Walking Dead’s perspectives–one side says the show should stick to the comics, the other side says it should stick less to give more surprises. One side says there should be more zombie action, the other says we should get more character studies. Neither sides are wrong, depending on whether you see the show as an action show/realistic character study/masturbation tool.
I mean, I ain’t gonna judge.
Moreover, any friends I have that absolutely adore the show are the kind of people who simply aren’t expecting it to be one thing or another. They’re the kind of people who will watch and enjoy any tier of show if something appeals to them, because they don’t have those kinds of expectations. They just watch the damn thing. Unfortunately, not all of us are capable of seeing beauty in what’s known to greater society as ugly (and sometimes, people just have really really really bad taste in TV.)
So what am I trying to say here? Well, this wasn’t meant to be a solution so much as an observation; I don’t really know what there is about The Walking Dead that can to be profoundly “corrected” at this point (outside of the sexism and stuff) because no matter what direction it’s taken in, half the fanbase is going to despise it. It also goes back to what I mentioned before: it’s been marketed and purported to be a show we should be talking about and discussing and analyzing, but maybe that’s what’s hurting it. It can be a show that’s taken at face value–that doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means there’s only so much you could legitimately discuss without finding holes. And trust me, this is from a guy who spends way too long breaking down TV. The show’s flaws don’t tend to stem from legitimate problems so much as people wanting it to be different. At a certain point, asking to change every part of the show is just going to make it a different show entirely.