Friday, April 8, 2016

The Walking Dead Needs to Discard the Stunts and Stay Focused on the First-Rate Drama it is Known For

The Walking Dead has been taking quite a drubbing in its sixth season, especially after its finale on Sunday, and in all fairness it has brought some of that on itself.  But don't get too caught up in the anti-TWD hype getting whipped up by the naysayers because, despite some stumbles, this show continues to deliver first-rate, challenging drama in a post-apocalyptic setting.  Needless to say, be warned before proceeding as plenty of spoilers from this season (and the comics) will follow below.

the-walking-dead-neganFor those who may not be up to speed, this season has teased the introduction of the big bad Negan from the comics and it has been a slow build up to his first appearance in the season finale.  And in the comics, he kills off a major character by brutally beating them with his barbed-wire wrapped baseball bat which he has named Lucille.  The TV series follows that relatively closely, but we are given a first person view of the attack followed by a fade to black which means that we will not find out the identity of Negan's victim until the show returns in October (though dedicated fans have already started scouring for clues).  The decision to leave the audience hanging has enraged many fans (myself included), made worse by the fact that the show teased the death of Glen earlier in the year only to reveal that he miraculously escaped from a hoard of zombies that had him trapped in an alley (and not to pile on, but the later killing of a gay character seemed unnecessary as well).

As to these stunts, I will flat out say that they represent poor choices on the part of the producers and the creative team.  Making us think that Glen had perished and then dragging out the reveal for several weeks was just a malicious trolling of the audience that added nothing to the dramatic structure of the show.  The cliffhanger ending for the finale was even worse because it detracted from the dramatic intensity of the final scene.  As the most-watched (by far) scripted show on television, TWD does not need to bait its audience to come back for the next season, and many seem to have taken that ending as more of a back-slap than anything else.  How much more dramatic would it have been if we knew who met their demise at the end of Negan's bat and the season ended with a demoralized Rick being forced to lead the Saviors into to Alexandria to plunder it as they wished?  Instead, the tease of a major character death with no resolution just left too many of us feeling cheated and angry after the episode ended.

I put the blame on showrunner Scott Gimple for these unnecessary tricks, though I wouldn't be surprised if an AMC executive wasn't whispering in his ear (or reminding him who signs the paychecks) because that sort of manipulative TV seems like the type of thing that would spring from a boardroom rather than the mind of a writer.  But trolling like this is just not necessary for the most popular show on television.  It needs to stick to the good drama it has been delivering for years because that's where it excels.  And many of the people currently slamming the show across the net the last few days have actually forgotten about that.

One of the most common complaints I have heard directed toward The Walking Dead of late is that the buildup to the introduction of Negan was far too slow.  But then those people read ahead and knew what was coming based on events in the comics and became impatient waiting for the introduction of the villain.  Well, if you skip ahead several chapters, don't go complaining about the story you have to read back through to catch up.  It is true that the sixth season of TWD was slow at times, but I rarely felt like it dragged.

Think of all the important moments that were covered in this season: The Alexandrians realizing just how unprepared they were for a violent world that was ready to beat down their doors.  Daryl's encounter with Dwight in which he later regretted helping him.  The Morgan flashback that revealed how he came back from the edge.  The introduction of another community like Alexandria, Hilltop.  Carol's breakdown as she pays the price for her cold-blooded behavior.  Rick's arrogance about his people's ability to deal with the Saviors and the near lack of strategy used in the preemptive attack, which ultimately puts them at Negan's mercy.  And those are only some of the highlights, with plenty of good story linking them altogether.

Could that all have been fit into less than sixteen episodes?  Possibly.  But this is a television series, and the sixteen episode count is what AMC wants out of the deal to make it worth their while.  It's less than the twenty two that the networks demand (and there is plenty of padding amongst those shows) and more than the ten to thirteen eps that cable nets typically ask for (which I think allows TWD more opportunities for story development ).  Did the season finale really need to be ninety minutes?  Maybe not, but it sure raced by pretty quick for me.  I was on the edge of my seat the entire episode and only became irritated with the show when it left us hanging at the very end.

But we need to remember that The Walking Dead is still delivering first-rate drama rife with moral quandaries and engaging stories as opposed to the copy and paste retreads we find too often on television.  It has done that quite well for six seasons now, and even though it has slipped from time to time, I'll take its worst episodes any day over more than half of what television has to offer of late.  But at the same time, the creative team and the network need to remember that the quality of the show is what has kept it on top, not the stunts like unnecessary cliffhangers and fake-out deaths (or pointless real deaths) of major characters.  That sort of thing is actually an insult to the audience that has supported the show throughout the years.  TWD needs to keep its focus on the challenging story-telling it does so well and leave the manipulative TV tricks to the lesser fare that airs on the broadcast nets and some of the cable channels.  If not, its audience will certainly start to dwindle in the ever-fractured television viewing landscape.

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