Monday, January 23, 2017
Ask JKM a Question: Did The Walking Dead Jump the Shark (Or Did Its Fans?)
A reader, Frank, writes:
“John, I know you watch and love The Walking Dead. Since last season’s cliffhanger it has ‘jumped the shark’ and ratings are way down. Is this also your experience with the series? Have you given up on it yet? And which do you like better, The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones?”
Frank, thank you for writing. You asked some big questions right there. I’ll do my best to answer them.
In terms of The Walking Dead, I’ll make the following statement.
There are few certainties in life: death, taxes, and the fact that Walking Dead fans complain a lot about every new season as it airs. Those writing online seem chronically dissatisfied, and they have been since season one.
I’ve been watching the series since the beginning too, and feel that the show hasn’t missed a beat, but that fans -- watching the series unfold in real time -- constantly complain about every little development. They second guess every creative choice, even before they can see how it plays out.
Now, forgive me for writing this, but this approach isn’t particularly smart or worthwhile because series such as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones don’t tell standalones -- complete works of art -- each week.
Instead, they present chapters of a larger stories, and therefore it is not always immediately apparent how the individual pieces fit together, until the whole arc has aired.
Weekly episode reviews judge stories in the middle, before writers and viewers see and fully understand how all the pieces fit together. This is why I don’t typically review weekly episodes of series still airing, except on rare occasions (The X-Files limited series).
What would I be reviewing? A novel that is half read? A movie that is half-watched? A song that is half-listened to?
So far as the cliffhanger last season, a lot of Walking Dead fans acted like, frankly, entitled crybabies. The season ended without a reveal of whom Negan killed. I read innumerable complaints about what a cheat this was to end the season with a cliffhanger.
I can only guess that these are younger fans, who did not have to wait a whole summer to see the conclusion of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Best of Both World” Borg cliffhanger in the early 1990s.
I can only guess that they did not have to wait the better part of two seasons to find out who killed Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks.
Or wondered if Mulder had been abducted by aliens, on The X-Files.
I can only surmise they weren’t in theaters to see Han Solo spirited away by Boba Fett in 1980 and have to wait three years, till 1983, to witness his rescue.
Basically, season end cliffhangers are a TV tradition, a staple, and The Walking Dead conformed to that tradition. That’s not a cheat in any way, shape, or form, unless all those other programs and films also cheated.
However, in today’s world of instantaneous gratification, and binge watching, that dramatic convention was apparently not acceptable to fans.
I see the same problem with the fan response to the only half-complete seventh season.
Let’s take Glenn’s death first.
Obviously, fans of the graphic novel series know that Negan kills Glenn. This creates a problem, because TV series want to avoid predictability at all costs, to keep eyes tuned in. Thus producers of the series had to bridge two desires: the desire to be faithful to the source material, and the desire to surprise and excite fans. In retrospect, the strategy writers used regarding Glenn is completely apparent, and valid.
What was it?
We experienced a spell in the sixth season wherein Glenn appeared to be dead, to throw us off the scent of Negan’s victim in the start of season seven. Many fans assumed that Glenn could not possibly be imperiled, and discovered alive, only to be killed a few episodes later.
That’s exactly what happened, and it worked brilliantly.
The fans had real doubts about whether the series would follow the literary work, or bridge off in a different direction (as it has done with other characters, including Andrea). Basically, the producers were able to preserve surprise by creating a false alarm scenario over Glenn’s death.
Viewers were not cheated.
They were not “trolled.”
They were misdirected. They were manipulated. And quite expertly. This was a manipulation of expectations, and TV decorum too, in the great tradition of Alfred Hitchcock’s “play the audience like a piano” quote. Every great horror movie works in the same way.
(And if The Walking Dead cheated by making this feint, just look at how Game of Thrones handled the so-called death of Jon Snow).
Finally, fans have complained about the new, seventh season of the series, of which only half has aired. I read weekly reviews all the time (by writers who should know better) about what a bad choice it is to have the main characters separated from one another, and defeated, in the face of Negan.
To which I say: that’s likely the fucking point.
The first part of the seventh season is all about establishing Negan’s villainy, and our heroes’ facing their greatest and most traumatic crisis.
It’s a turning point for Rick, and his evolution as a leader.
This part of the story is Han Solo in carbonite, going to Jabba, as a trophy.
It is Spock dead on Genesis, with his katra in McCoy’s head, and Kirk having to choose between friendship and career.
It is THE existential crisis for our protagonists on The Walking Dead.
If Negan is defeated in one hour-long episode, or two episodes, or the heroes find their footing in the face of his particularly sociopathic form of menace instantly, all drama bleeds out of the series. We might as well be back in the era of standalone TV writing.
The final episode of The Walking Dead before the mid-season break of the seventh season sees the majority of the protagonists -- Rick, Carl, Maggie, Sasha, Daryl, Michonne etc. -- rejoined for the first time since the death of Glenn at the start of the season. It is an emotional high point as they reunite at Hilltop, and make the choice to fight. It is, again, clearly, the turning point of the seventh season arc.
It would have meant nothing if all the characters were united for the first handful of episodes. If Daryl and Rick could have teamed up. Or if Maggie, Rick and Daryl could have huddled and formulated a meaningful, united front against Negan.
We would not experience strong emotions at seeing our heroes together again, rallying to fight, had they not been separated for the whole season.
Quite simply, we would never get an emotional or dramatic pay off at all, without a half-season establishing the danger of Negan, and the sight of our heroes brought low before him.
I can understand why some fans don’t get it. Perhaps they’ll get it on retrospect, when the season is over, and this arc comes to an end. When they see the whole story, the arc will be apparent, and validated, I believe. At the very least, I’m willing to reserve judgment, instead of judging failure. To judge failure at this point, the story half-told, is reviewer malpractice.
You asked me another question, about which series I prefer, Game of Thrones, or The Walking Dead.
I’ve probably angered enough readers in this post, but I’ll go for it anyway.
The first thing to understand is personal preference. Personally, speaking, I prefer The Walking Dead, because I enjoy horror more, as a genre, than I do fantasy. That’s not a comment on the quality of these programs, so much as it is my taste.
Professionally speaking, as a critic, I believe both series are extraordinary.
I do think the fact that fans are continually comparing The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is a fascinating insight into our culture, and how critics and fans view horror and fantasy genres. The Walking Dead is constantly second guessed by fans and critics, and judged wobbly. Game of Thrones is generally treated like quality television, and there is far less of the bellyaching about it.
Yet I prefer the Glenn/dumpster/Negan feint, for instance, to the Jon Snow one.
But I do wonder why The Walking Dead solution is treated as a “cheat,” and the Snow feint is not complained about to the same (obnoxious) degree.
Has The Walking Dead jumped the shark? Not yet. Let's see how the last half of this arc plays out.
But maybe some fans have and the critics have jumped the shark. Why not demonstrate a little patience?
Are rating down? Yes. But there’s a logical fallacy to discuss there. Just because something is popular does not mean it is good. And just because something is not popular does not mean it is bad. Ratings are down, but do we understand why at this juncture?
Is that because of the storytelling? Or are there other factors to consider (changing cultural context, the age of the series, overall)?
We probably can’t tell for sure on that front, either. At least not yet.
Don’t forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com.