Sunday, November 27, 2016
It isn't exactly news here that THE WALKING DEAD is in a death spiral. This author predicted it had plateaued back in the midst of season 5 and isn't really surprised to see that the ratings for this season have not only suffered their sharpest decline in the series' history but have fallen to their lowest levels since season 3. Still, TWD is the highest-rated series on cable--it would still be doing relatively healthy business for a cable series if its numbers were 1/4 what they are now. So while the show is over and dead, it's probably going to be a while before it's finally shot in the head.
TWD's creative collapse isn't just a matter of writers who are running on fumes. To be brutally frank, no one working on the show in that capacity ever showed much evidence of having much in the tank in the first place. They're not suddenly doing particularly bad work, as some of the series' increasingly weary fans have suggested. It's just that all of their bad habits, uncorrected over the years by their seeming indifference in the face of big ratings, appear to be finally wearing on more and more viewers.
Tonght's installment, "Promise," isn't going to be arresting this trend.
Showrunner Scott Gimple loves to break up the cast and scatter them to the four winds in order to do eps focused on only a few characters. To note the obvious (as I tend to do while often noting I'm doing it), this is entirely unnecessary--Gimple could still do eps like that with most of the cast remaining together. Among TWD's many borrowings from daytime soaps, the series moves with the speed of a drowsy snail on a slow day and Gimple's love of fragmentation only exacerbates this. The series has presently regressed to Mazzara Era levels of filler. What now passes for a "plot" is usually no more than a one-line item--one story point or development that actually matters or moves things somewhat forward, with everything else just extraneous stuffings used to pad out the rest of the hour. The main cast of TWD has only been together once in this entire season--in the opener in which most of them didn't have so much as a single line of dialogue. Every ep so far has been set at a different location with a only a few of the central characters present, while other characters entirely disappear for long stretches. Of the six eps so far aired, Rick, who is the star of the show, hasn't appeared at all in three and was only present for a few minutes in one of the others. Tonight's ep focused on Tara, who has been entirely absent from the series for 9 or 10 eps (this sudden spotlight on her doesn't bode well for her health).
Tara is out scavenging with Heath, they're attacked by zombies and get separated and, repetition being the soul of TWD, she finds an all-new survivor community--the second in only four eps. This one is a hidden community of fearful women, who, it's revealed, have tangled with the Saviors, lost and fled after the Negan's thugs killed all of their men. Now, they're paranoid about any outsiders--as in, they usually just try to kill them. They try to kill Tara too, but she escapes, promising a girl who aids her that she wouldn't reveal their existence. Tara gets away solely because the women on her tail, who are supposed to be so terrified at the prospect of their location being compromised that they murder anyone who happens upon it, are afflicted with TWD's patented Stupid Character Syndrome and simply decline to pursue her. Also noteworthy is that Tara, for this ep, received one of TWD's patented personality transplants and is suddenly acting like a silly teenager, which has been no part of her character up to this ep. As the story opens, she and Heath talk about having been out scavenging for two weeks, which should put them pretty far from the Safe Zone but after she escapes the women, Tara is able to easily walk home in what appears to be a single day.
Like last week's installment, this wasn't as badly underwritten as the other s7 eps have been. It just isn't very interesting. Tara is a very minor character and no one will recognize the "Tara" who appeared tonight anyway. Maybe this new version will find some favor. There's nothing here, though, to bring back those viewers who have been leaving the show.
UPDATE (28 Nov., 2016) - The premise and various story elements of "Swear" are similar to "Sisters of Mercy," an episode from the first season of Z NATION. It, too, featured a community of women who had been abused by men and were ruled by a stern matriarchal figure, they also killed strangers, albeit apparently only males ones, and also tried to get one of the series' regular characters to stay. The ZN version exiled their male children upon their reaching pubescence; in the TWD version, all male children over the age of 10 were killed by the Saviors. The two stories themselves are quite different and I initially resisted writing about this because I thought this community may have come from a point in the TWD comics beyond what I've read. From some reading I've done today--and if I get anything wrong about the comic here, I'm sure someone will correct me--it seems the Oceanside community is drawn from the comic but the the comic version included men, was very laid back and friendly instead of hostile and had never been mistreated by men. The changes made to the tv version were, it seems, all in the direction of aping Z NATION, which, of course, isn't the first time this has happened (ZN lifts elements from TWD as well but tends to make much better use of them). The Oceanside community doesn't turn up in the comics until quite some time after the material the tv series is currently exploring. This ep ended with Tara keeping her promise and declining to share any information about the community with her own people and since it's likely, given the comic timeline, that Oceanside may not even reappear this season, this can't help but make this entire ep feel like an exercise in filler. A diversion from what little plot there is, one that didn't need to be addressed for a long time to come.
Monday, November 21, 2016
On THE WALKING DEAD tonight, a few of the writers came back from their month-long vacation to author up "Go Getters," and while their plotting is still plodding and their filler still fulsome, there is at least some work going into their end of the show for a change. Not in the graveside melodrama moments and certainly not in the insipid "romantic" scenes between Coral and Enid, about which no one could possible care, but this ep engineered, however, clunkily, a substantial change--a power-shift at the Hilltop community. Maggie, who is suffering a problematic pregnancy, has taken over.
The Hilltoppers essentially commissioned the Alexandrians to wipe out the Saviors, which didn't work out as planned. Now, the Saviors are displeased by this. They launch an attack--I suppose one could sort of call it that--in the dead of night. Maggie and Sasha awaken, look out the window and the main gate is open, a car parked inside with loud musing coming out of it and there are several bonfires suddenly burning inside the walls. Zombies are pouring through the open gate and this leads to a big zombie-killing action scene in which Maggie acts as a sort of field general. Hey, if she's going to take over, she has to prove she's up for leadership, right? Heaven forbid she be written as a competent leader character all along, so this quality in her didn't have to be established in this crude way. She gets to drive a tractor over the welded-up car. Isn't that sweet?
Absent the aid of magic they're not supposed to possess, how in hell did the Saviors stage this scene? They didn't crash the gate--that would have been heard and the gate would be damaged. They didn't drive up in that car with the music playing either--we hear its sound-system kick in and it's already parked inside the gate. The car also appears to be welded shut and inaccessible, this done so no one can turn off the music. There are four large bonfires and piling up the material for them would have taken time as well, and everyone seems to have been locked/sealed into their living quarters too! Negan's men not only somehow managed to get inside the gate without being seen but spent a substantial amount of time working on this prank inside the compound while no one noticed and then successfully made their retreat before anyone realized anything was happening, right through the midst of the zombies pouring through the gate. No one was on watch at the gate to sound an alarm? No guards making rounds? And while the idea of the music and the bonfires seems to be to draw into the compound a horde of zombies, TWD established last season that zombies don't just come to fire but walk right into it, burning themselves to a crisp, which renders both the Saviors' plan--to unleash these zombies on the population--and the big action scene wherein the Hilltoppers go out and fight off the critters entirely gratuitous and spectacularly idiotic. Just stand back and let them do themselves in. But that wouldn't allow Maggie to prove herself, now, would it? And it wouldn't have those kewl fires as a background for the action sequences!
The next day, the Saviors show up in force. Well, as much of a force as they've managed so far this season--about 25 people, with some editing trying to make it look like more. Here, I'll give the creators props for at least trying. Negan's lack of a visible force of any real size has been a plot problem throughout the season. At one point, Maggie tries to cheat a bit, saying of them, "there are a lot, maybe hundreds." Or maybe not.
The Saviors carry out a retaliatory looting of Hilltop. Gregory, the community's cowardly leader, has Maggie and Sasha hide in a closet. They end up in a different closet than he intended--Jesus correctly anticipates Gregory would spinelessly try to betray our heroines and moves them--but it doesn't make any sense that this ruse works, regardless of the closet. The Saviors are picking the community apart, filling four big panel trucks and a pick-up with booty. They don't look in the closets?
By the end, Maggie is in de facto command and Sasha, who has it in her head to kill Negan, dispatches Jesus to learn the location of the Saviors' main base. Jesus sneaks on to one of the Saviors' trucks and--what a remarkable coincidence!--it happens to be the same one on which Coral has stowed away, himself intending to try to find and kill Negan! Last week saw Rosita asking Eugene to make her a bullet for a gun she'd found. Resistance percolates among the underlings while Rick, their always-inspiring leader, is out trying to find supplies for Negan. With only three eps left before the midseason break--yeah, that much has already gone by--will the remaining writers return from their vacation or will those who came back this week rejoin them? I'm sure everyone is just as excited to learn that answer to that as I!
 As this is the first ep that returned to Maggie after Glenn's destruction, I'll give the show credit for not spending an inordinate amount of time on teary faces and showing the characters despairingly rehashing what viewers have already seen. That's absolutely S.O.P. with TWD and I'm glad the writers decided not to proceed in that direction.
 To get outside, Sasha and Maggie have to climb out through the roof of their trailer, while Jesus and some others had to climb out the second-story window of the big house. How in the world did the Saviors manage this? There are no visible obstructions to the doors. Sasha descends from the roof right in front of one of the trailer doors, Jesus kicks away a zombie that was clawing at the door of another and we get a shot of the door of the main house--there is no obstruction there either. Doors to residences that can't be opened from the inside and to which the Saviors--but not the residents--have keys? Jesus had to climb out that second-story window, though there was a door leading out to the landing there, which we're meant to believe was locked as well. The Saviors scaled the walls in order to somehow lock the second-story door? The entire scenario is impossible without the aid of magic, including a spell to seal the doors.
Monday, November 14, 2016
So far, the 7th season of THE WALKING DEAD has achieved Mazzara-era levels of filler. The sole substantive plot-point of the opener was a few minutes that should have been covered in the season 6 finale, instead stretched until it burned through an entire episode. Week #2 introduced the Kingdom but most of the running-time was again spent on entirely extraneous material. The third was entirely extraneous; viewers can simply skip the whole affair without having missed a thing. Tonight's installment returned to the show's main cast with a 90-minute episode but if anyone thought the extra half-hour would mean the writers would finally have to actually write something, they haven't been watching TWD long enough. "Service" turned out to be yet another one-line plot: Negan's first visit to the Safe Zone.
When he first appeared, I got a kick out of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his reveling-in-his-own-ruthlessness rendition of Negan. Unfortunately, it seems the TWD creative team did as well. Apparently so pleased with having found something that actually worked for a change, the writers have managed, in only a few eps, to turn an initially entertaining villain into a one-trick pony who has already worn out his welcome. The Negan Routine: Negan shows up, offers through a smile a way-over-the-top, villainous, mocking monologue in which he seems very entertained with himself, gets in the face of anyone evincing any defiance and threatens them until they back down, repeat. In only three eps in which he's so far appeared, the character has run through this same routine perhaps a dozen times, half of which were in tonight's show. Negan is likely to be a regular cast-member right to the end of this series and he's already a tired cartoon.[*]
It doesn't help matters that all of his men who have been given any sort of attention have behaved in a similar manner. They get in people's faces, posture and act menacing while offending the dignity of their victim but without any of their boss's flair. We've been getting essentially this same scene from them since they first appeared last season. We got it several times last week. We got it several times tonight. TWD has, of course, been chronically recycling itself for a long time now. In the Mazzara era, the show would routinely repeat the same scene over and over again. These eps don't just take things back to those bad ol' days, the repetition here is much more concentrated--not only the same beat but the same moment recycled over and over again in the same ep, ep after ep, while little else is going on
TWD's Idiot Plot problems were again front and center. Rick, knowing Negan and his men are coming to rip them off, has days to prepare but doesn't do the first thing to hide any guns or supplies in advance of the visit; he doesn't have any plan at all. Is Rick an inspiring leader or what? His total capitulation to Negan is also a bit of a narrative hole. Last season, it was implied that Negan has a substantial force but his men proved to be a bunch of dimwits whom Rick and co. easily defeated in every encounter. How lousy at villainy do you have to be to get repeatedly trounced by the zombie apocalypse version of F Troop? Even when Negan finally caught our heroes, he only had maybe 30 or 40 men on hand and talked about the extraordinary resources this constituted. Tonight, Negan turned up with about 20 of them. There's no reason at all why the Alexandrians, who were exceptionally well armed, couldn't wipe them out as well, taking the head of the serpent in the process. Rick spoke of Negan having overwhelming numbers. Such numbers are nowhere in evidence. While Negan's thugs are stealing things, Coral displays his intelligence and experience by drawing a gun on one of them and making threats. As a consequence, Negan decides to cart off all of their guns. And, it turns out, our brilliant heroes keep a complete list of their firearms holdings that the villain can use to make sure he got all of them![**]
Some other items: Michonne is shown practicing with a rifle. She's lousy at it and repeatedly misses the zombie at which she's aiming but manages to accidentally nail a deer in the distant forest! It appears to be throat-shot but obediently lies down and dies right where it was hit, the way real deer do when shot. Negan lieutenant Dwight has apparently cracked the secret of the teleportation abilities so often displayed by TWD's zombies. When he makes off with Daryl's motorcycle, he cranks it, moves out of the immediate frame and vanishes into thin air, the sound of the bike's engine abruptly ceasing and his retreat nowhere in site when the camera angle immediately cuts to show the road on which he allegedly left.
As badly written as this review feels--and sorry, folks, it's been an awful week and I just ain't feelin' it tonight--it's still award-worthy by comparison. Lebeau, if you're out there, you gotta' bring this one home!
[*] UPUDATE (14 Nov., 2016) - While a fan of Morgan's Negan, "mjwm44," one of my readers on the Internet Movie Database Walking Dead board, came up with an apt comparison: "...I admit [TWD] does present Negan rather like the sadist version of a 60's Batman villain."
 Father Gabriel, one of the least useful members of the cast, opts to fake Beth's death, digging and filling in a phony grave. Neither he nor anyone else thinks to bury any guns or supplies in that empty grave.
 This may be a consequence of budgetary restrictions but seeing as how everything is now premised on it--this allegedly overwhelming force that is nowhere in evidence--it is a problem.
[**] UPDATE (14 Nov., 2016) - Negan's men displayed these same teleportation abilities, along with clairvoyance, in the season 6 finale, when the things they do are entirely impossible absent these superpowers. Perhaps they're more formidable than I give them credit for being.
Sunday, November 6, 2016
"The Cell," tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD, was just another filler episode. It didn't manage to get back to the main cast (again) or the Safe Zone cast (which hasn't appeared at all yet this season) and there was nothing of the Carol/Morgan/Kingdom subplot that was allowed to pointlessly consume last week's ep. Lacking any sort of competent pace or plot progression, it burned through an entire hour with nothing but Daryl as Negan's prisoner, mostly locked in the cell of the title and learning how Negan's people are loyal and fearful of their boss--stuff viewers already knew. Even Negan's trademark sadism was pretty reserved and ho-humm. The second bottle ep in only three eps so far this season, it seemed packed with an unusually high number of commercials, though it always seems that way when nothing is happening.
There isn't much to say about the ep beyond that. At one point, the door to Daryl's cell is left unlocked, he discovers it and having apparently never seen the 10,000 or so previous tv shows and movies in which this same device has been used, he goes right out and tries to escape. It goes about as well for him as it did for the previous 9,999 who tried. In a development I'm sure left every viewer speechless with shock, Daryl ultimately refused to give in to Negan. Nothing that happened here progressed the story so much as an inch. The unbreakable hero Daryl remains the unbreakable hero Daryl (and only has two lines of dialogue in the entire ep centered on him), Dwight remains the conflicted villain's henchman, we get hit over the head again with the fact that Negan rules by fear--is there any chance anyone, even TWD's fans, isn't clear on that one yet? While Daryl is trapped in his cell, Negan's men pipe in the same loud pop tune in an endless loop to torment him. It inadvertently offers a perfect metaphor for this ep, which viewers could freely skip without having missed a thing.
Next week promises a return to the main cast for a 90-minute ep, meaning all the material a competently edited series would have intercut with the previous two eps is going to be jammed into one overly long one in which, in all likelihood, very little will happen.