Saturday, November 9, 2013

WALKING DEAD: A Melodrama Problem

The television incarnation of THE WALKING DEAD has always been a melodrama and as I've often noted, it has a melodrama problem. It's my contention that the soap melodrama approach to the material is fundamentally incompatible with it. Some recent comments on the series on the IMDb's TWD board, in my email and in my "comments" section here led me to begin making a few notes on this particular aspect of TWD. It ran long, so I've decided to make it even longer and whip it into a full-blown article.

TWD's first season was, through four of its six episodes and in portions of the rest, fairly well written. There were holes in the writing and some carelessness; by all reports, it was assembled rather quickly in order to meet a preordained airdate. Between seasons, the writing staff was fired, Glen Mazzara was employed to hire a new one and the team he assembled proceeded to rebuild the series on a daytime soap model. Rather than well-written melodrama, it became the low-grade product that has so often resulted in the very word "melodrama" being employed, by those of us who write about such things, as a pejorative.[1]

Soap melodrama takes all of the potentially problematic elements of the melodrama and cranks them up to 11. It eschews reason, subtlety, nuance, understatement and intelligent, adult behavior and aims, instead, at provoking emotional reactions through simplistic and sensationalistic narratives centered around highly emotional themes, played out via exaggerated, non-naturalistic, emotion-laden behavior. This is the level on which it tries to engage its viewers.

I've written quite a bit about how this approach befouls the character interactions on TWD. Back in my very first article on the series, I wrote:

"Of all the many changes the writers made to TWD in bringing it to television, the one that has always seemed to me the biggest departure from the comic is the tone the writers imported from the soaps. In their treatment of the characters and their interactions, the writers mercilessly jettison any hint of subtlety, complexity or maturity in favor of extreme, jacked-up melodrama, with everyone nearly going glassy-eyed from being so perpetually wide-eyed and overwrought."

The first two episodes of this season actually dialed this back but by "Isolation," the third, it was spooling back. To pull out a representative moment, when Hershel, who had so far managed to avoid exposure to the mysterious illness plaguing the prison, decides to break quarantine and go tend to those stricken by it, his daughter and others object. In competently written character drama, this would just be something he does because that's who he is and that's how he would react to that kind of situation and those around him would just understand that, whether they liked it or not. TWD, on the other hand, handled it by bringing everything to a halt and having Hershel give a grand anti-naturalistic speech justifying his actions as a profound act of humanitarianism in a harsh and unforgiving world. If a hummed version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" had been added to the soundtrack behind it, it wouldn't have seemed at all out of place.[2]

Except for politicians and professional wrestlers, human beings do not talk like this and this entire approach to the material is a barrier to quality writing. Talented writers can, in a controlled way, intelligently develop a tale to a fine emotional pitch when needed. This is impossible when everyone is perpetually being written in this overwrought way.

It makes impossible the kind of solid, consistent characterization so essential to a serious drama as well and, in fact, removes it as even a goal. The late, great Sidney Lumet once told Charlie Rose that "in a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters; the characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story." In low-grade soap melodrama, this, too, is taken to the nth degree; characterization comes to be dictated almost entirely by the plot of the moment. In a weekly series like TWD, that's the weekly plot of the moment and, indeed, radical changes are routinely imposed on its characters in an entirely arbitrary way merely because the writers wanted to tell a particular story. TWD's central concern is merely to create one artificial scenario after another aimed at generating those emotional reactions. In one episode, Lori berates Shane for his selfishness in suggesting they should call off the search for Sophia; an ep or two later, she's berating Rick for volunteering to go to the tavern in town to fetch Beth's father after Beth falls ill; she guilt trips Rick and says their son, who had no pressing need for Rick at all at the moment, needed him there, as if he was entirely abandoning the boy if he left long enough to drive a mile up the road and back; minutes after Rick leaves, she, herself, abandons their son and takes a car to pursue and retrieve Rick; she tells Rick to kill Shane; a few eps later, after Rick did that very thing, she's furious about it. Lots of overwrought melodrama in all of those situations but no effort at anything remotely resembling consistent characterization.

Multiply that by every significant character and you have TWD.

Rick, as the central hero of the piece, gets the most attention and in the first four seasons of TWD to date, there have been six major versions of the character (though one was a repeat, so it could be five depending on how one prefers to count it). Though there are some overlapping elements at times, all of these are essentially independent of one another, radical changes of direction that are suddenly and arbitrarily imposed at some point with nothing resembling a natural progression. In season 1, we get Rick 1.0, a sheriff's deputy thrust into an extraordinary situation who, in spite of some shortcomings, manages to demonstrate significant leadership skills; he's smart, assertive, tough, brave and, when need be, a real hardass. This is the Rick who walked into certain death in "Vatos" because he knew death was better than giving up those guns and leaving his man behind. In season 2 though, this original completely disappears and is suddenly replaced by the pathetic Rick 2.0, who is overly emotional, indecisive, weak-willed and just plain dumb--almost the polar opposite of 1.0 in every way and no leader at all. By the end of the season he's still remarkably dumb but he's shed a lot of the other unappealing attributes the writers had arbitrarily imposed on him. He's Rick 3.0, the Ricktator, the automaton whose word is law and who doesn't really care what anyone else has to say about anything. If the Ricktator was smart, he'd realize that making himself a Ricktator wasn't, and looking over the leadership of Rick 2.0, he'd have to conclude it had been one big fuck-up and that he was definitely not the guy who needed absolute power. The Ricktator emotionally abandons his wife--in more than 8 months of living in close quarters, we're told he barely even spoke to her. Then, when she dies, Rick 4.0 appears, Crazy Rick, a version who is so upset about this development--the death of this woman he'd entirely abandoned--that he instantly turns into the bad television version of foaming-at-the-mouth, way-over-the-top-of-the-top Stark Raving Mad, to the point that he's even having conversations with imaginary voices and chasing around the ghost of his wife. And as abject and out-of-control as his lunacy is shown to be, it's still made to turn on and off at the writers' convenience. Toward the end of that season, right out of nowhere, that pathetic 2.0 version of Rick suddenly returns. This could be seen as either a 5.0 model or a 2.1. This is the supine Rick who sits through that pointless meeting with GINO then is going to turn over one of his own to the madman who wants to slowly torture her to death, even as he admits it won't help anything. Rick 6.0--this season's Rick--is Farmer Rick the Pacifist, a fellow who is trying to get away from it all and live a quiet, easygoing life. Surrounded by a world of flesh-eating ghouls, he'd put away both his own gun and that of his son, infantilizing the boy in the name of imposing some idealized notion of childhood. Dangerously stupid but in different ways from the other dumb versions.[3]

Each of these radically different, contradictory, often irreconcilable incarnations came about because the writers wanted to tell a particular story and, with plot ruling character, imposed these changes in order to do so. And that's the only way to explain them. As the alleged "evolution" of a character, they don't make any sense at all, which helps illustrate why TWD can't be creatively successful while stuck in the soap melodrama ditch. A central feature of TWD in comic form is that it's a character-study of the effects this zombified world progressively has on the survivors. While fans of the tv incarnation will, at any invocation of the comic, cry their beloved series is its own creature, this character study really must be a central feature of any iteration of TWD, because without it, there really isn't anything else. The survivors try to get by, to rebuild, to persevere. The odds are never in their favor and never will be. The world has ended and it's not coming back. There's no light at the end of the tunnel. There's no overall story arc that will ever come to any conclusion, no villain that will be defeated in the end, no magic cure to the zombie plague. There are just the people who have survived and their survival is the only story being told. If TWD isn't a character study, it just becomes a group of characters mechanically repeating the same actions week after week. That's a way in which soap melodrama is fundamentally incompatible with TWD. A character study requires conceptually strong characters who are like real human beings involved in a real situation and who evolve in believable ways in the face of changing events and this isn't possible within a framework wherein characterization is dictated by temporary plot needs and arbitrarily changed on a routine basis to suit those needs.

I've often written here about how the demands of soap aren't really compatible with the on-the-ground reality within TWD's fictional world. The drive for soap scenarios leads to an undue focus on things that are, in the context of TWD, ridiculous and entirely inappropriate. One of the big, obvious examples is how the characters spent nearly all of their time in season 2 on things like love triangle melodrama, baby-daddy melodrama, lost child melodrama, injured child melodrama, budding romance, questioning Rick's worthiness as a father, Lori's essay on how women should remain barefoot, pregnant and in some kitchen and on and on and on, with virtually no time spared for what should be, at all times, the central concern of everyone present: how to survive what's happened to the world. When, at the end of the season, the zombies finally appeared, the survivors, who had made almost no preparation, had no idea what to do and had to break and flee as best they could. In season 3, the characters move into a single cell-block of a prison that could be turned into a great home and a formidable fortress, then mostly just lose interest in it and let zombies roam through most of it while their time is spent on more soap melodrama. Mazzara's TWD didn't just try to push survivalist concerns aside though; it took an actively hostile view of them. Absolutely wouldn't tolerate raw survivalist sentiment and persistently presented it in contexts aimed at making it look entirely inappropriate. Shane was turned into a cartoon bad guy, then any raw survivalist sentiment that season was put in his mouth; harsh realities that should have gotten a fair hearing were presented as the selfish rambling of a heartless villain. He was also used to solve all of the dilemmas of that season, keeping the tough decisions out of--and the resulting blood off--the hands of the heroes. When, later, GINO and Woodbury become a problem and it was likely they'd have a strike-force bearing down on the prison at any moment, Glenn goes into war mode, trying to get everyone prepared for a right; he's treated like he's being a dangerously out-of-control dick. And so on. It's a matter I've covered at some length over the course of my commentary on the show.

The current matter of Carol is another example of this rather despicable trend carrying on beyond Mazzara. Some of my readers have expressed their approval of the back-and-forth in the most recent episode regarding the morality of Carol's murders of David and Karen after they contracted the mysterious illness. I can, in the abstract, certainly understand the appeal of such a debate. A competently written TWD would deal with such things regularly and in thought-provoking ways. I don't find this TWD's handling of it to be at all compelling. In the name of protecting the survivors from a disease, Carol murdered two innocent people but the killings were senseless and served no real purpose. The victims were already in quarantine and Carol exposed herself to the illness in order to kill them, at a time when dozens of others had also already been exposed to it. The decision to have Carol commit such an atrocity is wholly arbitrary as well, a total violation of her established character in more ways than can be easily listed. The writers could have credibly taken the Carol they started to build this year--a nice extrapolation of and expansion on her past experiences--and evolved her into someone who could do such a thing. They could have built on another aspect of her established character--she's a nurturer--and credibly made her an "Angel of Death" looking to relieve the suffering of people facing a horrible death from an intractable illness (the ep offered a stray line in that direction, but pursued it no further). They could have had someone else commit the murders and let that plotline go off on its own. They could have approached it in any one of half a dozen ways. Instead, they just ignored everything previously established and had Carol do it, right out of the blue and for no larger reason than the shock effect of it. Another example of characterization being dictated by temporary plot considerations.

There should always be a strong psychological motivation for such an extreme act. None was present here. Because Carol's decision to do it is such an arbitrary imposition, it doesn't allow Carol to make much of a case for it in her conversations with Rick. "Her" case is really just that of someone who is, in a coldly theoretical manner, merely arguing a hypothetical. There's no connection between the act and her. At the same time, her actions are morally indefensible because, instead of creating a scenario genuine in its moral ambiguity, one that would potentially raise legitimate questions that could be debated, the writers have intentionally stacked the deck against her. The point of having any of this occur--to bring this full circle--is to create a situation that can be milked for melodrama, not to craft one that is genuinely intellectually provocative. That's very unfortunate--the latter would make for a much better TWD.

On the matter of soap melodrama, the series seems, at the moment, a bit divided. The first two eps of the present season were galaxies beyond anything TWD had delivered since season 1 and were pointing the way to a TWD that could even surpass that, still its high point. The next two eps have been, overall, painfully awful, but even they sometimes show traces of the better TWD to which the first pair pointed. Is this a series in transition? One on the same dismal path as the last two seasons but that just had two fluke good eps? My own view is that, if the series is ever to be worth the time, it simply must drop the soap melodrama approach. Its ratings are flying high but, for reasons I hope I've at least effectively outlined here, I don't think soap melodrama offers a sustained path to success, even among the considerable fanbase TWD has amassed by way of it (or partially by way of it, anyway). It isn't a matter of it just continuing. I wouldn't have given a damn if, at any point in the previous two seasons, the series had been cancelled and to the extent that it continues to wallow in the soap suds, I don't care if it goes away either. As I've written from my first review though, it has remarkable potential. This season initially raised my hopes that someone at its helm had finally understood that. I'd still like to hope that's the case. It's a crime that TWD is such shit. It could be great.



[1] It could be seen as a bit unfair that the low-grade stuff pollutes the word in this way. Stringing together its finer moments, the melodrama does have a venerable history. This particular breed of it, though, definitely does not.

[2] The speech, as complete a departure from anything resembling normal adult conversation as it gets, is cringeworthy and, in context, makes absolutely no sense. Hershel is talking to a fellow he's known on an intimate daily basis for nearly a year and his own daughter as if he's trying to justify himself to a room full of total strangers who know nothing of the situation. He isn't saying anything that everyone there doesn't already know and know well--they live with the same situation every day. It's just hammy melodrama offered for an uncritical viewing audience, not for the characters in front of him.

[3] I defended 6.0 after the first two eps of this season because when Rick took up his guns again, it seemed an intentional device by the Gimple Gang to refute the unappealing Ricks of the past. His behavior in the most recent episode has thrown that into serious question.


  1. Re: "I don't think soap melodrama offers a sustained path to success, even among the considerable fanbase TWD has amassed by way of it (or partially by way of it, anyway)."

    I hate the melodrama and wish TWD was all it could be. But unfortunately, I think TWD in its present form isn't going to self destruct anytime soon. As you mention, TWD naturally has no overall plot. It can keep going forever, killing characters, adding new characters, whatever needs to happen to service the storyline.

    One thing TWD has going for it is hope, since there will aways be hope the show is a heartbeat away from suddenly getting better. Unlike, say, Battlestar Galactica, which episode after episode and season after season dug itself deeper and deeper until there was no hope.

  2. I don't think it can keep going forever like that, though. When there's no character study, it looses its point and just becomes repetitious. It already routinely draws complaints about that on the boards devoted to it. This season has tried, in its better eps, to throw in some stronger characterization, which suggests, to me, that someone involved in the process is at least maybe aware of this problem.

  3. Loved reading this article! It articulates all the problems I have with this show much better than I ever could. I'll be sure to check back here in future.

    I continue to watch the show mainly so I can get in on the conversation with friends who constantly rave about it on a weekly basis, even though the big 'twists' or 'shocking moments' they rave about I often find ridiculous or silly.

    I've tried my utmost to enjoy the show for what it is, and in few occasions I can manage, but mostly I'm left shouting at the tv because of how dumb or inconsistent the characters act, the coincidental/forced story arcs, or how every conversation is so deadly serious and contrived with absolute nonsense that bares no relation to what would happen in reality.

    Anyways, kudos to the article again, CinemaArc, it only reinforces my thoughts on the show that many, MANY people disagree with me about.

    Might I ask if you could recommend any good shows that have been aired in recent times? I'm always on the lookout for some good quality stuff I might have missed out on. I enjoyed stuff like The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, and more recently True Detective, which I thought was excellent. Not so much something like The Shield, which came highly recommended, but ended up making TWD seem like Shakespeare...

  4. Well, of course, BREAKING BAD is an obvious recommendation--that's as good as television gets. HBO's ROME was a great piece of work, marred only by the rushed conclusion in the second season after it was cancelled. For zombies, I've been enjoying the hell out of Z NATION, which is like a great zombie b-movie every week. BATES MOTEL is a blast. VIKINGS is great, like a really good and meaty novel broken down into chapters.

    Welcome aboard, DiO, and thanks for the kind words. My analysis of TWD here has gotten rather extensive, but I've written better articles on other subjects too.

  5. Hey, I forgot to thank you for the recommendations.

    Of course, how could I forget to mention Breaking Bad, perhaps because it was an obvious shout like you say, as well as my own personal favorite, Game Of Thrones.

    I actually have both seasons of Rome due to learning that George RR Martin was a huge fan of the show, but I have yet to watch them.

    I've now watched the whole season of Z Nation after your recommendation, and I'm glad I did, as it's a great little show and I probably wouldn't have given it a second glance had I not found this blog.
    Bar a couple of episodes which I found really annoying (namely, episode 8, with the whole spaceman thing, and particularly episode 9, with the pointless groundhog day theme lasting an entire episode), I've found it really enjoyable, and much more entertaining than TWD.

    I've heard good things about Vikings, and never heard of Bates Motel, so I look forward to catching up with them along with Rome.

    Thanks again!

    1. That's great! I've enjoyed the hell out of Z NATION. Just revamped by article on its first season because I thought it deserved better. I like its willingness to embrace the kind of unconventional storytelling one finds in the eps you mention, but it's certainly not for everyone. I liked the imaginary spaceman a lot more than I did the Groundhog Day ep.

      BATES MOTEL is a series about the younger days of Norman Bates from Hitchcock's PSYCHO, which, if you haven't seen it, you should definitely watch before tackling the series. Vera Farmiga is particularly good in it. A lady with a serous screw loose and an even more messed-up son who move to a twisted, TWIN PEAKS-style town.

      VIKINGS is a great piece of work, and has some of my favorite cinematography on television. It's a cinema-quality production, one I should definitely have covered here at some point.

      Watch ROME! It's almost like an anthropological study of the late Republic period and a hell of a piece of work.