Tuesday, February 18, 2014

WALKING DEAD: Context, Content, Comics & a Melodrama Problem Briefly Revisited

This morning, I was perusing the IMDb's Walking Dead board and came across an exchange in which a poster had objected to a scene in the recent episode "After" and was met with the objection that the scene in question had been taken directly from the comics. This led me to chime in with some remarks on the exchange that ended up running a bit long. A little later, reader JerryK. wrote me and suggested they'd be worth reproducing here. They cover some familiar ground for readers of this blog, but I don't have anything to do at the moment, and what I'd written is sort of an extension of my piece on TWD's melodrama problem, as well as some other thoughts I've offered here over time, so I thought I'd go ahead and adapt it into an article as Jerry suggested. One that may seem a bit less focused than usual for me, but it wasn't conceived as a blog article, so I'll apologize for any such lack of focus in advance:

The television version of THE WALKING DEAD sometimes replicates scenes from the vastly superior TWD comic. One of the big problems with how it goes about doing so is that, typically, the scenes are entirely stripped of the context that, in the comic, gave them their meaning and their power. The comic features consistent, conceptually strong characters who drive the plot, whereas the show is approached by its writers as a soap melodrama, a species wherein plot dictates characterization. As I've written here in the past,

"Soap melodrama takes all of the potentially problematic elements of the [standard] 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."

It's a lowest-common-denominator genre that wallows in the overly familiar and in which everything is constructed around trying to involve the viewer solely via that trite emotionalism. "Characters," in the genre, are, like everything else, made subordinate to this goal, and characterizations are arbitrarily changed, often radically, to serve this end.

Here's how this works in practice: When, back in "Sick," Hershel lost his leg, the group was almost entirely out of medical supplies. They immediately recognized the need to find the prison infirmary, which would have those crucial supplies, if Hershel is to have any chance of surviving, then no one did anything toward that end. Instead, half the group went off to pursue the terribly pressing task of finding the former prisoners a place to sleep while the women hovered around Hershel making long faces and creating an "isn't this a sad, tragic thing?" atmosphere. No one asks the prisoners about the infirmary. Hershel's own daughters didn't go in search of it nor do they demand any action toward finding it. Instead, Maggie does a weepy, soap opera scene wherein she tearfully tells Hershel it's o.k. to die. Only Carl even bothers to look for the supplies, off camera on on his own initiative, and his reward is that he's berated for his actions by his mother. This is soap melodrama. It's aimed at servicing a particular viewer demographic, those who want to weep along with Maggie, but its absolutely brainless and insulting to anyone who gives it any thought at all. And when the writers decide they want to invoke another familiar emotion, the characterizations completely change. Compare Maggie's weepy, totally resigned attitude in "Sick"--she's was content to just sit there and cry and let her father die rather than do anything to help him live--to her steely, rock-solid determination, in this week's ep, to find Glenn, whatever it takes, even if she had to do it alone and fight her way through every zombie on Earth. Both of the characters in these episodes are played by Lauren Cohan, both are named Maggie and both are supposed to be the same person but in soap melodrama, two different episodes looking to involve the viewers via two different emotional responses = two entirely different characters.

It has long been my contention that this approach is fundamentally incompatible with TWD, which is, in comic form, an open-ended zombie movie that has always had as a central feature a character-study of the long-term effects of a zombified world on a group of people and the society they form. Obviously, you can't have a character study if you don't have characters.

The tv series doesn't adapt the comic--it pillages it like a group of Vandal raiders. When they drop in moments from the comic, the context that, in the comic, gave those scenes their meaning and power, is usually gone because everything leading up to them has been changed. When, in the comic, Michonne took the extraordinary step of leaving the larger group making its escape from Woodbury and returning to the Governor's apartment, she had a very good reason for it; he had sexually tortured her on repeated occasions and she was out for revenge. When she does the same on tv, it's essentially a random act--it's insanely dangerous and there's no motive for it at all. The series was just pillaging a moment from the comic, absent the context that gave it meaning. A little later, the series writers give her a motive--she tells Andrea she want back in order to expose GINO as a means of hurting Andrea for choosing to stay in Woodbury! Michonne as insanely petty soap opera Angry Black Woman.

In a big melodramatic moment in last week's ep, Carl berates Rick for his ineffectiveness as a leader. It's a mirror of a similar scene in the comic but in the comic, Rick is a good leader and Carl is a child--much younger than on tv. His judgment that Rick can't protect anyone is patently unfair, a product of a child's hurt and frustration, and he realizes it almost immediately and backs away from it. On tv, Rick is a comically incompetent clown whose weakness and idiocy routinely get people killed and Carl, much older, is offering up a much more thoughtful and dead-on critique of his father's abilities. When tv Carl does the same flip-flop as comic Carl, there is, hidden in the melodrama, some unfortunate metatextual content; the writers presenting a legitimate critique of their work--their awful representation of Rick--then playing at "refuting" it. Or, more to the point, juvenilely shooting spitballs at it. Suggesting it isn't valid and refusing to address it. This isn't the first time TWD's writers have done this and it can be seen as a side issue but as one who has strongly criticized the writers' handling of Rick, knows that criticism to be valid and considers prideful idiocy to be much worse than plain idiocy, I'll concede it rankles.

This season of TWD is, for the first time in ages, divided on the soap melodrama approach. Even if he doesn't always follow through, current showrunner Scott Gimple seems to understand the value of strong characterization, the kind that approach renders impossible. That creates a pole that at least draws the series away, to some degree, from that unfortunate genre. It would nice to see this become an even more prominent feature of the series. His TWD has, unfortunately, displayed plenty of the other sins of the genre; even this week's ep, which, overall, wasn't bad by TWD standards, was plagued by soap-ist sloppiness and inanities. I've been accused of going far too easy on the season in my own reviews, even as I've outlined its many problems. Maybe I have. I want TWD to be good; I always have. I don't think I've allowed this to cloud my judgment of what it is.



  1. I was reading this and it suddenly came to me. If people want to understand The Walking Dead and the people who watch it, they need to watch the "W.T.F." of South Park, which I realize now unintentionally nails TWD.

  2. This was a well done article. Sometimes I wish the walking dead was more like old star trek episodes or twilight zone shows where they would examine parts of human nature in each episode and really show how dark people can become when in desperate conditions, or how good people can rise to when faced with adversity.
    Sometimes this show is too serialized. I think it would be ok to have a greater timeframe during the season. It seemed seasons 3 and 4 are only covering about a month of time each. Like everyone says-dont drag out plots for episodes at a time. Doctor who can make people love a character and cry for them when they die in the course of a single episode. I didnt realize that most of the writers are from soap operas, maybe the need more sci-fi writers that can come up with interesting plots.
    (Typed on iphone excuse grammer).