Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pace and Consistency Strangers To THE WALKING DEAD

Series television is written by committee. An individual script will usually only have one writer's name on it, but the final filmed version of it will be the product of a large number of people, from the showrunner and the writer's room down to even the individual actors (in series that don't insist on overly rigid recitation of the written word). One of the things that has long puzzled me about THE WALKING DEAD is how Robert Kirkman, who is a talented writer I've read for many years, always ends up as the author of record on so many godawful episodes. If his name appears on a script, it's guaranteed to be a stinker, and tonight's installment, "Strangers," was his sixth turd in a row, a turd that, like the previous five, shows no trace of his influence, much less of his authorship. Not a single Kirmanesque moment, line of dialogue, anything. This simply isn't how Kirkman writes.[1] Are his scripts being dragged down by too much influence from others? Is he choking when it comes time to write a tv script? Is someone of lesser talent ghostwriting for him?[2] It's a mystery I've pondered for a few years now, one that's likely to remain a mystery for the foreseeable future. For our purposes here at the moment, it's enough to note that, tonight, TWD squandered the good will it had earned via its great season 5 opener with yet another Mazzara-esque filler episode.

Once again, we're back to the soap melodrama dialogue wherein no one has a normal conversation about a mundane subject; every exchange involves some preposterous, overblown speech about some Very Important Things that are mostly repetitions of things we're heard a million times already. Let's wallow in how Troubled a character is about something bad in their past by having them repeatedly tell us--regulation hangdog look in place--they Don't Want To Talk About It. The other 9,999 times clearly weren't enough, so let's have Rick give his 10,000th repetition of his speech to Carl about how he must be exceptionally careful in this zombified world. Let's have another speech from Abraham about how we must get Eugene to D.C. so we can save the world.

Other bad habits returned. Bob is suddenly given lots of dialogue, the home of which he's long dreamed, and a romance with Sasha. Longtime viewers of TWD know what that means; he's being set up for a gruesome fate. He isn't dead by the end of the ep, but only, one suspects, because this is a filler episode in which virtually nothing happens. He appears to have been bitten by a zombie on  mission to find food--something at which the episode only hinted[3]--and was then snatched by the remnants of the Terminusians. When they weren't killed, you just knew they'd be back, right? The subject of a Terminusian shish ka-Bob--yes, you may roll your eyes at that--he seems to have been designated by the creators to meet Dale's fate from the comics.[4] Meanwhile, Carol apparently decides to leave the group near the end; she treks to a broken-down car she and Daryl had encountered earlier, gets it running, and is just about to leave when Daryl stumbles upon her. Not satisfied with one such remarkable coincidence, the ep immediately throws us another--at that very moment, the car of whomever kidnapped Beth goes speeding up the road right in front of the car Carol just got running! She and Daryl jump in and take off in pursuit, but, again, this being a filler ep, whatever becomes of that will have to wait until next week.

The pace of the ep is wretched, little of any substance happens, it brings the momentum established by the previous ep to a standstill--overall, "Strangers" was a disappointing fallback to Mazzara-esque crap, an exercise that deepens the mystery of Robert Kirkman's substandard scripts but is otherwise a complete waste of an episode.



[1] Kirkman's first ep, "Vatos," is very Kirkmanesque, a great script with lots of Kirkman touches and great moments, including the best ever last line of a TWD ep, but the big twist toward its end--the "gangsters" who turn out to be guarding a nursing home--was so bad, so ill-advised, and left such a bad taste in viewers' mouths that its merits tend to be ignored and it often ends up listed among the all-time worst TWD eps.

[2] Certainly a possible scenario. Though Kirkman has always described himself as intimately involved in the creative end of the show, he made numerous public comments in interviews during its 2nd and 3rd seasons that were wildly inaccurate and suggest he was only minimally aware of what was happening with it and was merely trying to fudge his way through questions regarding it to which he didn't know the answers.

[3] He's attacked by a zombie during one of TWD's patented ridiculous zombie setpieces. The group wants to collect food from the lower level of a building that is waist-deep in water. There's a hole in the floor above it; the flooded lower level is teeming with zombies. Instead of simply spearing the zombies from above, which could be done with no risk, the team descends to the lower level to battle the zombies in the waist-deep water. At one point, one of the creatures grabs Bob and drags him under. When he's rescued, he claims to be all right, but something is clearly bothering him, and later, after the group returns to home base--a church--he's shown standing outside alone crying, perhaps over being bittern, perhaps only to make viewers familiar with the comics think he was bitten.

[4] It wouldn't surprise me if Tara eventually ends up wanting to marry Glenn and Maggie either. As sometimes happened last year, Gimple likes to try to mine some of the material from the comics that Mazzara pissed away during his reign as showrunner.


  1. Im really tiring of how little time actually passes in this show. Just between season 4 episode 1 snd this one only seems to be about 3 weeks. Why does every season need to take place over a short period of time.

  2. TWD has actually covered 2 years, maybe a little more or less, but the one-day/one-episode route it usually takes (followed by skipping large amounts of time between seasons) is a huge mistake. It could be somewhat justified if anything happens in that time, but it's made to drag far too often. Like tonight.

    1. It is a huge mistake. Seasons should take place over a six month or so time period. They could do stand alone stories. A few multi episode arcs. They totally screwed themselves over.
      If for example. It took over a month for them to travel from the prison to terminus they would be more desperate. But nope just a few days travel on foot. Must of only been 20 miles from the prison. How could they never of heard of it. Too bad they will never film one frame outside of georgia.... getting sick of seeing the same trees over and over again. Watch out teleporting zombie jumped out behind the 2 foot wide tree trunk! Coming here and reading your reviews at least lets me vent so I still enjoy the show without laughing at every episode!

  3. I have to admit that this episode was disappointing. I found it ironic that Bob was used last season to make fun of the lots-of-dialogue-equals-death habit, only to be used against him now. I do admire it being very close to the comics.

    One good thing I noticed was Andrew J. West as Gareth, especially how he delivers his line in the episode's conclusion. He's consistently good and remains interesting for an antagonist, even with 3 episodes in. He basically embodies Chris from the comics. Although I'm unsure on why he's a regular for a small story arc in the comics (which worries me that they'll stretch it), West's performance keeps me optimistic.

    Also, next week's episode is written by Angela Kang. Based on the previews I saw, it looks very good. I'm just unsure if it's as good as it looks, because Kang has written both great and awful episodes.

  4. Jriddle,

    I agree with a lot of what you have said over the years, but looking back at what some of the "professional" critics have said (like the ones on metacritic) TWD has always gotten pretty good reviews. Last night's episode has is 100% positive score on rottentomatoes. It seems like the only people that complain about the quality of the show are the fans. Well, and you, although I wouldn't call you a fan.

    Why do you think that is? I know the show is popular, but shows like NCIS and TBBT get pretty bad reviews from the press. And all the soap operas that employ the same narrative techniques you mention in your review have always been reviled by the critics. So why is this show different? Honestly, maybe you could shed some light on it because it makes absolutely no sense to me.

  5. @TJO - During the Mazzara years, the scripts on which Angela Kang was the writer of record were just horrible. Her name on an ep guaranteed it would be painfully bad. Then last season under a new showrunner, she was suddenly not only good but great. I definitely look forward to seeing which Kang will turn up. After Kirkman's dismal performance this week, it would be nice to see Kang the Conqueror return.

    @Anon. - Fill in my standard rant about the remarkably poor quality of contemporary critics. TWD earned a lot of praise in its first season; it was new, it was good, and it was on AMC, which, at the time, was the home of two of the best dramas on tv.

    After that, you get the bandwagon effect, which you see quite often among movie critics and sometimes results in substandard movies being praised beyond any possible reasonable estimation of their merit (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN jumps immediately to mind).

    There are other factors. When you're dealing with something like Metacritic, you're getting a pretty small sample, and a lot of the reviews you see posted there as covering a season are actually only reviews of the first ep of a season or of the first 2 or 3 eps, sometimes by people who may never watch any more of it than that. Every season of TWD has seen fewer critics covered by the site writing about it (the current season's rating is based on fewer than a dozen reviews).

  6. "One of the things that has long puzzled me about THE WALKING DEAD is how Robert Kirkman, who is a talented writer I've read for many years, always ends up as the author of record on so many godawful episodes."

    My guess is these are the episodes where the writers try to shoehorn specific elements from the comics into the TV show. So I guess the show feels obligated to give Kirkman due credit.

    "Kirkman's first ep, "Vatos," is very Kirkmanesque, a great script with lots of Kirkman touches and great moments, including the best ever last line of a TWD ep, but the big twist toward its end--the "gangsters" who turn out to be guarding a nursing home--was so bad, so ill-advised, and left such a bad taste in viewers' mouths that its merits tend to be ignored and it often ends up listed among the all-time worst TWD eps."

    Is it coincidence that nothing in "Vatos" happened in the comics?

  7. @Max - No, several--maybe most--of the scripts attributed to Kirkman haven't involved shoehorning things that happened in the comics. His part of the season 2 opener (most of which was never aired) didn't, nor did the season 2 closer, which is still among the worst TWD eps ever done. He was the one who put Michonne in GINO's apartment in S3, but as I recall, none of the other things that happened in that ep came from the comics. I don't remember anything in his first script last year that came from the comics either.

    In most series, the stories and the events that take place in them are worked out by the writer's room beforehand. The writer of record gets to make very few choices with regard to the story, but still often has enough room to stamp it as his own in some ways. Are they just assigning him lousy eps? Who knows?

    @Anon - Unless there's a specific story reason for doing so--24's gimmick, for example--I've never thought it a good idea to shoot that way, and, in fact, very few series ever have. TWD, after the first season, gets this approach from the soaps it apes, but whereas it can be justified with the daytime soaps by the fact that a new ep appears every day, it makes no sense to try to do it on a primetime series that only has 16 episodes/year. It's particularly egregious with TWD, because the characters have spent so much time in safe havens (Carl has aged about 5 years in what's supposed to be only about 2).

    Thank you for the kind words.