Tuesday, October 28, 2014

50 Articles of THE WALKING DEAD & I

"Four Walls and a Roof," this week's aggressively mediocre, watered-down installment of THE WALKING DEAD, didn't inspire me to write anything about it. Except that. Rather, I thought I'd do something a little different (and probably a lot less interesting!). This is an anniversary of sorts: my 50th article about TWD. As good a time as any, I suppose, to devote a little space to my prolific relationship with this particular subject.

It's a relationship that's been the subject of a great deal of commentary over the years, from both friends and admirers and (mostly) detractors. The former often seem to think it a waste of my time, attention and whatever talent they judge me to have, while the latter dislike my criticism of the series and like to raise the caricature of some odd, obsessive fellow writing so much about a series he hates (that I also praise TWD when it warrants it never seems to figure in this criticism).[1]

I came to THE WALKING DEAD through the comics. A lifelong fan of horror and of zombie tales, I'd read the book for years before the series had appeared; back when it was fairly obscure. I'd been cautiously optimistic about the series when it had been announced; interested to see what would become of the adaptation but skeptical of how faithful it could be given the restrictions that would be imposed upon it. Though the creators had promised it wouldn't necessarily follow the events of the comic, Frank Darabont's pilot film was almost slavish in its adaptation of the first few issues of the book and I was hooked. None of the subsequent episodes, which departed radically from the book, even came close to living up to that first ep and they had other problems too, but they weren't bad and often had very good moments. A good series could grow from them. A good friend of mine, a fellow horror and zombie fan, fell in love with it. He didn't have AMC or, at the time, even a tv, and having no other way of seeing it, he'd come over and watch it with me every week.

Unfortunately, it was during that first short season that events in my own life took a turn for the worse. I've alluded to it here but haven't written much on it (and won't). The short version is that someone who had become very special to me very dramatically left me. The fallout from this nearly killed me and that isn't hyperbole. Almost 4 years later and in spite of some efforts to mend the mess, it continues to affect me every day. One of the things it took from me was my writing. I am a writer; born with it stamped on my DNA. I started doing it before most kids my age could even recognize all of their letters and leading into this particular cataclysm, my love was my muse and I'd been in a particularly prolific period.

After, I couldn't do anything. I progressively fell into a rather nightmarish hole in myself and very soon, there was no question of writing. After a very long time, I began, little by little, to return to life but the writing didn't. It wouldn't and I couldn't make it--it was like it had been robbed out of me. For a writer, this was like being dead.

Eventually, I tried to make myself write some things, mostly on political subjects, a few on others. For the most part, I didn't like the results very much.[2]  It was some time shortly before the season 2 opener of TWD that I began to lurk on the Walking Dead board at the Internet Movie Database. I read posts there, learned some of the personalities and as the season got underway, I began occasionally posting short comments. Nothing major. Probably nothing terribly insightful. I wasn't pleased with the radical change in direction the series had undergone but it was still hard to muster up enough interest to care about it or much of anything, really. Still, my friend was turning up to watch it with me and I watched it every week as its problems continued to grow. I started to write about it on the board more and more often, sometimes setting off heated debates.

It was during TWD's midseason break that year that I finally sat down and began to bang out a more comprehensive article dealing with my thoughts on the show to date. It was, to clip a cliche, like a dam had burst. For the first time in a very long time, the words flowed with ease. That first piece, "Pretty Much Walking Dead Already," became and to this day continues to be the longest article I've written on TWD or on any subject on this blog. And the article proved a hit. People flocked to it, complimented me on it, excoriated me for it--it proved a tremendous source of controversy and debate.

Unfortunately, my success with that article didn't translate into any sort of general return of my authorial mojo. It was over a month before I wrote anything else and when I was able to write again, it was another article about TWD. Then another. Then another. I'd been a big fan of Lina Romay, and when she died right around this time, I gave her what felt like an entirely inadequate send-off here. Mostly, though, it was just TWD. For a long time, it was practically the only subject about which I could write with any skill (or with what I felt was skill). The articles emerged fairly easily. The depths to which the series had fallen were appalling and the early articles after the original were mostly matter-of-fact laundry-lists of grievances (a straightforwardness that may have contributed to their popularity). They didn't have a lot of overt humor, which, given the subject, is probably a glaring omission (one that no doubt played into the series' fans caricatures of me) but I wasn't feeling particularly humorous at the time.

The articles developed an insatiable audience, people who told me they enjoyed my articles far more than the show, people who said they only continued to watch it so they could read my reaction to it, fans of the series who despised me and delighted in pointing it out at every opportunity, chiding me for continually watching and repeatedly writing about something I hated. Points I raised were debated at lengths that seemed absurd,[3] and I jumped into the fray with vigor. I seemed to have tapped into a vein of growing dissatisfaction with the popular show, saying things a lot of people had been thinking but hadn't articulated. By writing what I thought, I became a chief exponent of and spokesman for their views, or was so perceived. I became notorious within the online TWD fan community.

Along the way, though, I'd lost the point of it, which isn't terribly surprising. Were it not for my pal wanting to see it and depending on me for his fix, I would have stopped watching TWD fairly early in the 2nd season and probably would have never written anything about it. Long before that second season had ended, I felt as if I'd said all I had to say about tv TWD. I even began to get the idea that I may have covered everything in my first article and that the subsequent ones were merely redundant appendices. I was repeating myself in a way that paralleled the way the show was so mind-numbingly repeating itself at the time. Noting the obvious, I began to do this intentionally, as a sort of private joke, and found some amusement in how often the series' fans would, short my own sense of the obvious, slam me for it. That some little bit of glee was no doubt some small part of why I stayed with it. As depressing a subject as it could be, I was happy to finally have my mind on something other than my own troubles. As I had also become essentially a captive audience because of my friend, I used the articles and the arguments to vent why I disliked the series and there was a certain stubbornness to it. "If I have to watch this shit," I'd tell myself, "I'm damn well going to write about why its shit." More importantly, though, I was also clinging to TWD. It was the only thing I could write, my weekly proof that I hadn't entirely lost the most important part of me.

I was still stuck with watching the series--in addition to my friend, my parents had since taken to watching it and were likewise dependent upon me to provide it (I record it for them)--but I really didn't want to continue writing of TWD into its third season. There had been more personal tragedy between the seasons that threatened, for a time, to overwhelm me.[4] There wasn't any big epiphany that led me to continue; I mostly did so for the same reasons I'd continued through to the end of season 2. The third season was to concern itself with the story of the prison our heroes make their home, which was the high point of the comics, and I had a certain curiosity about how TWD's creators would handle it. I expected they'd so so badly (and said so, and was proven far more correct that I'd ever care to have been). I was still somewhat on the fence about continuing my articles until I saw the opener, "Seed." It's a regular practice for fanboys of various pop entertainment franchises to dub a "hater" any critic of their beloved Precious, a practice intended to dismiss a criticism as the product of the malevolent nature of the critic in order to avoid addressing it. Contrary to this epithet so frequently hurled my way, I've always held out some little glimmer of hope that TWD could right itself and become something worthy of the source material. Being stuck with watching it, I'd certainly prefer it did so. "Seed" fed into that. Not by being great or even particularly good but by being something significantly more than just downright godawful. Having seen it, I determined to write of it, and though still assuming the worst for the season to come, I gave it a cautiously positive review.

It only took one more episode for TWD to destroy the good will I'd extended it. The season that followed wasn't just awful, it was tragic, in that it raped, pillaged and wasted the best story arc from the comic, which was also one of the great tales in all of zombie fiction. In the course of it, I fell into a routine when it came to my articles. My mood had lightened a bit and I started to have a lot more fun with them and to branch out, covering the series' visual continuity errors, creating a map of TWD's Georgia, imagining a behind-the-scenes look at the TWD writers' room. The season was horrible but at the end of it, Glen Mazzara, the showrunner who had driven TWD to ruin, was fired. Reportedly, he'd been so terminally underwriting the series--a complaint prominently featured here week after week--that production had to be repeatedly shut down for lack of material to shoot. I didn't sing "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" at that point but I did think it offered a chance to significantly improve the show.[5] Scott Gimple, the fellow chosen to replace Mazzara, had been the writer of record for the only relatively good episode of season 3 ("Clear") and another that, though it featured an incredibly bad decision by the writers (the death of Merle), was significantly less than awful ("This Sorrowful Life"). I'd almost certainly be watching the next season and I was curious to see what he could do with it.

Gimple significantly improved the show. His gang turned out the first great eps of TWD since the 1st season, several of them. I appreciated Gimple's efforts to refute and demean Mazzara's work but I thought he took that much too far when he devoted multiple episodes to creating Woodbury v.2.0 and trying to prove he could pull off the end of season 3 better than Mazzara. Watching TWD also became a very frustrating exercise for me during season 4. When Mazzara was running the show, one simply expected every ep to be shit and one was virtually never disappointed. When, under Gimple, there were suddenly good-to-great episodes appearing, one wanted this to continue but rubbing shoulders with the keepers were also multiple eps in which, utterly unnecessarily, the show fell back into the very bad habits of the Mazzara years, brainless and awful. This, it seems, is going to continue into the new season. A killer opening ep, followed by a shitty sequel, followed by a mediocre third installment. "Fear the Hunters," the comic tale adapted by the last two episodes, could, absent the material that was drawn from it and put to use in the previous season,[6] have been covered in a single episode. Instead, it was stretched to two, packed with filler and the brutal payoff watered down[7] until the point is entirely lost, then the whole thing was paved over with a string of clichés and Lifetime For Women demographics-servicing faux tenderness regarding Bob's imminent demise. Just a waste.

My articles for season 4 reflect both the unevenness of its eps and my changing perspective on the series. A shift in them I note is that I don't just catalog the inanities of the weaker installments but, instead, begin to try to diagnose, at greater length, the basic nature of the series' problems and to suggest ways it could be improved--treating it as something worthy of those sorts of considerations. Toward the end of the season, by contrast, the series began to wear on me and my articles sometimes became quite cursory. For at least one ep, I didn't even write one (and heard an earful from my readers for it). I don't like writing the kind of reviews one finds all over the internet where most of the text is consumed by a mere recap of the ep's events. If I'm going to write about an ep, I need to have something to say about it. The eps on which I skimped are a mixed bag of mediocre-with-good elements that didn't particularly inspire me. My short take on "The Grove," on the other hand, represented a judgment that it was a great tale, one I thought spoke for itself.

For a time, Gimple actually had me looking forward to the next week's ep. That's quite a feat and he managed it on multiple occasions. And then he managed to drub that out of me. After the last two eps of this new season, I'm not looking forward to any more TWD. I doubt I ever will again. I'm sure there will be some more good eps sprinkled throughout this season and through the series for however long it continues. I'll probably even write about it. It isn't something in which I can reliably invest any enthusiasm though. I don't understand why Gimple doesn't just kick free from Mazzara-ism entirely and allow TWD to soar but he won't. He's had every chance. For all his TWD's seeming criticism of it, he lets it continue to drag down the show and it's likely he always will, dooming TWD to remain no more than what it is now--a wildly uneven series that offers up an alternating mix of impressive episodes that raise one's expectations and eps of mindless Mazzara-ist garbage that relentlessly grind down the same enthusiasm the former inspires. That's unfortunate but it is what it is, and though some of my readers have suggested it looks as if Gimple, based on some of his reforms, had been reading some of my criticism, changing it isn't really in my power.

I'm no longer clinging to the series as a subject; I came away from that slowly and over time and last season removed any doubts that may have lingered. My writing hasn't entirely recovered from my personal traumas and maybe it never will but it's better. Between the TWD seasons, I wrote a few articles here on various unrelated subjects about which I had much more enthusiasm. I didn't think they were bad. I was somewhat disappointed by the minimal reaction to them. Now, TWD is back and my readers want to see my analysis of it; still stuck with watching it, I'll probably keep writing about it, if for them alone.  I may be, as some insist, a moron for writing about it so much; people will just have to judge that for themselves. To aid them in those weighty considerations, I'll go ahead and confess a certain disappointment with myself in writing so much on a subject that is so often so unworthy of that much attention while giving short shrift or failing entirely to write about much better movies and series. For the record, though, I'm not some crazed obsessive when it come to TWD. I'm not a "hater." Nore am I Paul Sheldon in "Misery," perpetually driven by commercial concerns to write of a subject I hate--I don't make a dime from my writing on the subject. And that's where things are with TWD and I.

Postscript: I should, in closing, offer a few words regarding my friend, the fellow who doesn't always like TWD but hasn't disliked it enough to stop watching it; the one whose desire to look at it has, in turn, kept me watching it. Given how little I've said about him here, I fear some readers could have been left with the impression that being forced to keep up with TWD on his behalf is, at best, some sort of resented chore and at worst, some hellish torture. It's neither. The friend in question is a good one and has been with me for many years now. He can watch TWD with me any day. I dedicate this article to him:

To Darren. A jolly good fellow.



[1] I'm not sure why anyone thinks, caricature aside, that's a legitimate criticism anyway. On what planet are critics expected to write only about things they really like?

[2] The pieces in question were typically political commentary written in response to something I'd read somewhere and in retrospect some of them aren't bad but my real-time impression was that they more often came out quite poorly. They are, for me, very clinical, impersonal, matter-of-fact--at the time, I thought most of them rubbish and maybe more importantly, they were on subjects I didn't enjoy.

[3] On the IMDb board, which was my main haunt, the fights would go on for thousands of posts; frequently, I, rather than TWD, seemed the #1 topic of discussion for the day.

[4] An ex of mine, a fine lady with whom I'd remained very close, killed herself that Summer.

[5] I wrote an evaluation of the Mazzara seasons for the IMDb board. Which was best? Well...

On one hand, S3 had one good episode ("Clear") and two eps that, while problematic at times, still managed to rise above the series' usual rock-bottom standard ("Seed" and "This Sorrowful Life"). This compares to no good episodes in S2. Every episode that year, without exception, was a complete waste of space. Purely on a scorecard, season 3 wins that way.

On the other hand, the IQ of the series, which plummeted in season 2, hit a new low in season 3--TWD S3 is a much dumber show than S2. "Sick" and "Killer Within" were basically full-episode extensions of Lori taking the car to fetch Rick and Glenn, and were a series low when it came to this. If you prize intelligence, you're going to despise both, but if you can appreciate one being a bit smarter than the other, S2 wins. If, on the flip-side, you actually prize abject idiocy and find it one of TWD's endearing traits, S3 is definitely for you.

On a third hand, the second half of S3 was like the first half of S2, in that nearly everything we were shown was simply filler. TWD, in both seasons, has been mostly filler, but those two "eras"--to the extent that they can be cleanly divided (important caveat)--featured the greatest amount of padding. The S2 filler era lasted 7 eps, while the S3 filler era lasted 8. At the same time, though, the padding in the S2 era was far more repetitious--the same scenes and conversations being repeated dozens of times with barely an altered word.

On a fourth hand, S2 is as dull as dishwater. If you prize any sense of pace, there's nothing for you there. S3 doesn't move any faster but it throws in lots and lots of action to confound bumpkins into mistaking it for superior. The special effects in S2 (and, particularly, S1) were excellent; in S3--probably as a consequence of that greater demand for action--a lot of them looked like the effects from a Troma flick. There are exceptions and still some great work here and there, but often you'll find better work in a Toxic Avenger movie.

And on and on. When it comes  to judging such things, lot of it just depends on what you prize. The bottom line about Mazzara TWD is that no matter how many hands you may have, comparing the seasons is like saying this pile here stinks a bit less than that pile over there--it may be true, but you don't want to step in either.

[6] The excellent episode "The Grove" was a significantly altered version of a subplot from"Fear the Hunters."

[7] As I've written here before, attenuating the material for a middle-American whitebread audience has been a problem for TWD from the beginning. In this case, the incredible brutality of the climax of "Fear the Hunters"--our heroes, appalled by the cannibals, spend all night torturing them to death in the same way the cannibals have tortured others to death--is, as always with tv TWD, eliminated. Heaven forbid middle America ever be exposed to brutality in a horror show about the end of the world coming at the hands of flesh-eating monsters. That doing this eliminates the entire point of the story no more occurred to the writers than the fact that cannibalism didn't make any sense in the first place in the the sanitized world they've created in the tv version wherein food is plentiful and never really much of a problem (in the comic, it's nearly always a problem).


  1. Well said.

    Is the mention of you possibly going off ever posting a TWD review again due to the fact that Gimple hasn't been allowing the show to reach its true potential any more than Mazzara has, or is it due to the writers approaching the Alexandria arc -- which in the comics was a lot weaker than the prison arc -- so the fear of them butchering the lesser stories of the comics will just be too mediocre and disastrous to watch on screen?

  2. It's more a case of Gimple refusing to entirely move out of the shadow of Mazzara. Mazzara is a battleship chain around the neck of TWD. His soap melodrama approach is simply not compatible with something like TWD; if TWD isn't a character-driven drama, it's never going to work in any sustained way. Gimple is, among other things, trying to straddle that divide, keep on foot in both. It can't be done. It's matter and anti-matter. The series is all over the board as a result of trying. You can't invest in it for more than an episode because if you do, the next one (or two or three) will be horrible.

    The thing is, every episode of TWD should be not just good but great. The comic illustrates the potential. The series doesn't need to religiously follow the comic, of course, but it does need to be as good or better or it's a waste.

    I'm not interested in a series that has that potential and chooses to be shitty when it doesn't have to be.

    I'm sure I'll be writing about TWD again, maybe even a lot. It needs to give me something to talk about though.

  3. I'm going to quote your post here, since you don't use IMDb that much.

    [quote](yet another example of the series trying to mimic the physical adventures of the comic while removing the things that made those adventures make sense in the comic).[/quote]

    Yep, those are my thoughts on it as well. The show prides itself on mere shock value. The group discover there is a sanctuary nearby.. they travel to that sanctuary for 8 episodes. The show builds and builds to it. Then they arrive at said sanctuary, oh look, it wasn't a good idea after all.

    Now they're cannibals. Contrived backstory. Ill-conceived motives.

    This is all just to add more filler while also adding action and suspense to the show. What is the point in that? The characters are on their way to D.C. and they will eventually reach the Alexandria Safe-Zone. How could they possibly believe in a place like that now, and why would they agree to go there after what's happened at Terminus? Basic logic and human understanding says they would now avoid ever going to a promised 'sanctuary' no matter how kind and gentle the people seem.

    But, the show will suddenly make them go, "Oh, this place is the real deal Rick. It's nothing like Terminus!" Because the character(s) will act the way the plot will dictate them to act in that scenario.

    Which is why... while the premiere was mildly intriguing and had bursts of entertaining action, it was like eating too much cake; sooner or later you're going to get sick, vomit, and regret ever eating said cake.

    They should have went with smaller delicacies and fed them in rations; making the viewers feel less 'full', but not sick, in the end.

    I'm not really good at analogies, so to translate; my meaning is the writers should make things less over-blown, less over-dramatic. Something more nuanced and realistic... like the cannibals from the comics. The comics rarely come off as a Michael Bay movie the way the premiere did.

    Other examples of shock value was how Mazzara rushed through Lori's death to inject some sense of momentum and lingering sense of danger in the first half of Season 3. Which backfired on him since he wasn't able to even mimic that at all in the second half. I'm very glad he's been fired.

    But I too have noticed that Gimple still hasn't overcome some of Mazzara's story-telling handicaps. And after reading the spoilers for what happens in the rest of this half season, it doesn't sound promising. It sounds like more [contrived] and needless filler as well as more of those melodramatic 'qualities' that the writers/producers assume this show needs. Sometimes less is more ya know...

    I had high hopes for Gimple... but I'm starting to lose all hope in this show now. A shame.

  4. I agree with you for the most this was a really weak episode. I was hoping Angela Kang would blow us away like she did in Season 4, but maybe that was expecting too much. I don't think this was as bad as her work from previous seasons, but a major letdown. I found the opening great, but after that the episode just dragged on wasting some precious minutes. I won't lie that I did find the final showdown with the cannibals in the church suspenseful to an extent despite, the cliché of Rick and co. arriving just in the nick of time. I don't have the comics on me at hand, but I don't recall the deaths of the cannibals being nearly as brutal as what was done on the show, but I could be mistaken.

  5. @Anon, in the comics, our heroes tortured the cannibals to death, just as the cannibals had done others. They did it slowly and took all night, cutting them to pieces, breaking their bones, mutilating them beyond recognition.

    This was a disappointing return to pre-season-4 Kang.

  6. No matter what you write, I'll be reading your other non-TWD articles whether you abandon TWD or not. I'm a semi-hardcore fan of the show, but I still like reading your outputs. It kinda helped me with my own writing in criticism. You don't need to write about things you feel bored about. TWD can be your launchpad. You can talk about shows/movies that you love/influenced you as an aspiring filmmaker.

    Beautiful article, by the way

  7. Yeah, I didn't have anything to say about this episode either. I was barely able to work up the motivation to write about the last episode. So I took a pass this time too.

    I did greatly enjoy reading about your personal experiences with the show and reaction to your articles. I'm sorry to hear that so much of that history involved personal loss and tragedy. I suppose it is good that TWD has provided an outlet of sorts.

    Personally, I enjoy reading your articles every week and I hope they continue. But I completely understand losing interest in the show. Every article I write on the subject could be my last.

    Either way, I look forward to following your writing wherever it may go. Congrats on 50 TWD articles. They have all been well worth reading.

  8. I look forward to reading your posts about the show more than the show itself. You are an excellent writer, and I'm glad you've continued despite personal loss.


  9. " @Anon, in the comics, our heroes tortured the cannibals to death, just as the cannibals had done others. They did it slowly and took all night, cutting them to pieces, breaking their bones, mutilating them beyond recognition."

    Yikes! If that's the case, I see why you would be disappointed. I don't recall any of that though so, I guess it's time for me to revisit that arc in the comics. I'm still glad to see that they didn't pad out this storyline for too long. I heard a rumor that these villains were meant to last until mid-season, but nice see this wasn't the case.
    Overall, I have to agree with everyone's frustration regarding the Gimple regime's inability to shake off the bad elements that keep this show from achieving true greatness. In some cases, I find myself even angrier at Gimple than Mazzara for the simple fact his reign has shown that Walking Dead can be done competently and effectively if they stuck to what worked, but instead for every foot forward they gain in going the right direction something ugly rears its head to push them back. It's very aggravating and I was hoping this season would hopefully prove they had learned from their mistakes, but apparently not. Unless, the majority of episodes after this are consistently good (or even great) this is looking to be another mixed baggage.

  10. @The Joesen One, Lebeau, Natalie, thank you all for the kind words. Lebeau, maybe too kind (I doubt all of the 50 were worth reading, but hopefully, there have been a few).

    I can't seem to reconcile 50 articles on TWD with my complete lack of articles on several other great shows currently running or recently ended--I never wrote about BREAKING BAD, among others--to say nothing of the world of film, which I couldn't adequately cover in a lifetime (for that matter, I've just started a small project of my own with a friend--coming soon). It seems wrong.

    @Anon, I think that's what it's doomed to remain--the same meandering mess wherein the Mighty and the Mazzara mix, mosh and murder any hope of a TWD that even remotely rises to its potential.

  11. Yet another long time reader of your blog that just wants to say you've done a damn fine job all around, Jriddle. Like most, I've lost hope in this show being anything more than inconsistent some time ago. It's come to a point where I only watch the walking dead just read what you've written here. Your articles are by far the most thorough dissections of a tv show that I've ever seen, and are incredibly entertaining because of that. It's clear you're a very talented critic and writer to invest so much time into a show this bad, especially given the personal tragedies you've encountered along the way. No matter what you choose to do, many of us are thankful for the articles you've given us time after time, and will continue following your works.