Friday, October 9, 2015

A Tale of Two Tales of One Zombie Tale

Throughout its just-concluded seven-week run, the first season of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD drew a wide range of responses in internet locales where people gather to discuss such things. My entirely anecdotal impression is that reaction to the show was closely divided, with those registering in the negative holding a slight majority and virtually no one offering entirely unalloyed enthusiasm. Take that for what it's worth. Not much, in my view.[1] It's enough to say a lot of people didn't like it and even those who did like it didn't like big, meaty chunks of it.

A persistent feature of this commentary, offered by partisans both pro and con, is the idea that FTWD is significantly inferior to its parent series, THE WALKING DEAD. This sentiment has, I'll confess, somewhat baffled me. FTWD is little more than a cut-and-paste of TWD. Every one of the shortcomings that made it such a spectacular creative failure is a direct import from the parent. But while FTWD carried over nearly all of TWD's problems, it carried over few of the gimmicks TWD has developed to conceal them.

Obviously, there's a lot in that to unpack. While FTWD has only one season under one creative team, TWD has had five featuring episodes of often wildly varying quality crafted under three different showrunners. Insofar as comparisons go, this makes TWD stubbornly resistant to any overly broad generalizations--for any pound-for-pound evaluation, one must break it down a bit.

To get the easy part out of the way up front, nothing FTWD has done can touch the best of TWD. The awesome TWD pilot, for example, or "The Grove" from season 4 shame the entire FTWD project. But of course very little TWD has done can touch the best of TWD either. Its a series that peaked in its first ep, "Days Gone Bye," which still absolutely towers over everything that has followed. Beyond it, TWD's top-shelf episodes could be counted on the fingers of one hand with digits to spare. Very few and far between and so anomalous they usually seem more like happy accidents that creeped in from some other series.

Below that, there are the more numerous eps that, while perhaps quite good by TWD standards, aren't ones that, outside that comparative context, would necessarily earn the word "great. These are disproportionately concentrated in TWD's first and fourth seasons and nothing offered by FTWD can touch them either.

But then we come to the rest. Many fans who comment on TWD seem to have allowed their overall impression of it to be disproportionately shaped by its few better moments but no reasonable evaluation can fairly ignore the great mass of TWD, the problem-plagued mediocre-to-godawful eps. These make up most of the series' run; they must form the bulk of any general estimation of its merits. And by any comparative estimation, FTWD fits in among them rather neatly. I don't really care to spend much time weighing the relative merits of such poorly constructed episodes in order to more precisely pinpoint where FTWD's installments may fall in relation to them.[2] Mine is a pound-for-pound comparison, not a kilogram-for-kilogram one. It's sufficient to say FTWD's eps are certainly as "good" as or better than most of what happened in TWD seasons 2 and 3 and as "good" as or better than large swathes of season 5 and a not-insignificant number of eps from even season 4.

More to the point here are the reasons these eps are, qualitatively, such close acquaintances. FTWD is simply a clone of TWD, basically the same show set on a different coast, and the problems that sank it are all direct inheritances from the parent. They aren't just both poorly written in general; they're poorly written in the same way.

Both are populated by a raft of extremely unlikable characters. From the gullible wimp Travis to the petulant brat Chris, from junky Nick, who feeds his habit by stealing the meds of a dying old man, to Madison, who refuses to render aid as her neighbor is attacked by a zombie, FTWD's characters were an across-the-board fail of epic proportions, leaving viewers with no one interesting to follow and no one about whom they could care in the least. The top item cited by those who have, in recent weeks, tried to make a case for the superiority of TWD is that it, unlike FTWD, features likable characters. Again, TWD's much longer run can complicate comparisons--it has featured many more characters over a much longer period of time--but taken as a whole, it has the same problem. From Rick 5.0, who was prepared to turn over Michonne to GINO to be slowly tortured to death even while admitting this wouldn't save the rest of them, to Andrea and Lori, who were so hated that fans openly celebrated their eventual deaths, from Shane the obsessive, murderous cartoon maniac to early Carol, who angrily blamed Rick for her own daughter's stupidity then declined to even take part in the search for the missing girl, TWD's ensemble has also been a parade of off-putting personalities.

Where the TWD partisans sort of have a point is that, unlike with FTWD so far, they're not always off-putting. That sort of gets to the item that makes this particular comparison the most difficult, TWD's abandonment in its second season of any effort at being a character drama and its descent, instead, into full-blown soap melodrama. I've written a lot about this here over the years. My piece "A Melodrama Problem" hits most of the significant points. The short version is that this low-grade melodrama model largely eschews any effort at creating strong, consistent characters in favor of characterizations that are dictated almost entirely by temporary plot needs and that arbitrarily shift, often radically, with those needs. Characters don't evolve in any logical way; they're just suddenly changed. Then changed again. Then changed again:
"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."
Among other things, this means we do, indeed, sometimes get likable characters from TWD. Carol from the early seasons was a cringe-worthy presence. Then she was suddenly converted into a sort of grim survivalist, much more interesting. That character was assassinated by having her commit two utterly pointless, cold-blooded murders (in one of TWD's many rounds of "demonize the survivalist"). Later still, she suddenly became a character who pretended to be a mousy housewife in public while privately scheming and offering up a string of blackly humorous wisecracks. Easily the most entertaining version of the character but one whose most amusing element has absolutely no basis in any previous version and was suddenly tacked on to Carol solely because Z NATION, with its black humor schtick, had appeared. With TWD, the characterizations are changed on a dime and by no means are the changes always for the better. In the first season, Rick was written as tough, smart, brave, a fellow who had demonstrated significant leadership skills. With season 2, that original character basically ceased to exist and the 2.0 version was plopped down in his place, a character who was, as I've written in the past, "overly emotional, weak-willed, indecisive and just plain dumb--almost the polar opposite of 1.0 in every way and no leader at all." To date, there have been 8 major versions of Rick. Most of them have sucked.[3] Whether or not a given character is written as likable at any given moment is entirely dependent on whether the writers of a given ep are spinning a story that, for that moment, requires the character be likable. FTWD hasn't managed any likable or interesting characters yet. TWD hasn't managed any stably likable or interesting ones.[4]

FTWD's creators have opted to make of it a melodrama rather than a character drama--cut-and-paste, cut-and-paste. How far down that trail it will eventually go remains to be seen. Its first season didn't inspire much hope that it will be handled in the finer tradition of the classic melodrama. Rather, its writing persistently displayed the same sloppiness, randomness and what-the-hell contempt for logic, character motivations, consistency and everything other than generating that melodrama to be found in the sorriest specimens of the species. The stuff we get from TWD.

I've documented TWD's hopelessness on this at greater length than even I'd care to believe. In season 3, Andrew, one of the former prisoners, opened the gates to the prison to allow zombies to enter and baited the creatures into the facility. Chaos ensued. In "Say The Word," the next ep, Lori has just died, T-Dog has died and Carol is missing. Rick is out of his mind with absurdly over-the-top grief over the death of his awful wife and is entirely unresponsive. And they have a newborn baby on their hands. With all of this and with the prison full of zombies and an entire army of the creatures probably bearing down on it from every direction--Andrew repeatedly sounded the huge prison alarm in order to attract them--Daryl, Glenn and Maggie--every remaining able-bodied adult--immediately decide their most pressing priority is to leave the prison grounds entirely and try to find some baby formula somewhere. Daryl, in solemnizing the decision, declares they're going to find that formula because they aren't going to lose another of their own this day but they're leaving the infant about whom they're allegedly so concerned in the care of a crippled old man who had only just recently lost one of his legs and is, at the moment, stuck standing on the remaining one in the yard. He can't get out of the sun or even sit down--the building is full of zombies. He certainly has no way of defending the facility if Andrew's alarm draws more. He's left to tend the baby with, as his only company, two children, a lunatic and two former prisoners no one even trusts. Glenn ultimately opts to stay behind only because Daryl can't fit three people on his motorcycle. And why is it so important to immediately go out and find formula for baby? Well, in nine months of pregnancy, neither Lori nor anyone else has bothered to acquire any.

Must it really be noted that nothing about any part of this makes a damn bit of sense?

FTWD plots the same way. In "The Dog," Madison and her family are so sure there's a major crisis afoot they're preparing to abandon their home, the sort of thing people would only do in the most extreme circumstances. Travis has been caught in a riot in Los Angeles. Rather than staying glued to the television in an effort to learn as much as possible about what's happening--the thing everyone would do in such a situation--Madison sits down with her kids for a game of Monopoly. When the power fails and they hear a zombie creeping around outside their home, they try to locate it via the stealthy technique of shining a really bright light out the window. They hear something at the sliding glass door and jerk back the curtain to find a dog. Nick then opens the door and immediately turns his back on it to pet said dog and talk to the others. They decide the thing to do is go next door and try to steal a neighbor's shotgun and as they depart, they leave their own door standing wide open behind them, allowing the zombie to enter. From the neighbor's house, they see Travis return. To the home they've just allowed to be invaded by the zombie. Rather than running out the neighbors' front door, which would put them within a few strides of Travis as he sits in the driveway or just opening the window through which they're watching and sounding a warning, they opt to return home via the much more elaborate and time-consuming route they took on the trip over, navigating a garden maze, climbing a fence, crawling down a big dumpster. So concerned are they about getting back home to use their purloined gun to save Travis from being eaten that they don't bother to bring with them the shells for the gun and Alicia has to race back to get them. And so on.

This sounds like a comedy spoofing zombie fiction but the only laughs here are entirely unintentional.

Character motivations in both series trend from poorly conceived to non-existent to vehemently counter-logical. Andrew's big plan in TWD was to flood the prison with zombies so that the creatures could kill all our heroes then he and the other former inmates--guys who would also be in the path of the zombie horde he's unleashing and are, unlike our heroes, entirely unarmed--could retake it for their own. That same season, ("Made To Suffer"), GINO gathers his lieutenants around him and says he wants to destroy the group at the prison. He has absolutely no reason for wanting to do this and doesn't offer one--even says he has no interest in the prison itself. He's just the designated villain and the designated villain, it seems, must do villainous things. In FTWD ("Cobalt"), the story is the same; it's revealed that the Evil Military has decided the way to deal with an extinction-level event in which the dead become the army of the enemy is to kill the few living people who are left. In "The Good Man," Cpl. Andy, who has been tortured by Daniel, believes Daniel is intent on killing him and convinces Travis to release him. Near the end of the ep, he becomes one of the most tired cliche's in movies and television--that bad decision that comes back to bite you--as he returns, waving a gun with blood in his eye. The corporal's military has been wiped out. He has nowhere to go. It's perfectly understandable he would want revenge on Daniel but instead of shooting the fellow who hurt him, he turns and randomly shoots his girlfriend instead! Probably the only person left in the world who still loves him.

The writing of both series is perpetually plagued by another tired hack's trope, poorly-constructed plots that are artificially extended far beyond their natural expiration date by characters who decline to share critical information with one another, information they wouldn't, under any circumstances, actually fail to share. In TWD season 2 ("Nebraska"), Dale collects a great deal of evidence that Shane is an unbalanced killer, an ongoing danger to the entire group, yet when he confronts Lori about this he declines to share any of that accumulated evidence, even when Lori specifically demands it from him. He just chalks it up to a bad feeling he's gotten because he's known guys like Shane in the past! Dale sees Andrea falling under Shane's spell and talks to her about it--he again declines to share what he knows. The same dynamic is repeated in season 3 between Michonne and Andrea over GINO. Michonne collects a lot of evidence that something is rotten in Woodbury but whenever she tries to convince Andrea to leave refuses to share any of it, saying only that her "gut" tells her something is wrong. In FTWD, Alicia is tending to her zombie-bitten boyfriend and Madison virtually kidnaps her while refusing to explain why Alicia must leave and stay away (later, away from Madison's watchful eye, Alicia nearly returns to him). While the world may be coming to an end around them, Madison keeps Alicia entirely in the dark as to what's happening, putting Alicia in a great deal of danger. When Travis is afraid his son may be in danger, he talks to the boy's mother, his ex-wife Liza. He doesn't bother to tell her what it's all about and she becomes incredibly bitchy, basically rearguing their former custody dispute rather than trying to be helpful.

That last touches on another unfortunate aspect of FTWD ported over from the parent, a rather ugly streak of misogyny. As I've covered, the creators of TWD, for a very long time, wrote the lady characters like their own least favorite ex-wives--bitchy, stupid, unhelpful and unpleasant. On FTWD, Liza's petty bitchiness made her instantly unlikable. Later, she was recruited by a sinister doctor to lie to the civilians and help the Evil Military whisk away a number of them, including Nick. When Madison's neighbor is attacked by a zombie, Madison not only fails to render any aid, she physically bars the door in order to prevent her daughter from doing so. Then later, when she and the others are preparing to leave the safe-zone after they've learned the military intends to kill everyone in it, she doesn't bother to warn her neighbors, self-righteously sniffing that when the military came for her Nick, none of those neighbors came to her aid. When the military had occupied her neighborhood, she unleashes on Travis a torrent of absolutely pointless abuse about being left to handle too many domestic affairs herself--a cliche' monologue phoned in from some daytime soap or Lifetime movie.

On neither series do the writers do a very good job of keeping up with what they've written in the past. In "Clear," Rick returns to his hometown in order to recover guns from the storage cage of the police station where he once worked--guns he, himself, had cleaned out in the TWD pilot. In FTWD "So Close, Yet So Far"), Travis realizes the dead are, in fact, dead. "They come back," as he puts it. Then in the next ep ("The Dog"), he reacts with disbelief when Nick suggests the zombies are dead. "Why would you say that?" Minutes later, he has a discussion with Liza in which she says he was right. Right, that is, in previously saying "they come back." Shortly after that, he's flipped again, arguing that Madison shouldn't kill her zombified neighbor because they don't know if the woman is dead. "We don't know that. We don't know anything."

Uh huh.

Much of TWD and all of FTWD could be summed up as "really stupid people randomly crashing into one another." While FTWD inherited its problems from TWD though, it didn't adopt the gimmicks by which TWD has concealed those problems. Glen Mazzara assumed TWD's showrunner post during production of TWD's second season. The first half of that season was disastrous. A pair of planned eps that would have launched it with much more of a bang ended up being abandoned.[5] The gap created by their loss was filled by simply stretching the plot of what was left to cover more eps and still get events to the same point by the already-carved-in-stone midseason break. The result was deadly dull, a poorly-paced, poorly written, repetitive mess. Rather than addressing the series' mounting problems, Mazzara adopted the tactic of throwing zombies at them, or, more generally, throwing action at them. In the second half of the season, the zombies, who had practically disappeared for a time, were suddenly back in force. The effect of picking up the pace and adding more action--even, as was often the case, entirely gratuitous action--pacified viewers and acted as a sort of camouflage for the problems. TWD has used this tactic ever since. FTWD, partly due to the nature of the series' story and largely, one suspects, as a consequence of budgetary limitations, didn't have this option open to it. All of its budgetary resources for such things seemed to have been poured into its season ender and the massive zombie horde unleashed in that ep did, indeed, manage to convince some who had been quite critical of the series up 'til then to praise that ep as its best, though it was, in reality, just as problematic as every other ep had been. It just wasn't as boring.

The most significant thing FTWD lacked right out of the gate, though, was TWD's superior first season. TWD began as a spectacularly appealing novelty, not only a zombie apocalypse on weekly television but one that had been specifically tooled for a mainstream audience--watered down, dumbed down and with the horror and survivalist elements significantly dialed back. TWD's great pilot was followed by a serviceable if flawed first season with a relatively good lead in Rick 1.0, some very solid character interactions and memorable moments that allowed the series to build a great deal of good will among its audience. It became a water-cooler show, the thing about which everyone talks the next day. When this happens, viewers commit to a series. This attachment can be extremely difficult to break. When Mazzara assumed the reins as showrunner, the series creatively collapsed as dramatically as a truckload of pianos going over a cliff but by then, it had already sunken a hook deeply into its audience. FTWD didn't have these advantages. As I and others have noted, it's more like what TWD would have been had its first season never happened and it had instead started under the season 2 Mazzara regime.

And to state the obvious, had that happened with TWD, TWD would have ceased to exist years ago.



[1] The only firmer data we have come from the series' Nielsen ratings. According to Nielsen, the series opened to a large audience exceeding 10 million viewers. This plummeted until FTWD's 4th ep, when it evened out at 6.6 million viewers. Still in themselves respectable numbers for a cable series but a pretty steep drop. And the lost audience didn't return at the end either. Traditionally, the season opener and ender are the highest-rated eps of a series' season. FTWD's season ender barely increased over its ratings nadir, rising only to 6.8 million. It's safe to say that nearly 100% of FTWD's viewership is derived from TWD's viewership but TWD was drawing more than 15 million viewers at times last season. FTWD's ratings mostly mirror the "where's Sophia?"-into-infinity low-point of TWD season 2.

Insert as caveat my usual rant about the Nielsens, a ratings system riddled with problems everyone seems to acknowledge, even as no one is willing to give up the system.

[2] And I realize this refusal to parse things to that fine a degree is arguably a weakness of my analysis but when one is talking about the bottom of the barrel, what's the point, really? When the eps are bad, stupid and just don't work, they're bad, stupid and just don't work.

[3] I included an appendix to this article outlining "The Eight Ricks" to date.

[4] And before anyone yells "Daryl"--for much of TWD's run, the series' most popular character by far--I'd remind them that even Daryl spent the first season as a dumb, unlikable, unidimensional redneck jerk

[5] Frank Darabont, while he was still showrunner, wanted to open the season with an ep described as "Blackhawk Down With Zombies," a story of a group of soldiers who are cut off from their unit and have to try to escape Atlanta. His next ep was one in which our heroes revisit the Atlanta nursing home from "Vatos," find it overrun by the dead and have to fight their way out of town. The first of these was vetoed, the second filmed but abandoned, apparently because AMC didn't like it.

1 comment:

  1. Well done review. Sadly - even though FTWD doesn't deserve it - it will be back for at least another season only because of built-in audience from TWD and who'll watch and defend any drivel "as long as hits got zombies innit" When it returns, it will return with its creative staff convinced they hit a home run last season and, so, should make no adjustment to what seems to work so well.