Sunday, October 30, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD's Well Runneth Dry

The most interesting reaction to last week's season 7 premiere of THE WALKING DEAD is the absolute horror and disgust with which many fans of the series greeted the violence and sadism of the episode. So extreme was this in some quarters that people were declaring they'd never watch it again because of what they'd just seen. Arnold Blumberg, who does the excellent "Doctor of the Dead" podcast, announced that he would no longer be reviewing TWD on his show.[1] I'm a horror fan from way back. My experience with the genre comes primarily from literature and film, as well as my own often-fertile imagination--sources featuring much more extreme content. I'm rarely bothered by the level of brutality allowed within the fairly restrictive constraints of television. With TWD, I even tend to welcome violence, as I did last week, because it at least means something is happening, on a show on which that's rarely ever the case. Anecdotally, these stronger reactions--people saying they're going to quit the series over it or are ready to do so--are a minority but there was a lot of this kind of talk. The "why" of this is the part that's interesting.

One of the ways tv TWD alters the comic source material beyond recognition is in watering down any sort of unpleasant content. I've written about it here for years. The series isn't aimed at horror fans; it's essentially a soap opera aimed at a general middle American audience, with most of the horror and survival elements--the core of the comic story--toned down to virtual non-existence. Last week's killing of Glenn, on the other hand, was lifted straight out of the comic, a virtual panel-by-panel reproduction with none of the usual attenuation. The violence in the comic is off the scale compared to anything in the tv series. By the time the comics got around to killing Glenn, even our heroes had committed these sorts of atrocities. When, for example, they caught the cannibals, the ones who formed the basis for the tv series' Terminus group, they didn't cleanly dispose of them as they did on the show; they spent the rest of that night slowly torturing them to death in the same ways those cannibals had tortured their own victims. When the Governor fell into Michonne's clutches, she'd tortured him for an extended period, scooping out one of his eyeballs with a spoon, chopping off one of his arms, pulling out his fingernails, nailing his cock and balls to the floor and generally getting Medieval on his ass with a wide assortment of creatively-employed household tools. Michonne was extracting revenge on the Governor for having sexually tortured her on a recurring basis but that material was also removed from the tv show, where, in the comparable scene to those sexual assaults, GINO merely demanded Maggie remove her shirt in his presence. Conforming to the usual twisted American prejudices, things having to do with sexuality are a strict no-no on TWD, things that blend it with violence particularly so. While, in the last two eps, the series duplicated Negan's comic dialogue almost word-for-word (minus his frequent "fuck"s), it left all of his profuse sexual taunting on the cutting-room floor. The reaction against the violence is both an indication of just how far from the book (and from what it should have been) the series has gone and a commentary on the audience it has drawn.

Part of the reason for the upset is obvious: Glenn was a beloved character. Shows can't just go around destroying characters who have developed a fan base--general television audiences won't stand for it. Whenever the TWD writers make the decision to exterminate one of their long-established principals, they almost always spend some time demonizing that character to the point that viewers are glad to see him go. Glenn's death was telegraphed well in advance--something else the writers always do--but the writers never turned him into an unlikable asshole. Barely mentioned in any of the angry commentary about last week's ep is the fact that Abraham too was killed. Part of that is because the writers showed him behaving abominably toward Rosita, his longtime girlfriend and a beloved character whom he abandoned on a whim for another woman.

It's also a matter of context. Creatively speaking, TWD is now in its third stuck-around-way-too-long season. This far down the road, the series' bad habits have really been weighing on the audience. The writing openly insults viewers, the series' repetitiousness is becoming mind-numbing, its becoming more and more dependent upon shock tactics and cheap stunts--it just isn't offering its audience much to counter its negatives. And now, on top of this, it poured on the sort of violence and sadism that a lot of its general-audience viewers find actively distasteful.

Another factor is no doubt the long delay between last season and this. Viewers waded through a terrible season last year just to get to the finale, when Negan was to finally arrive and run riot. And then Negan showed up and didn't. This robbed that moment of any dramatic weight, adding to the impression that the series was in decline. Compounding this, last week's ep appeared six months after the previous one and was a bottle episode that delivered nothing except that violence and sadism, offering nothing else to viewers who are put off by such content.

I don't know how substantial any damage to the viewership wrought by this may prove to be[2] or if "The Well," tonight's installment, will be able to affect any sort of repair job. It repeats another of TWD's bad habits, entirely abandoning the main storyline in order to burn through an ep with a b-plot. It introduces "King" Ezekiel, an amusing character from the comic,[3] and his "Kingdom." It's much lighter in tone.

TWD's magical healing makes a return here. At the end of the previous season, Carol was in a really bad way. Some of the Kingdomites find her and Morgan, take them back to their community and she sleeps for two days. Upon awakening, Morgan suggests she'll be sufficiently recovered to allow her to leave in maybe a week. On TWD, it seems, it only takes 9 days to recover from three gunshot wounds. And then Carol is on her feet and ready to leave in what appears to be less time than even that.

TWD simply doesn't do character development. Radical character changes are, instead, suddenly imposed by the writers, depending on what story they want to write, with no organic transition. Last season, the writing staff assassinated Carol, suddenly making the great uber-confident and uber-capable woman they'd established into a violence-averse weakling who just wants to go off by herself and... something. It never made any sense, which makes this ep's effort to milk it, by having Ezekiel try to restore some of... her will to live, I guess?... fall entirely flat, dramatically speaking. Carol can't be written to hold up her end of any such conversation. She can't enunciate what's on her mind because there's nothing on it--her present state of mind is an arbitrary imposition by the writers. She doesn't need Ezekiel's melodramatic speeches about life and hope. She just needed the writers to leave her alone.

"The Well" seems like a needlessly dull way to introduce the Kingdom. The ep's only other significant development was in establishing that this community, too, is under the thumb of Negan and his thugs. It isn't a terrible ep, certainly not by TWD standards. It's just one that doesn't offer much. It doesn't have characters being beaten to death,[4] so perhaps those who were whining about last week will find it soothes their anatomy.



[1] Blumberg intends to fully explain his decision in his next podcast. Meanwhile, he's just released a good installment dealing with the great zombie flicks of 1985.

[2] After many TWD fans were very mouthy at the end of last season about how they were done with the show, last week's season opener drew the second-biggest rating in the series' history. Shockingly, it would seem many TWD viewers are entirely full of shit. I do expect a pretty big big drop-off for tonight's installment though.

[3] Ezekiel is here played by an actor much younger than the character in the comic.

[4] Unless you want to count the brutal massacre of a Bob Dylan classic that happens at one point.

Twitter: @jriddlecult

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Day Will Come When THE WALKING DEAD Won't Be

THE WALKING DEAD kicked off its 7th season tonight with what should have been the ep that ended the last. Instead, season 6 wrapped on a pretty dire 90-minute snoozefest absent any real pay-off. Tonight, "There Will Come A Day When You Won't Be" turned out to be pretty dull too, but at least it brought a little diverting violence and sadism to the party.

This was essentially an episode-long continuation of Negan's already-long monologue from the end of that previous installment--before its last few minutes, there probably weren't four lines of dialogue by anyone else. It was a bottle episode--mostly just Negan and Rick in two locations, with everyone else as merely window-dressing. Such eps are done by tv series for budgetary reasons. Typically substandard by design, they're usually tucked away somewhere in the middle of a season where they'll draw the least amount of grumbling from viewers. I've never seen a show open a season with one. That seems a fairly bizarre innovation.

It's tempting to simply dismiss this one as just another example of TWD's writers stretching minimum effort to the maximum running time but the point of the ep--to show the psychological breaking of Rick--could have justified this if it was particularly interesting. The reason it isn't--and the reason that particular bit of business could probably never work with TWD now--is that we've already seen Rick psychologically broken. And seen it. And seen it. Not only has it already been done to death, it always brings out the most unbearable variant Rick, the sniveling, stuttering, glassy-eyed pussy, the one you just wish someone would put our of your misery. TWD has been doing little more than recycling itself for a while now. This doesn't just recycle an old beat, it's recycling a particularly bad one. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan makes for a great villain but it's all wasted when this is the point.

I'm interested to see how this ep will do in the ratings. Its big (and, in fact, sole) draw--finding out who Negan killed--is also the thing that seemed to alienate a particularly loud contingent of its fanbase, who, when Negan's victim wasn't revealed last season, took to their machines to howl their rage across the digital moors and swear they were done with TWD forever. The show threw a bit of a curveball tonight by killing both of the characters whose deaths it telegraphed last season, rather than allowing one of them to be a red herring. By delaying the reveal on who was murdered for nearly six months, it robbed those deaths of any dramatic impact they would have had if the killings had been shown at the end of last season when people were watching it week after week. I noted this at the time, as did Lebeau over at Le Blog, but it isn't as if this wasn't really obvious to everyone except TWD's writers. In this ep, the victims didn't get to do anything, barely got to say anything--Negan just walks up to them, after six months, and beats them to death. I've long expressed my contempt for a series that uses as one of its main draws the question of who will be killed next. Using this as a faux-cliffhanger was, I suppose, the next logical step in this effort to milk the deaths. Wouldn't it be great to instead have a TWD that had as its draw, say, great storytelling?

But that's a repeat beat of my own and TWD ain't listenin' anyhow.


Twitter: @jriddlecult