Monday, December 02, 2013

"The Walking Dead" tosses aside its crutches, but it's still not ready to bear weight

     If someone could please cast David Morrissey in something
     good again to wash out the taste of The Governor, that'd be
     great. Paul Abbott, are you still sure you don't want to do
     another season of "State of Play"?

For a long time, I've been trying to figure out how exactly the writers of "The Walking Dead" realize that title is a metaphor for the characters who inhabit its world. Aside from its literal reference to the zombies, you get the sense showrunner Scott Gimple and the team he oversees writing the biggest, baddest show on mighty, prestigious AMC think it's enough to ride the idea that the show's main characters might as well be walking corpses as well. In reality, I think a lot of people (myself included) have realized the title is a lot more meta than they realize, considering how much of tonight's mid-season finale "Too Far Gone" I spent trying to remember anyone - and I mean, literally just one person - on this show I care about in any way.

"The Walking Dead" was a show I really, really enjoyed in its first season, even if I was able to recognize it was a show I enjoyed only as a guilty pleasure. These were just some people trying to stave off the weekly zombie attack. Did I know their names? Nope, but that was largely because no one really ever said them. In life after zombies, your name didn't matter, and I was on board for that. Excluding the legitimately good pilot episode, "The Walking Dead" as it was back then never felt to me like a show that wanted to be more than people running around shooting and stabbing the undead. It was a show largely void of any ambitions and while in theory that made it an outlier on what was at the time a quality-driven AMC, it never really surprised me that the show was easily their most popular.

Sometimes I think more shows should settle. And even though that makes me feel weird, I'm gonna continue to say it. For reasons I can't really explain, I watched the entire first season of the Cinemax drama "Banshee" last spring, and the faster I realized it was only gonna be a show about a guy who solves his problems through punching, the more I was able to enjoy it. "Banshee" wasn't trying to be one of the best shows on TV. I don't think it was even trying to be the best show on Cinemax, the similarly punch-heavy "Strike Back". Similarly, there are parts of "Boardwalk Empire" I really enjoy, but too much of the show felt like clutter I didn't really care about for me to stick with it into the second season. And one of the things I read about that show that really stuck with me was the idea that "Boardwalk," and its creator Terence Winter, wouldn't be satisfied until it was the best show on television.

All of which is to say I find it kind of confusing that after a first season whose ratings more than doubled that of AMC's second most watched series "Mad Men," "The Walking Dead" became a lot more ambitious without realizing that this new kind of audience the channel had acquired outside of their boutique shows didn't really care about that. And through now three and a half seasons, unable to develop a group of characters that never felt designed to develop, it has only become laughable that Gimple and co. expect me to care about anyone on this show simply because the events of tonight's episode happened to them. Even the ones we've known the longest, like Rick and Corral. Just as blood and explosions don't automatically equal drama, time spent with a person doesn't automatically equal love and appreciation.

Take good ol' Brian "Don't Call Me The Governor" whatshisface, finally extinguished at least eight episodes too late, and after wasting the last three of them for a deceptive "redemption arc" that now certainly doesn't mean anything going forward. For reasons unknown, he survived last season's abysmal finale, the conclusion to a 16-episode story that was set up very well in the fall 2012 episodes, stumbled along in its spring 2013 episodes, then concluded much like the alternate ending to "Casablanca" shown on "The Simpsons". The question mark leaves the door open for a sequel, and as we've all been discussing recently regarding the idea of a sequel to "It's a Wonderful Life," things will always be better if they just keep going.

Then there's baby Judith, seemingly killed tonight as everyone raced to escape the prison. We saw her bloody, empty car seat, and so did Rick and Corral, breaking down at the continued dwindling of their already tragically decimated family. But I suppose we didn't see the body, and it's possible she's still alive somewhere. And my God, that makes me want to put my hand through the TV. Sure, when it comes time to quickly escape the prison, maybe carrying the baby in the heavy car seat is impractical, though certainly not more impractical than taking the time to remove her from it at all. And if it turns out Beth or whoever did do that for no good reason just so this show could manipulate us into feeling sad about a dead baby, seriously, fuck these people (if I needed any confirmation that this show is absolutely not for me and my quitting on it was long overdue, it's that internet commenters are less concerned with the disgusting consequences of Judith possibly being alive than they are with being right about predicting that she's alive, or at the very least, claiming they were not duped by the show if it does happen).

And yet of all the terrible, stupid things that happened on tonight's mid-season finale (which included the little girls abandoning the baby in the first place just because Carol once told them shooting guns at stuff is important, and the absolutely horrible performance from Andrew Lincoln overemphasizing every beat of what could have been a non-terrible, understated monologue about coexistence), perhaps the thing that infuriated me the most was that I walked away from tonight's episode believing that it was Maggie who had delivered the final blow to the Governor. Why is that? Well for one, the overwhelming nihilism of the show wouldn't give me any reason to believe that Maggie hasn't reached a point where she would kill the man who beheaded her father. But it was also because the actress they cast to play Lilly, the woman who became the Governor's love interest in the last two episodes, looks so much like Lauren Cohan and apparently no one noticed or cared about this at all. It's one thing to try to get me to care about people and fail. It's totally another to spend episode after episode desperately trying, then to suddenly stop trying to distinguish your boring characters in any way and just ride an attitude of "zombies, fuck it".

In watching "Too Far Gone," I accepted fairly quickly that whatever was coming wouldn't satisfy me. Either the prison was going to win or the Governor was, and neither one of those outcomes was going to knock the show out of inertia like it desperately needs. Both crutches were ultimately eliminated, but what remains problematic is that "The Walking Dead" still hasn't proven itself a series that's ready to bear weight on its broken legs. For a show with this many characters, this much action, and so much "happening," "The Walking Dead" might be TV's least interesting show right now.