What the zombie show can learn from other, more effective TV dramas
This week's midseason finale, "Pretty Much Dead Already," offered five minutes of solid payoff after seven weeks of wheel-spinning. "Pretty Much Dead Already" revealed that the missing Sophia had been a zombie locked in Hershel Greene's barn all along. It's a good twist to a long-running plotline, and one of the second season's strongest scenes to date.
But then again, it doesn't have much competition. The Walking Dead isn't the worst show on TV, but it's easily the most frustrating, because it continues to have so much unrealized potential. As The Walking Dead gears up for the second half of its second season, there are five lessons the series can learn from other, more effective TV dramas:
1. Stop repeating scenes
Role model: Mad Men
The Walking Dead has terminal case of repetitive plotlines. Shane and Lori argue about their romantic history every time they're alone. Rick and Lori had the same "should we raise a child in this world?" conversation about Carl and their unborn baby. Dale constantly expresses concern for Andrea, and Andrea constantly tells him to back off. Hershel tells anyone who will listen that his priority is protecting his own people. There's a certain amount of repetition that's necessary in any serialized TV series—after all, that's how you keep non-regular viewers up to date—but The Walking Dead's characters reiterate the same talking points so often that it begins to feel like the series is cutting costs by recycling scenes. For inspiration, The Walking Dead should look to sister series Mad Men, which has consistently and believably evolved the web of connections between its characters for four seasons—and with permanent consequences for everyone involved.
2. Embrace the genre
Role model: Luther
Horror is a rarity on television, which makes it all the more frustrating that The Walking Dead spends so much time on turgid, soapy drama. Every once in a while, The Walking Dead will revel in the grotesquery of its premise—like when Rick and Glenn disguised their scent by covering themselves with zombie guts—but it's generally bogged down by dour conversations and a cursory "zombie attack of the week." It could learn something about genre from the BBC's Luther, an unabashedly pulpy cop series with episodes based around satanic cult killings or masked serial murderers. If The Walking Dead isn't going to be a smart show, it should at least be a fun one, and that means embracing the all-out gore—and, occasionally, the black comedy—of the dead walking the earth.
3. Develop characters through flashbacks
Role model: Lost
To date, The Walking Dead has featured three flashbacks, and none of them did much to help us to understand the characters or the events leading up to the zombie apocalypse. Lost , like The Walking Dead , hinged on the idea that its protagonists were always in mortal danger. But Lost managed to increase our stake in its characters—and provide countless moments of dramatic irony—by showing us what life was like for these people before they crash-landed onto a mysterious island. The Walking Dead's underdeveloped characters badly need the same treatment. How did Carol end up married to an abusive husband? What was T-Dog doing when the zombies first attacked? What were Dale's last words with his late wife? The Walking Dead only offers the opportunity to see its characters tired, scared, and angry. It'll take a lot more than that for viewers to actually care about them.
4. Keep things moving
Role model: 24
In its second season, The Walking Dead's protagonists have meandered at Hershel's farm for several weeks, with much of that time spent sitting around or wandering aimlessly through the woods. Each season of Fox's action-thriller 24 took place over a single day, with protagonist Jack Bauer chasing down a string of terrorist attacks. 24 was often cartoonishly implausible, with plot holes large enough to drive a truck through. But the show moved so quickly that it became second nature for viewers to stop nitpicking and enjoy the ride. When The Walking Dead slows down, its most glaring flaws—writing and characterization—are very apparent. It's time to get off the farm and hit the open road again.
5. Punish morality or force moral compromises
Role models: Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad
One of The Walking Dead's biggest problems is static protagonist Rick Grimes. Lead actor Andrew Lincoln has been saddled with a passive character whose primary function is to moralize, though Rick's noble-but-questionable decisions—which includes a tendency to give away guns and ammunition like they're candy—have had no significant consequences to date. Rick should have to make sacrifices to keep his moral code intact. There are two ways to do it: have him punished or exploited by less morally-upright enemies (as with Game of Thrones' Ned Stark) or leave him with no choice but to betray his morals to survive (as with Breaking Bad's Walter White). Rick's decision to shoot Sophia at the end of "Pretty Much Dead Already" is a promising step toward the latter, but when it returns, The Walking Dead will have to confront the full consequences of the choice Rick made.
The second season of The Walking Dead will return with six more episodes in February. Let's hope that wherever The Walking Dead goes next is better than where it's been.
Note: For the sake of those who haven't read The Walking Dead comics series, please avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.