Before we begin, let me warn you: there are some mild spoilers below for a number of TV shows, and a LOT of spoilers for The Walking Dead in particular. Carry on at your own risk.
Lately, I’ve expressed to a lot of people my absolute disdain for AMC’s The Walking Dead. Meanwhile, I expressed my absolute adoration of HBO’s Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead’s counterpart on AMC – Breaking Bad. I tried to explain WHY I hate The Walking Dead so much in comparison to those other shows, and I think I did a decent job. Still, I’ve given it a lot of further thought, and I thought I’d try to clarify, and to broaden the discussion a bit.
So let’s talk about The Walking Dead, about Game of Thrones, and about Breaking Bad. And to make things even more interesting, let’s throw in another highly influential (and controversial) show from recent years: Lost.
Why do I think Breaking Bad is the best of these shows, followed by Thrones and then Lost? And why do I think Walking Dead has become a heaping mess of dogshit?
It’s all about the planning.
From my perspective, that’s the difference between all four shows – each show’s ability to engage me, thrill me, surprise me, and please me directly correlated to the amount of planning the show’s creators put into it. I get the distinct impression that Vince Gilligan always knew more or less exactly where he was going with Breaking Bad. Sure, there were some gray areas that needed to be filled in, and he had to react to his audience and his investors to some extent. But he had a plan.
On the other hand, I think that the show runners and producers of Walking Dead have so deviated from Robert Kirkman’s original comic book (which I don’t think is that well planned itself) that it’ll take a Herculean effort to turn the mess they’ve made into anything cohesive and satisfying. I see the show petering out into oblivion as other, better shows come to the fore. All it takes is someone producing ANOTHER zombie apocalypse story (or something similar, since zombies are getting played out) which is better written and better structured. When that day comes – and I have a feeling a script is out there somewhere – it’ll be the bullet to the brainpan that puts Kirkman’s creation down for good.
In between lies Lost and Game of Thrones, and I mention them here to demonstrate how varying levels of planning contribute to a show’s ultimate success.
Anyone who’s read the books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series knows that HBO has done a remarkable job in staying true to the books. Again, that’s a qualified statement – there ARE differences, as there are wont to be when you’re adapting page to screen – but as much as I think they can, the show’s producers are not “interpreting” Martin’s vision, but genuinely sharing it. Thank God for CGI. (On a side note, I think the new Hobbit movies, while enjoyable, are shitting on Tolkien’s quaint little book).
The problem with Thrones lies with Martin himself. I believe in my heart that he, too, has a plan – but he’s writing the series awfully slowly, and I think the scope of what he envisioned now scares the crap out of him. His “plan” is for two more books, but holy cow he’s got a lot of terrain – both figuratively and literally – to cover. And he’s running out of time.
The power of Thrones SO FAR is that there are existing books that will carry the series forward for three, maybe four more seasons. That gives Martin some time. Also, the show’s producers haven’t deviated from his existing storylines, so they’re on track and everything makes sense. Sure, that means those of us who’ve read the books weren’t that surprised by things like Eddard’s execution or the Red Wedding. But so what? It was still great television, and think about all the people who WERE surprised.
The only problem I foresee is if the show catches up with Martin. Then what? I hope to hell that doesn’t happen, but it could derail Game of Thrones, especially if they start making stuff up as they go along, the way Walking Dead seems to be doing now.
It’s been well documented that Damon Lindelof, J.J. Abrams, and Carlton Cuse had a plan for Lost’s early seasons. And it showed. The show was tight, fascinating, exciting, and profound. But in the end, the mythology behind the mysterious island was murky, and the plot and pacing suffered. I personally stuck with them until the end – and what an ending it was – but was it an ending the show’s creators had planned? From everything I’ve read, the answer is no. They had a plan for the beginning, and they stuck to it. But eventually they were winging it, and that showed as well.
Which brings us back again to The Walking Dead.
As of now, the comic book on which the TV show is based is up to around issue 115. It’s been around for almost 10 years. If you read the letters pages in the back of the comics (I have) as well as other things Kirkman has said about the book, you get the impression that his approach was similar to the one the Lost guys took: he had a plan that would sustain the book for quite a while, but after a point it became really, really vague. Kirkman admitted several times that he wasn’t sure what would be happening a year ahead of wherever he was then. He sort of knew what he wanted to accomplish, but he didn’t know the details.
Now this next part is just my impression, and if I’m wrong, then correct me in the comments: I believe that he had a DISTINCT plan that would carry him up to the prison, and the survivors’ experience with The Governor and Woodbury, but after that… nothing. Since that point in the comic, I think he’s been winging it.
After the prison, I stuck with him, hoping some forward movement would happen. After all, there are only so many people in the world who could become zombies, and over time wouldn’t the zombie numbers grow less? Despite the tyrannical nature of The Governor, wouldn’t other, similar pockets of humanity and civilization eventually rise up and prevail?
I can tell you that as of issue 100, there have been gleams and glints of it, but they were all quelled and destroyed by a horrifyingly bleak outlook on mankind’s capacity for compassion and peaceful coexistence. In Kirkman’s vision, the zombies are only the initial threat – tyrants, demagogues, and murderers are abundantly able to finish what the zombies started.
Kirkman has said repeatedly that no character was safe, with the possible exception of Rick Grimes. Trust me, he meant that. But what THAT means, folks, is that there IS NO POINT in investing emotionally in anyone (except Rick, whom I HAVEN’T been able to invest in because I don’t like him). It is my opinion as a writer that the most engaging literature requires you to emotionally invest in someone. Again, that’s qualified – you can have literature that contains no one worthwhile, but the best literature does.
I quit the Walking Dead comic book when one of the best characters was senselessly pulverized. Not just killed – pulverized. I won’t tell you who.
Adding to the problem inherent to the book itself is what the show’s producers are doing to the existing material. Did you know that at the point in the comic book that the show has reached, Andrea was still alive, and she was one of the book’s best characters? She wasn’t the annoying, indecisive creature Lauren Holden was required to portray. Dale was still alive, too, and he was also very likeable. Sophie, too.
You know who’s dead? Tyrese. Carol. The baby Judy. Lori. Herschel. THE GOVERNOR. Shane died early in the mix – before he became so unlikeable we WANTED to see him die. And every single one of their deaths were affecting and powerful and even meaningful.
At this point, what we’re seeing on AMC is resembling Kirkman’s already chaotic vision less and less. If the show’s producers and show runners had stuck to the script the way the Game of Thrones producers have, you would have been terrified of The Governor. You would have been shocked at what Michonne did to him. And you would have been as horrified and surprised by the end of Woodbury and the time in the prison as so many people were when the Red Wedding happened, when Charlie drowned, and when Todd visited Jessie’s ex-girlfriend and her kid.
All that opportunity for good, even great television? Gone.
Kirkman said that he wanted to change things up, to add a few surprises, but I think it’s gotten out of hand. For instance, I LIKE Daryl, and I liked Merle – he was actually a better right hand man to The Governor than Kirkman’s Sanchez was – but now I think they’ve gone too far. I think they’re spiraling out of control.
And when you let things spiral that far out of control, when you deviate from the plan too much, you lose it. The writing itself gets sloppy. You lose continuity and opportunities for solid story-telling. You have actors who become unsure about how to play their characters. I see all of this happening to The Walking Dead, and just like Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse, there’s no end in sight.
Hey, here’s a funny one for you. It’s Monday morning, the day after the next-to-last episode of the second season of The Walking Dead aired on AMC, and I’m writing something about the show without having seen that episode. If you’re reading this AND you saw the show last night, you might have one on me - below, I’m gonna promise to watch at least the last two episode of this season, and you’ll know even before I do what my reaction’s gonna be. So read on and enjoy your little taste of foreknowledge.
The television adaptation of The Walking Dead has bothered me ever since the end of the 5th episode of season one, when the group of survivors went into Atlanta and walked into the CDC. At first, I thought my problems with the show extended from the fact that the show’s producers were deviating wildly from the plot of the comic book series, of which I’ve been a fan for maybe seven years. As the CDC story arc panned out and the season came to an end, I was a little irritated that Shane was still alive and that they’d gone into Atlanta as a group - two things that simply didn’t happen in the comic. You can see some of my thoughts on these topics in this review.
That said, I still found the show interesting, the characters compelling. And I trusted Bob Kirkman enough to wait him out. Even the comic goes through rough spots, but he always leaves me both devastated and satisfied.
By the time the second season started, I’d forgiven the deviation from the original. One thing I DON’T like is hater fan boys who turn their emo faux-intellectual noses up on anything that claims to draw from a source material they’re already familiar with, even if the adaptation is good. And… since I don’t care much for people like that, it concerned me that I was thinking in those terms.
Ordinarily, I don’t: I LIKED Zach Snyder’s Watchmen movie, even if it wasn’t as earth-shattering as Alan Moore’s original comic. As much as I like Philip K. Dick, I think the movie Blade Runner is waaaaay better than Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Also, as the Walking Dead survivors came across Hershel’s farm, with Shane somehow alive and no sign of the awesome comic book character of Tyrese ever showing up, I was still starting to become intrigued with the conflict Shane’s presence was creating. I started thinking, “You know, this is interesting. This is something that must have occurred to Kirkman AFTER he killed Shane off in the original. He’s exploring a ‘what if’ that he can never go back to in the comic, and he and the show’s producers and writers are doing a great job of it. This is pretty good, if not great, television.”
So I watched. I forgave some hambone, asinine scenes like “Glenn in the Well” and “Andrea’s Crotch Grab” and “Only Otis Knew Who Exactly Was in the Barn.” And the tension between Shane and Rick grew - exacerbated in good measure with Dale’s distrust of Shane and Hershel’s misguided authority over them all.
Now I’m 11 episodes in, and I grow weary, and I’m wondering why I’m increasingly less enamored by such a critically-acclaimed, highly regarded series. I went to Facebook last night, and there was a scatter-shot of “Holy crap!” and “That was intense!” and “OmiGod!” from my Facebook friends regarding the episode which had just aired. I’m sad, because I haven’t felt very excited by the show for the last three episodes.
Before writing this, I sat down for a while and tried to figure out why, and I think I’ve got it.
It has nothing to do with the deviation from the original, although the deviation DOES contribute to what IS wrong. It has nothing to do with the occasionally shoddy writing. (What was up with that scene between Carl and the stuck zombie last week? Carl’s not stupid, and they’ve been teaching him how to hold a gun.)
Very simply, it’s this: with only two ironic exceptions, I don’t LIKE any of the characters very much. And in a character drama - which is what The Walking Dead essentially is - that’s a problem.
Specifically, I think they’re all coming across as weak, or if they ARE strong, as douchebags. I KNOW I’m not supposed to like Shane, but I’m tired of not liking him - I want his soulless evil to come to a head, please. And I want him to die when it does.
Trouble is, I also think Carl’s a bit of a douchbag, too. As is Andrea, and in a weird sort of way, Carol.
On the flipside, there are the weak characters. Lori Grimes is little more than wasted space. Maggie’s fun to look at, but she hasn’t done much beside give Glenn grief. Hershel’s other family are non-entities whom I assure you will eventually get killed. As for Glenn and Hershel, well, think about it: Glenn was the brave go-to guy when they needed runs into Atlanta, but he’s freaked out by runs into the sleepy town near Hershel’s farm? Three episodes ago, Hershel was a patriarch of strong convictions and resolve, but now he’s deferring to Rick and soaking his sorrows in booze? Really?
And Dale. Well, Dale’s a whiny bitch, and if he were really concerned about Shane’s evil, he would have put a bullet into Shane’s chest and been done with it. Except he’s a whiny bitch and couldn’t.
And finally, there’s Rick. For those of you who haven’t been with Bob Kirkman and his character of Rick Grimes for seven years, let me tell you - the conflicts Rick feels WITHIN himself are essential to what makes The Walking Dead comic book work, and some combination of Andrew Lincoln’s inability to convey those conflicts effectively as an actor, as well as the hit or miss material he’s been given to work with, leaves something to be desired.
In fact, all of the acting, though initially powerful, has become - in a word - tedious. You could make a drinking game out of it. You have to drink every time Rick looks off into the distance as if considering something important. Drink every time Shane turns his head away in that certain manner he uses and says something despicably profound. Drink every time Carol tears up. Drink every time Glenn gets that hang-dog look on his face. Drink every time Andrea does something with a pistol besides shoot it. Drink every time Dale flares his hairy-ass nostrils and starts to pontificate.
The only characters I’m not tired of are T-Dog and Daryl. And here’s some irony (or IronE if you know what I mean): they aren’t even characters in the comic series. They’re new. They’re deviations. And I still like them.
Which brings me to part of WHY I think my displeasure in the show is stronger than other people’s, and why people who haven’t read the comic might not feel the growing disdain I feel with the TV show personas. You see, in the comic book, I LOVE these characters. I’ve already said that Rick’s internal conflicts drive the book. It’s powerful stuff, and I don’t think it’s as evident in the show.
Additionally, there are things going on with Carl in the comics which would blow your mind - and they’re only hinted at in the show. Andrea is a BADASS without being such a bitch. Dale is still a conscientious guy, but he has a backbone and a heart of gold that makes you love him. Glenn is essentially the Glenn of the first season, without all the worry. He’s also funny.
And Shane is dead.
I’ve decided that I’m going to watch the last two episodes of this season despite my misgivings, and I’ll keep watching next season if these last two episodes can convince me to like even ONE of the characters I don’t like now (or at least kills a few of them). Like I said, you might already know if this is the case or not, based on last night.
I’ll probably watch that episode either tonight or tomorrow, and I’ll let you know.
The past year was a perpetual hard-on for me as far as potential TV shows were concerned.
I’ve been reading Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s Walking Dead comic since some issue in the mid 30s - in other words, for about five or six years. I played catch-up reading the trade paperbacks, and being the collector I am, I’ve started seeking out and scooping up all the back issues I missed.
I’ve also been reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series for just about as long, impressed with the power of his “low fantasy” vision, the intricacies of the enormous plot, the depth and development of the characters. Plus, all the sex and violence are cool.
Imagine how giddy I was then, knowing that BOTH of these incredible stories would be adapted to the small screen, the first on AMC and the second on HBO - two networks that have blown me away in the past with original series which were NOT, in fact, adapted from material that I was already familiar with and in love with. Can you say Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and Breaking Bad?
Well, the first season of both have come and gone, and now the second season of Walking Dead looms before us. I am absolutely thrilled that Walking Dead starts again on Sunday, and you can bet I’ll be parked in front of the television with a beer in hand, ready to get my zombie scare on.
But I have to admit - Walking Dead has disappointed me. And if a certain thing doesn’t happen within the first couple of episodes of this season, AMC and the producers of the Walking Dead may lose me for a while, until they get back on track. Kirkman and Adlard won’t lose me buying the genius comic book, but, well, I’m a stickler for at least TRYING to stick to the source material, and in that regard, Game of Thrones gets an A- and Walking Dead gets a big, fat D.
SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE ON.
Now, I understand the difficulties in adapting a large work to the screen. In work that’s worthy of adaptation, there’s bound to be a lot of details that don’t translate well, or distract from the gist of what’s going on, or are so elaborate that they’re practically unfilmable. There are parts of The Greatest Adaptation Of All Time, AKA The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which were changed or left out altogether. Glorfindel and Arwen are NOT interchangeable. And who’s Tom Bombadil? Oh. Yeah. Him. As another example, think about how many decades of comic books Marvel and Walt Disney have truncated into roughly seven films as they adapt The Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, and Thor to the big screen.
HBO’s Game of Thrones did that… a little. But if you read the book from which the television series came, you’ll agree with me - not a whole lot was left out.
Walking Dead didn’t leave out a lot either. What they did, though, was even more egregious. You leave stuff out because it’s difficult to adapt. But why would you ADD stuff?
I know, I know - maybe they needed to flesh out a few things. In fact, Kirkman vowed while writing Walking Dead that he would never use the old comic book devices of the “thought balloon” and the “caption.” So whenever there’s a need for exposition, he does it through Adlard’s expressive art or through dialogue. Perhaps to get certain points across, the writers and producers of Walking Dead felt the need to “stretch things out”. And I’m okay with that to certain extent.
But the characters of T-Dog, Daryl, Jacqui, and Merle were unnecessary and superfluous. And the whole triangle between T-Dog, Daryl, and Merle just seemed so contrived to me - was it a commentary on race and racism, perhaps? I don’t know. It bothered me. It wasn’t in the comic book - THEY weren’t in the comic book, and I didn’t see the need for them in the TV show. Even so, I’m willing to forgive even that - it might have been bothersome and unnecessary, but there were some great moments in that particular story arc, however extraneous. And I’m still left wondering where the hell Merle is.
Go one step further and there’s the fourth episode, Vatos, in which the survivors encounter another group of survivors who are holed up in a nursing home in Atlanta. I can forgive THAT episode as well, chiefly because Kirkman himself wrote it - and he did promise there would be some nice surprises for those of us who “knew everything” already.
More unforgiveable was the last episode of season one - something that series developer Frank Darabont and the writers seemed to just pull out of their collective asses. You see, the comic book is approaching issue 90 as we speak, AND ROBERT KIRKMAN STILL HAS NOT GIVEN US EVEN THE SLIGHTEST CLUE AS TO WHAT CAUSED THE ZOMBIE OUTBREAK. We don’t know if it’s viral, if it’s manmade, if it’s Biblical.
And granted, in the television show, we don’t know any of that either. The difference is that in the comic, the survivors never went to the CDC or ever got to Washington D.C. - two goals that they sort of toyed with but got diverted from. So in the comic, we don’t know if ANYBODY knows what happened, or how. It’s all about just surviving it, whatever the cause.
In the last episode of the first season, the survivors made it into Atlanta and visited the CDC, and the producers shot a great big wad that they could have held onto for a long, long time. The characters went in, they found a CDC scientist who told them what he knew (which wasn’t much), and then the season ended explosively when the CDC’s defense mechanisms blew the entire complex to hell. So much potential for intrigue and guesswork and mystery, gone.
I THINK the writers and producers “went there” before they were absolutely sure the show would get picked up for a second season. I want to believe that. I want to believe that they were thinking in terms of giving viewers closure, should the show not make it past the first experiment. If I hold onto that, even if it’s not true, maybe even then I can forgive Walking Dead for diverging SO MUCH from the source material, so MANY times.
I cannot, however, forgive the fact that Shane is still alive.
You see, the season finale SHOULD have been the story arc wherein the titular character, Rick Grimes, gets confronted by his best friend, Shane, and finds out that Shane is over the edge, and pretty much as dangerous and deadly as the zombies in the next valley. In the comic - at the very end of the first trade paperback in fact - Shane ends up getting killed, and it tears Rick apart in so many ways. And it’s fucking brilliant.
In the TV show, we know that Shane is dangerous. We know a confrontation is coming. But it hasn’t yet, and the way the show has handled his continued existence makes me wonder if his demise will EVER happen, and if it does, whether or not it will be as powerful as it was in the comic book.
There are, of course, all sorts of defenses that AMC, Darabont, Kirkman, and the rest of them can put forth to defend Shane’s “extra life.”
“We didn’t feel Shane had reached his full potential.”
“Jon Bernthal (the actor who playes Shane) turned out to be too popular with viewers.”
“We couldn’t fit it in, because we had so much other material to cover.”
That last reason is bullshit, for the reasons I’ve already cited: leave that extra stuff out and give me Shane getting his brains blown out, please.
The other possible reasons, I will answer in two words, which will sum up once and for all why I am more satisfied with the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones than I am the AMC adaptation of Walking Dead. Shane’s continued existence is unforgiveable, the reasons for said continuation are null and void, because…