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.
Ok. So it’s a day late. Whatever. Here is a continuation of that which I am into right now. In other words, that which I am grateful for (other than the “usual” stuff, like my family, and bunnies).
Movies and Television
10) Those who know me well, know that I love zombies. And not in a kissy-face way, no sir. If I saw a zombie, I’d pop it a good one in the head like I’m supposed to. But I love watching movies about them. I love reading about them. I think Romero is a genius. And so is Robert Kirkman, who has taken the zombie apocalypse to a whole new level with his comic book series The Walking Dead.
Walking Dead follows a group of survivors for not just days, or months, after the apocalypse destroys life as we know it. If I understand Kirkman’s intent, he means to keep his tale of survival and mayhem in the ruins of Earth going for years and years and years. And years. And now, AMC has picked up his comic as an ongoing series. We’re five episodes in as of this writing, and the show is getting all the praise it deserves. Those who know me well also know that I am NOT an avid television viewer. But you can find me every Sunday night, planted in front of the TV, watching the dead walk and cheering on the living.
It’s also awesome that the comic and the TV show are based in and around Atlanta.
11) Lost haters can kiss my ass. A host shows on pay cable (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Californication, The Wire, etc. ) brought the dregs of television programming up a level, and showed us that viewers COULD indeed follow a storyline - that each episode did NOT have to be self-contained. (Although it IS true that TiVo, DVRs, and DVD releases did make it safer for programmers to take a chance on certain shows, and made it easier for us to “catch up” if we missed an episode.) They showed us that our depth of perception extended beyond the cultural references of the Simpsons and the tear-jerking homiles of Touched By an Angel.
Still, ONE show brought that level of storytelling to primetime non-cable programming, and that show was Lost. Sure, it broke down a little toward the end. Sure, the first 6 or 7 episodes of Season 3 were disappointing. Sure, they killed Ecko senselessly and that really pissed me off. Regardless, Lost was and still is the pinnacle of anything I’ve seen or heard of on the major networks. Fox had a few gems, but they foolishly cancelled them. ABC had the good sense to let Lost run its course, and television is all the better for it.
12) Joss Whedon also had a lot to do with the improvement of television. Still, for me his crowning achievements were not Buffy and Firefly (although Firefly was remarkable - thanks again, Fox, for cancelling it). Instead, I was awed by his run on the Astonishing X-men a few years back, and every time I see Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long, I sit for a few minutes and wait for the tears in my eyes to dry. Seriously. I cry because the ending is so perfect and horrible at the same time (and I mean horrible in a good way), and I cry because it simply blows me away that a fucking musical can be so simultaneously hilarious, fascinating, and elaborate.
Gotta give credit where credit is due: Joss Whedon had a lot of writing help from his brothers Zack and Jed, as well as actress Maurissa Tancharoen. And Neil Patrick Harris made the show, just like he made the one episode of How I Met Your Mother that I saw palatable.
Declaration! Doogie Howser is dead, and you have to see Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog!
When I decided to share a little bit of what I’m listening to, I realized that I haven’t bought a CD in years. At least not a “proper” one. I download my music now, and if I want to take it in my car, which doesn’t have an MP3 player (yet), I just burn it to a disk that may or may not survive.
Again, those who know me know that I have a highly varied taste in music. I listen to just about everything except popular country and anything in the Jonas Brothers/Hannah Montana/Justin Bieber vein. I have my favorites, sure, but even those are all over the place. And with my love for Rock Band and my passion for Pandora and Blip.fm, I’m always listening to things outside of my comfort zone.
I settled on a few old favorites to suggest to you, because I know they’re all releasing new material next year, and I want you to do what I’m gonna do and get their new stuff. I started listening to each musical act during a different era of my life, but I’ve remained faithful to all. And why? Because they’re gooooood.
13) I started listening to Peter Gabriel when I started listening to Genesis sometime in the early 1980s. Genesis quit making good records shortly after that, but Peter Gabriel kept making really excellent ones. His latest is actually a remake album - he took a baker’s dozen of songs from a variety of acts and redid them using only keys, strings, and his own strange and wonderful voice. It’s called Scratch My Back, and with the exception of the Radiohead remake - which I think sucks - he made a masterpiece. The idea is that all the artists he covered will reciprocate and cover one of his songs, and the resulting album will be called I’ll Scratch Yours. Hopefully, it’ll come together next year, and we’ll get a complete record with some amazing interpretations of some of my favorite songs on it.
14) I started listening to Tool in college, and I still do. Because of the intricate nature of each of their songs, and the fact that every member of Tool pursues outside interests (not necessarily musical), years typically go by between Tool albums. I kind of like that - taking your time usually means the end product will be better than a rush job. Unless you’re Axel Rose or Robert Jordan, that is. Tool’s last record was 10, 000 Days, released in 2006. Most of the band, and the band’s record company, have said they’re working on something new. So I’m hoping that by next Christmas, I’ll be once again deciphering Maynard James Keenan’s provocative lyrics and Adam Jones’s massive guitar riffs.
15) I only started listening to Elbow back in 2001 or 2002, as a result of them popping up on a Pandora station I’d created. They are a perfect example of fantastic music that has never been commercially viable here in the United States. Guy Garvey’s evocative voice reminds me of Peter Gabriel and Morrissey, and his lyrics blow me away with their wit and poeticism. The music is basically synth pop updated to 21st century standards. It reminds me of old David Bowie, New Order, and The Cure. Elbow has tentatively announced a new release in 2011, and if you like any of the acts I’ve compared Elbow to, then you should check them out.
And… that’s it. That’s what I’m into at the moment. Now, things change, and this post and the one before it will probably go out of date in a month or two. Will I still like the things I’ve listed here? Probably. Will there be more things to like? Also probably. If you’re interested, I’ll share those things with you at some date in the future.
Hell, I’ll probably share with you anyway, whether you’re interested or not.
I watched The End last night. The end of Lost, that is, which was appropriately titled… ‘The End’. I tend to watch television either by streaming it (like I did Lost, like I do The Office), or by watching it when it comes out on DVD. I can’t commit to sitting in front of a television for any length of time, so that’s just how I do things.
I tell you that because searching the Internet for ABC’s site last night was how I ran across a review of the Lost series finale which prompted me to write this response.
As tempted as I am, I’m not gonna cite the web site which posted this review, because the critic there doesn’t deserve any attention via a link from me. Basically, his review sucked - in a highly ironic sort of way, as I’ll explain - and hopefully, if he doesn’t get attention, he’ll just dry up and go away. That level of uninspired hyperbolic rhetoric is exactly the sort of thing which gives writers on the Internet a bad rap - people see garbage like that and can then rightfully say that the web is full of basement-dwelling hacks. And it’s critics like this guy that make it difficult for people to sieve through all the nonsense and find the cream of what the Internet can offer.
Why was his review ironic? Because he claimed that the last episode of Lost was “lazy writing.”
Now, I’m not going to say that it was the most inspired final episode of a TV series ever - I’m gonna go with the majority of critics and say the last episode of Newhart holds that distinction (with St. Elsewhere pulling in a close second). And I’m not gonna say that it was the most heart-wrenching one either - that belongs to Six Feet Under and maybe M*A*S*H. But it was damned good, bringing together all sorts of disparate elements in a satisfying and (almost) complete way. It left me speculating about what each of the survivors (and yes, there were some - exactly 14 by my count) would do after he or she got back to civilization. Or didn’t, considering that Hurley, Ben, Bernard, Rose, and Vincent the dog probably stayed behind.
The irony here, of course, is that the review by the critic in question was indeed… lazy writing.
He kept telling us that the episode was “anticlimactic” and “bad storytelling” without tangibly demonstrating what he meant. He kept insisting that there were soooo many questions still unanswered - enough to fill pages, in fact. But he did not offer a single example. And he cited the demise of this season’s main antagonist (Locke/The Smoke Monster/The Man In Black) as being contrived - although if you were paying attention, you knew that when the “light” was out, the powers that kept Smokey and Jacob alive all those millenia were rendered inert. So not only is our reviewer’s writing “lazy”, he’s also quite possibly a lazy viewer. Since Lost was a show which demanded a lot from its viewership, it becomes apparent how this critic might still have questions.
Finally, a bit more irony to close out this post: I’m sitting here, a basement-dwelling hack (OK, I’m not in a basement; I’m in my office) criticizing a critic for something that I have been guilty of myself. That’s why right now I’m compelled to apologize to Chris Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave.
In 1999, Cornell released a solo album called Euphoria Morning. About that time, I was writing for a little Atlanta rag called The Atlanta Press (formerly called Poets, Artists and Madmen), and I was asked to write a music review of Cornell’s solo effort. I blasted it.
Well, not quite. But you couldn’t say my review was glowing, and although I can’t say that my review is the reason the album had somewhat lackluster sales, I feel really bad because A) most critics really liked the album and B) the reason they liked it was because it’s fucking good. At the time, though, I wasn’t impressed, and I was lazy - I didn’t take the time to listen closely enough to it to notice the Jeff Buckley influences, or Cornell’s genuine efforts to separate his sound from Soundgarden’s.
In the ensuing years, I’ve given Euphoria Morning a few more spins - including one last Monday as I was driving my son to his grandparents’ - and I am increasingly impressed by the both the music and the lyrics Cornell penned. And so it is, I hang my heavy head in shame and I offer a sincere apology to him. Chris, I’m sorry. Your solo record is really quite excellent, and I was wrong to be so lukewarm to it 10 years ago.
Now, if only the Lost critic would follow my example.