AMC TV has built a pretty darn impressive reputation over the course of the last four or five years. Shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad have transformed the network from HBO rerun/National Lampoon’s Vacation specialist, to the premiere source of high-quality cable television. One constant with the success has been an admirable resolve to avoid running for the sake of a surge in adrenaline. Instead, AMC has won its share of critical acclaim with a cocksure walk.
The Walking Dead, quite naturally, has taken precisely the same approach. It’s an approach I appreciate. And it’s also going to be the death of this show.
Much has already been made of season two’s slow, zombie-with-its-legs-chopped-off pacing. Run a search trying to gauge critical reaction to The Walking Dead and the sluggish, ‘How are we still at the farm!’ responses are going to flood your screen like a proper herd.
What bothers me more, though, is not so much the pacing of this show as it is the payoff.
You see, in Breaking Bad the pacing of the second season is brutally, painfully moment-by-moment. I say this with some affection because the pain is the whole damn point. The slow execution of Walt and Sky’s deteriorating marriage, of Walt’s drawn out plunge into sophisticated amorality… it’s detailed on such a frame-by-frame basis that you have to feel it. More often than not it feels terrible. A crumbling marriage can’t be all smiles and meth lab high-fives.
What Breaking Bad does remarkably well is reward the viewer for slugging through the emotional depravity of some of the second season. The payoffs are hugely dramatic, highly memorable, and rarely predicable. I only have to say the word “Tortuga” to remind fans what I mean.
Up until the final two episodes of season two, The Walking Dead was not providing the same kind of reward. If the show wants to continue limping towards the future of Rick, Lori, and co., it’s going to need to perfect this formula.
The Walking Comic Payoff
Part of the reason I enjoyed season one of The Walking Dead as much as I did was that it didn’t try to replicate Robert Kirkman‘s comic book panel-by-panel. Instead the first season was a proper adaptation, taking primary story elements from the comic and building them into interesting spinoffs like the CDC.
While I’m excited about season two’s finale payoff, I have some concerns that it’s too reliant on a “comic book payoff.” What I mean here is generating huge excitement solely based on story elements pre-existing fans of the comics will appreciate.
We see this all the time with comic book fans desire to see easter eggs in comic book movies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the same way. When I see what may or may not be the Infinity Gauntlet in Odin’s throne room, well I just about lose my mind.
Same goes for seeing a certain samurai sword finally make its way to the ranks of The Walking Dead. But it seems foolhardy for a television series to bank so heavily on my own personal desire to see specific characters/events from the comic series I already spent money on and enjoyed. If I want to experience Michonne or the prison again, I can just pick up my massive Walking Dead Compendium (assuming I still have the upper body strength to lift it).
End of the day, I’m not saying The Walking Dead shouldn’t introduce cool plot elements that fans of the comic will recognize instantly. I still desperately want to see Tyrese hammer a zombie skull. I’m beyond excited to see how TV might handle the Governor’s lunacy.
But guess what? There are only so many of these comic book elements that can give the kind of payoff Breaking Bad gives almost every episode. And they only apply to fans of the comic. I’d rather see this show reach a level that strives for more. It’s good for TV, it’s good for me, and guess what, it’s great for comic books.
Season Three of The Walking Dead needs to remember that you can saunter through an episode building emotional resonance and developing characters, and they don’t actually have to go anywhere, but something needs to either literally or figuratively explode. And as viewers we have to have reason to care when it does.
I love these comics and I really want to love this show. I think it has the same potential as a Breaking Bad, but with a built in action-factor AMC’s other shows can’t touch.
If Kirman and co. don’t start writing in regular plot twists and “wow” moments, though, they’re just walking dead. And nobody wants to walk forever.