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Where Did 'The Walking Dead' Go Wrong? A Few Thoughts on Season 2

by Maureen Ryan, posted Nov 27th 2011 10:20PM
The Walking Dead Season 2My colleague Mike Ryan is recapping 'The Walking Dead' here, and I highly recommend his weekly reviews, but I thought I'd offer a few thoughts on the show's second season below.

By the second half of 'The Walking Dead's' Sunday mid-season finale, I was actively rooting for the zombies.

Say what you will about the flesh-eaters, they know what they want and they briskly go for it. On an increasingly frustrating show that can't quite decide whether it wants to be a character-driven drama or a well-crafted frightfest, the zombies' lack of ambiguity about what they want has been almost refreshing at times.

I'm guessing it wasn't the intention of the show's writers to make me hope that Rick Grimes' crew would be munched by the undead, but too often this season, the humans on the show have been idiotic, annoying or sanctimonious -- sometimes all three. The time spent on Hershel Greene's farm was often a waste, not just of time but of the relatively sturdy momentum the show had cranked up in its short first season.

It didn't have to be this way. I'm betting the group's rural interlude was, at least in part, supposed to get us to care about the show's characters more deeply. But most of the characters were badly served by increasingly ham-fisted attempts at characterizations that merely repeated information we already had. The final scene of the episode was moving (all hail director Michelle MacLaren), but almost every other development made me want to bite someone myself.

By the last third of Sunday's episode, I not only wouldn't have cared if a zombie had munched the former sheriff, I was shouting "Shoot him!" when Dale leveled his gun at Shane's chest.

Now, don't get the impression that I think Dale is the hero of the piece. In this post-apocalyptic world, he thought it would be a good idea to hide the group's weapons where they'd be likely to be damaged or lost? Smooth move, old timer. (I look down at the notes I took during the finale and I find the word "moron" jotted down more than once. I mean, we're not fully in 'Terra Nova' territory, but we're much, much closer than any AMC drama should ever be.)

Of course, Dale (whom I previously liked, believe it or not) is not the main problem with season 2 of 'The Walking Dead.' Shane is certainly one of the show's bigger weak spots, but even he's not the root cause of the show's malaise.

The biggest problem with the first half of season 2 is that it was about two hours of viable storytelling stretched out over seven hours.

Let's just review all the things that could have happened in this batch of episodes: We could have met compelling new characters (and maybe the show could have pruned a few less successful characters); the characters' relationships with each other could have been filled out and given new tensions and shading; we could have gotten some tightly plotted and/or exciting action; toward the end of the season, we could have gotten a few hints on where the story might go from here.

There were occasionally effective bursts of action, but precious little of the other things noted above, and the show's character development was especially frustrating. Sure, Glenn got a few new notes to play in his romance of Hershel's daughter and Andrea got to pick up a handy skill, but in the main, I don't feel I got to know these people more thoroughly. Almost every interaction revealed the maddeningly repetitive information: Dale remained the well-intentioned but manipulative busybody he was last season, Shane was still a hothead who mistook his arrogance for pragmatism, Rick was the reluctant optimist who struggled with being the alleged leader, and Lori continued to be a mostly reactive character (and, because she's a woman who didn't take an active role in camp security, she got to do a lot of the drudge work). Hershel himself was a one-dimensional, stubbornly clueless addition to the group, and those living in his oddly quiet compound were even less nuanced.

Even so, all those people may have worked as characters in a two-hour movie (though at some point, some critic needs to do a takedown on the highly questionable gender politics in this world). The problem is, for a show that just aired its 13th episode, all of that amounts to weak sauce.

In any event, I don't find myself especially upset that executive producer Frank Darabont left the show earlier this year. That actually gives me hope that the second half of the season might be better.

If there's one thing I've noticed about film veterans like Darabont is that they apparently believe characters, structures and formats that work in the movies will work on TV. Sometimes they do, but more often, the attention paid to individual episodes or characters is inconsistent or lacking in some fundamental way. It's hard to balance overall arcs, episodic stories and character journeys, especially if the show is an ensemble piece, but that's why the people who are good at doing all those things are usually paid via large truckloads of money. It's really difficult to manage all the competing demands of episodic television -- to give individual hours payoffs while building to an overall destination in which the emotional and even physical stakes for the characters are credible and high -- and those are not skills you generally hone by writing and directing feature films, which require two or three hours of sustained tension and progression, not 12 or 13.

Perhaps new showrunner Glen Mazzara will be able to guide 'The Walking Dead' out of its current rut. I certainly hope so. Allowing character development and philosophical issues to arise as byproducts of taut, well-constructed hour-long stories would be a good place to start. Like another AMC drama, 'Hell on Wheels,' 'The Walking Dead' gives off the impression that it wants to explore Big Ideas, but neither show has a firm grasp of how to do that. It's a case of yet another cable drama putting the ambition cart before the storytelling horse.

Let's face it, we could have skipped from episode 2 to episode 7 of the season without missing much, am I right? It's not that what the show attempted wasn't worth doing, it just didn't nail the landing, despite that heartrending final scene. After its efficient and energetic season opener, the past six episodes of 'The Walking Dead' didn't just attempt to deepen the characters, they also spent time exploring the worth and value of life in a world where most humans are dead. But just as the writers' attempts to give complexity to the characters were ultimately limited, the show's exploration of knotty philosophical ideas was lacking in both rigor and ambiguity.

Remove or reduce the threat of the zombies and you have a show with a lot less tension, and 'The Walking Dead' replaced that tension with meandering debates and simmering disagreements that never went anywhere compelling and rarely drove interesting stories. Regardless of your personal beliefs, I'm betting you came away from this half of the season thinking the show's exploration of what constitutes life and whether it's worth living wasn't all that dramatically compelling or thought-provoking.

It also started out a a cult favorite, but 'Battlestar Galactica' broke through to the mainstream in part by grounding its exploration of moral and political issues in characters who were believably complex and flawed; 'The Walking Dead' hasn't done that. That's not the worst thing in the world -- not every show is going to be anchored by a Laura Roslin or a Bill Adama (though I never doubted why people followed those characters; the same can't be said of the feckless Rick).

But that's OK: 'The Walking Dead' could have been an energetic and occasionally thoughtful B-grade series that put its paper-thin characters through a lot of creatively gruesome adventures and incidents (think 'Revenge,' with fewer society parties and more brain eating). When the group was on the move and still filling out its world in season 1, it did that kind of thing reasonably well. This year, the slow-moving Hershel's farm interlude put a spotlight on 'The Walking Dead''s limitations, which became more apparent as the season progressed.

Sunday's episode was the culmination of everything that wasn't working: the talkiness, the clunky character development, the passivity and bone-headedness of several key characters, the fervent desire on my part that instead of trying to please everyone, Rick would make an actual decision and stick to it. The only character I wasn't vaguely irritated by was T-Dog, but it's hard to be bugged by someone who's gotten so few lines all season.

Lack of screen time wasn't an issue for Shane, a character the show has mightily tried to turn into a man who is tortured by lost love and by what he's done to survive. But you know what? All the attempts to give nuance and depth to the man have failed. I can't stand his smirking face, his vein-popping arrogance and his creepy bullying. Perhaps he's meant to be the fly in the ointment, the character who stirs the pot with his hotheaded ways, but part of the challenge of television is making the audience want to spend time with people who are generally loathsome. Shane is a loathsome individual with whom I do not want to spend time.

As for Rick's quest to be a "leader," I can't honestly understand why anyone would follow him; his relative optimism often comes off as inane and inexplicable. If the man is going to keep telling everyone that life is worth living, he's going to have to come up with a rationale that isn't, essentially, "Well, it just is." As for the group as a whole, as Tom and Lorenzo wrote, I'm having trouble understanding how any of these people have survived this long, given their squabbling, their pettiness and their general inability to focus.

If I sound frustrated, it's because I think 'The Walking Dead' has so much potential. The zombie premise means that tension and surprises are baked into the show's DNA, and when the pacing is cranked up, the show's claustrophobic atmosphere, solid production values and great score make it a rewarding experience. The zombies created by co-executive producer Greg Nicotero and his team are nothing short of awesome, and someone should give a truckload of Emmys to the sound design and sound editing staff; the new squelching and squishing noises they come up with every week are disgustingly effective.

As for the characters, Daryl has proved to be a worthy addition to Rick's group, and his solo quest to find Sophia was one of the season's high points. Certainly Norman Reedus has done his utmost with a relatively narrow character, and though the show drained the search for Sophia of suspense by dragging it out too long, the fact that Daryl cared so much about her occasionally gave that story a gravity it hadn't otherwise earned. (By contrast, Carol's growing passivity over her missing daughter made me eventually dislike her.)

Though much of what came before it was frustrating, I can't deny the power of the final scene of Sunday's episode, in which the characters saw Sophia come out of the barn. Finally, 'The Walking Dead' was showing, not telling. Finally, a wordless scene captured the heartbreak that hadn't been even remotely conveyed in a dozen debates about life and death.

It was a powerful moment -- all the more powerful for embodying the characters' concerns with specificity and spareness. If I hadn't cared about Sophia before, I did in that moment. It simply worked.

Let's hope that tremendously effective moment is a sign of things to come. There's a good show in here somewhere. Let's hope that when the second season resumes Feb. 12, somebody revives it.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Risa Stewart

The show is awesome. Shh.

March 12 2012 at 1:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jelene Anderson

The great thing about the comic book is the writer is not afraid to kill off main characters. That has got to be the most compelling part of the comic book, you never know what character will die at any moment.

February 26 2012 at 1:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
shawn

I think season 2 is great so far. I like the pacing. Every season doesn't need to go so fast. Watching "The River", on ABC, the pacing on it is fast nothing really has time to sink in. I think "The Walking Dead" is doing great not making the mistakes of "Lost", or "Battlestar Galactica". I like the character Hershel. I think he provides a unique view and conflict for the group and it'll be great seeing how he evolves as he faces the new reality of their world. I love the farm setting. I think it's a great place for the zombie apocalypse; it seems like it provides safety but at same time is really creepy. I hope the group stays there for 2 or 3 seasons at least. I would like to see them travel outside the farm more too but I hope they don't leave the farm entirely too soon. The quicker they leave the farm the quicker the series will come to an end and I hope this show stays on for a long time. It's probably the best show on tv and it's doubtful they could ever recreate anything like it again on television. I have nothing bad to say about the series. I don't think they have done anything wrong at all on the show. I like watching the hordes of zombies and the fast pacing of the Atlanta scenes in season 1 and I like the more psychologically intense scenes and creepy factor of season 2 and all the unique zombies like the well walker. I think the show does a great balance; like a great meal where the different flavors together really make it pop.

February 23 2012 at 7:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Patrick Smith

i think you are wrong about shane - he's the only character with any real depth or complexity - and his loathsomeness adds some much needed realism to the show

February 22 2012 at 12:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jeffrey Wilson

Can they at least find a Winnebago dealership and get Dale a new RV ? Is that too much to ask ? I mean everyone is dead and you can go shop anywhere you want as long as you can defend yourself. How about driving down the middle of the street in Atlanta with a snow plow or an armored car ?? I would like to see that !

February 18 2012 at 6:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nick T

cow1129 got it right. There is nothing wrong with this series. It's excellent. Most of the criticisms are quibbles. The "Sophie" thing went on too long. How long did it last - a few episodes? But boy, what a pay off. One of the best scenes on horror history right there. Wouldn't have worked so well had it not been properly built up and many cool scenes, development within the "container" of search for Sophie. The episode, Nebraska was also excellent, perfect. Don't do the "critic thing" and start some silly "backlash" to draw attention to your lame column. Just shut up, sit back, and watch classic TV in the making. Savor every episode of this wonderful series. If you want constant blood and guts - buy a zombie POV shooter for your X-box. If it's too slow for you, see a doctor for your ADD.

February 13 2012 at 3:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Nick T's comment
OooSillyMe

You are right about the need to savor each episode. There is something to be said about building characters and situations rather than falling into just a show with lots of blood and guts.

April 13 2012 at 10:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cow1129

The Walking Dead is in no rut.... it is perfect. I can wait for it to come back on. Well written, well produced, good scene...(so good to see something that looks real and not around Hollywood palm trees!)

January 10 2012 at 6:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cow1129's comment
Piecar

It's just that it don't look real.....

January 20 2012 at 3:44 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Piecar's comment
Iewashi320

How would you know what real zombies look like have you seen any if so let me know!

February 21 2012 at 9:58 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down
shawn

I've seen about every zombie movie that's been made and this is one of the top 10, if not the best f/x and make up. It's awesome.

February 23 2012 at 7:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down
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January 04 2012 at 2:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jay Lo

I have been happy with The Walking Dead. I was a little tired of it dragging mid season. I think that the Sophia search had drug on for way to long. Think that they could have shortened it a bit and everyone would have been fine. I finally got the closure I wanted, and it was heartfelt didn’t expect her to be a walker. I know that some of the other characters need more work. T-Dog is one that has hardly done anything since the first season. I almost forget at times, he is even part of the group. I like how Daryl has taken on a greater part and fast becoming a hero type. I hope that his character gets better. I am now looking forward to see what happens now and how dark the series will start to get. I have been hooked since day one. I am glad that it’s not just killing zombies then running, more killing. I like that it was slowed down a bit and there is some dialog and chance to get to know characters more. What I didn’t like is that it was over to many episodes. I do know that if it wasn’t for my Sling adapter I would have missed most shows. This gives me TV everywhere from DISH using my employee service allowing me to watch my shows on my iPad. This lets you stream live TV or off a DVR. This is a great tool that let me stay up with The Walking Dead while I was on the road. You can get this free for a limited time as a new customer.

December 07 2011 at 3:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Major Angst Girl

I enjoyed, as I always do, Mo's thoughts on the show. And I would agree that there's a bit of a sophmore slump. I do say I'm a little confused about Mo's complaint that the group doesn't have that ability to focus. Focus on what exactly? The complaint makes it sound as though there is some safe place to reach or a cure to be found and that somehow the folks in the group are ignoring that.

But that's just not the case. There is virtually no communication with the rest of county, city, state, nation, world. What is happening beyond their immediate vicinity? They can't know; they've been stripped of most of their technology. Their original goal was to reach the CDC, and well, that didn't work out. Now they have a vague idea that Ft. Benning might be safe based on one sighting of one helicopter, but given the other evidence of the utter devastation of the military in the city, this seems an unlikely haven. They have no evidence whatsoever that there is any larger settlement or governmental/military group that can take them in. So really, their only focus at this point can be on day-to-day survival. There no long-term goal that can be focused on here.

I also disagree that Rick is on a "quest" to be a leader. I can see why Rick can be indecisive--but who in god's name could know what to do at all times in this situation. He feels responsible for the fact that Sophia is lost, his own son is gravely hurt. Yes, he's thoughtful and hopeful, which I think is necessary in a leader. Because without those characteristics you can get someone Shane, a bubbling psychopath, who uses the Walkers as an excuse to indulge his inner crazy. (He's probably a guy for whom only the veneer of society has probably kept from going off the rails earlier.) And Rick is the one who had to do in Sophia, so clearly, he's not afraid to make the tough calls when one needs to be made. This may be his catalyst. But what I appreciate is that Rick convinces with reason whereas Shane often simply demands.

I would say that for me the biggest issue is the lack of a good timeline and this made the time on the farm drag. The viewer needs to know if days, weeks or months have passed between episodes. I think some of the viewer frustration with the farm sequence was that it was sometime difficult to tell if they'd been there 6 days or or six weeks.

December 05 2011 at 2:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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