It has been well documented that ratings for The Walking Dead are down this season. Many people have pointed to the gore of the season premier, when 2 regular characters (and one in particular that was beloved) were brutally murdered by new character Negan. However, I think there is an easier explanation for why viewers are leaving in droves-the show has succumbed to what I call Car Wreck Entertainment Syndrome.
Basically, Car Wreck Entertainment is a movie, book, or in this case a tv show that has ceased to make interesting, intelligent, or even plausible storytelling choices, and instead has gone the route of soap operas. It’s grasping for pathos at the lowest level. And the audience no longer cares about the characters as much as they did-they just continue to watch out of morbid curiosity.
The Walking Dead had such a promising beginning. An interesting premise and Frank Darabont, of Shawshank Redemption fame, made this an eagerly anticipated show. I was hooked from the start, and stayed with the show even through what some called the boring Farm episodes of Season 2, and what others called the tedious Prison episodes of Season 3. Long after Darabont has stopped being involved with the show, I was still DVRing it every week, and trying to avoid being spoiled by my spoiler happy students. When a show comes on at 9pm and you are a wild and crazy teacher that likes to go to bed at the same time, you play Russian Roulette by not planning on watching it until the next night.
I know people who gave up on the show much earlier than I did, due to the common complaint of “nothing happening”, but I liked the slow burn pace of the show/seasons. These were characters I cared about, and there was enough intelligent character development combined with zombie action to keep me tuning in and interested. It wasn’t until Season 6 that the show came off the rails for me. (You should stop reading if you are not caught up with the show).
First, there was the infamous Glenn/dumpster debacle. I knew he was probably alive since they would not refer to him as deceased on Talking Dead, but I could not believe that they would stoop to such an awful gimmick. It reminded me of the scene in Misery when Kathy Bates character is complaining about how the serials in the early days of cinema would often cheat and have the character escape a situation that they clearly could not have. In other words, Glenn didn’t crawl under the cockadoodie dumpster! The reveal several episodes later that he was in fact alive to me felt like such a dumbing down of the show, and a toying with the emotions and expectations of the audience. But I kept watching, thinking they wouldn’t do something like that again. They would prove me wrong a few more times, unfortunately. There was the penultimate episode of the season where Darryl is apparently shot, and blood splatters on the screen, only to have Darryl be alive in the finale, with no resolution or even reference to how the previous episode ended. I know it wasn’t exactly Shakespeare up to that point, but it still seemed like the writers forgot the kind of tone they had established, and instead went the way of cheap thrills.
But nothing compares to the show’s handling of the Negan situation. They did a great job of ratcheting up the tension in the finale, but that great job was dependent on the payoff of who Negan killed. Not only did the victim remain a mystery, but they had the camera play the part of whoever he smashed with Lucille, and then blood streamed down the screen, like we had suddenly switched to some b-movie with low-rent production values, not the highest rated show on TV. It was one thing to not show the deceased-I can kind of understand that (even though I was very disappointed), but their fumbling of the execution of it (no pun intended) brought me to the conclusion that unless the season premier was some of the most amazing TV I’d ever seen, then I was done as a viewer.
So I tuned in to the Season 7 premiere, hoping that somehow the showrunner/writers would make up for their mishandling of so much of Season 6. Instead, they doubled down on their teasing of the audience, not revealing the identities of the victims (first Abraham, then Glenn) until almost 30 minutes into the show. To make it even more insulting, before the reveal, they included a montage of a distraught Rick imagining all of the possible victims being hit by Negan, as a way to almost thumb their nose at the audience. “Betcha can’t guess which one it will be!” they seemed to be screaming at the audience, like a playground bully who taunts you with something he knows and you don’t. Except this bully, like most bullies, is not particularly bright, and as it turns out, I didn’t even care anymore what information he had. And it wasn’t just the gore-I have no problem with gore as long as it is coupled with good writing.
I’ve never invested 6 years into a show only to stop watching it. Even shows that were not as good in their later years (like E.R.) still retained enough of their old magic to keep me engaged and watching. The Walking Dead made my decision to walk away easy-there are simply too many great TV shows on now to waste time on a show that can’t tell an effective story in a way that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. The fact that it is on AMC, home of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, makes it that much worse, in my opinion. In fact I recently saw a few episodes of the last season of Breaking Bad, that I had not watched since viewing them the first time they aired (kind of made me want to do a re-watch, like I did with Lost on my old blog, but that is such a huge time investment). It reminded me of how brilliant the writing and storytelling on Breaking Bad is, and how they perfected the art of telling a satisfying story in a way that kept the audience guessing, even when the inevitable tragedy unfolded much in the way they feared.
So I took off The Walking Dead from my scheduled recordings. I’ll still get the comic book compendiums, because I enjoy reading those (way less time investment, and more subtle approach). I am no longer craning my neck to check out the car wreck that it became. Our break up wasn’t traumatic for them, as I’m just one viewer and they still have millions. But I suspect the break ups will continue unless they can right the ship somehow, and perhaps the reduced ratings will be the catalyst they need for that to happen. Until then, I’ll be deciding between Westworld, Transparent, or This is Us as my next new show.