People really love AMC's The Walking Dead. Have you seen the ratings? The zombie drama consistently posts Nielsen ratings numbers that more than double those of most other cable TV shows, while also breaking records previously set by The Walking Dead itself. It's one of TV's biggest shows, but, oddly enough, it's also one of TV's most frequently hated-on programs. One day, it's all complaints about how the characters aren't interesting, and how they all do is talk, talk, and talk some more, leaving the zombie action minimized. The next day, though, it's all whining about how there's too strong an emphasis on the gory set-pieces, pushing character development to the background in favor of zombie hordes, splattered heads, decapitations, and spilled innards.
Because of that, The Walking Dead always feels like a show that's in constant reaction to its fans—each season varies on what's accentuated: the characters or the zombies? Its identity is forever in viewer-driven metamorphosis.
In the Complex office, there are two kinds of Walking Dead fans: the passionate, if not apologetic, lovers of the show, and the frustrated, ready-to-jump-ship haters who hang on in hopes of it reaching its undeniable potential for greatness. Representing the former side here is senior staff writer Matt Barone; representing the latter, less content group is senior video producer Ryan Wick. Now that the show's fourth season is halfway to its December 1 midseason finale, it's time to figure out why the the Wicks don't just walk away from The Walking Dead. Or what the Barones are turning a blind eye to.
Matt Barone: As an unabashed Walking Dead fan, it's fascinating to me that so many people seem to keep hate-watching the show. Instead of just, you know, not watching it anymore, they tune in every week ready to bash it, and I feel like they, as a result, have conditioned themselves to automatically hate everything about it. I know you're not that, though, because you did at one time genuinely like the show. So what exactly has turned you off so much?
Ryan Wick: I've gotten to a point where I honestly cannot justify some of the creative decisions of the show anymore. I really liked most of season one; season two was abysmal; season three in my mind, was exactly what the show should be, (the season finale notwithstanding), yet this season has basically just left me with a deep seeded anger towards its nonsense. [Current showrunner] Scott M. Gimple said his intention this season was to focus on character development, which is pretty much what every new showrunner for every show always says. Critics get all moist over proclamations like this but to me, it’s just a cop out. Especially with a show like this. Every show should focus on character development, first and foremost—it’s the most important aspect of any drama. The problem with The Walking Dead is that every character sucks. Everyone is either one note or so incomprehensibly boring that I honestly could not give a flying fuck about anyone on this show.
Matt: Did you ever care about any of the characters, though?
Ryan: In every "great TV show," you should. Breaking Bad and The Wire are the best shows ever because every character is great. Even if you hate Skyler, she's a fully formed character with shifts and arcs. The Walking Dead has just never been able to write interesting charcters. Rick is struggling with his decision to be a leader...for four years. Michonne is angry and untrusting. Glen is in love.
This show is basically like asking fans to ride along in a car full of annoying children for miles and miles in hope of seeing something really cool out the window. —Ryan Wick
Matt: I actually agree with that, for the most part. The Walking Dead definitely suffers from "too many characters" syndrome, especially this season. They're trying to centralize everything on this disease spreading throughout the prison, but that leads to scenes where people die and we've never met them before. There's little impact, other than the surface-level sentiment that comes from seeing a father die in front of his kids. That's sad, but the show needs to earn that more than just banking on natural sentiment.
Ryan: Exactly, and, frankly, having a disease seems like the most nonsense storyline anyone could have come up with, especially for someone who's a huge fan of the comics, like myself.
Matt: And I come from the background of having only read a few issues of the comic.
Ryan: There are so many unmined storylines from those books that could easily be plucked, elongated, repurposed, and all of them would be a hell of a lot better than what's going on this season. The farm is like literally two issues of the comic, yet they stretched it out for almost an entire season. I get it, TV production isn't a medium where you just strip down locations and move on every two weeks but still.
Matt: I don't hate the characters, though. Several of them, yes, I feel indifferent towards because the show hasn't allowed me to feel anything for them, but I do care about, specifically, Rick, Maggie, Glen, and Daryl—even Carol, surprisingly. The last episode, when it seemed like Rick might kill her while they were on the out-of-prison mission, I started hoping Rick wouldn't kill her. Because I don't think she's in the wrong 100% for what she did, for killing the two infected people. That's an intriguing moral question, and the show often presents questions like that. I do find myself wondering how I'd handle certain situations, which leads to why I think Rick is such a great character, and an under-appreciated one. He makes some terrible decisions, but I like how Andrew Lincoln plays it. There's always a tangible sense that Rick is figuring things out as he goes while trying to make it seem like he's in control, at least early on. Lately, he's not trying to hide that, and I like how Lincoln plays it.
Ryan: Don't get me wrong, I love Andrew Lincoln as an actor and Rick is a good character they just need to write in better surrounding problems and circumstances so it doesn't always seem like they're rehashing old character development. If that makes sense.
Matt: It does. His arc has consistently been that of the conflicted leader who didn't want to be the head-guy but has no choice in the matter anymore. Rick was at his best when Shane was around, I think. Their dynamic was great. Shane gave Rick problems beyond being the leader.
Ryan: Yeah, but after four years (which, I guess, is about a year's worth of screen time) when will he finally just be like, "I'm the leader, fuck you guys if you doubt me," which is what happened at the end of season two. And now here we are reverting back to that again.
Matt: One big moment for this show, where it really clicked for me that this show can hit me hard, is when Lori died. She was a character I didn't like, at all, and would wish death upon, but then when she died, I was crushed. I had such a visceral reaction to that; it was a crazy gut-punch. There's something to that. I could see that happening again this season if, say, Glen dies.
Ryan: For sure. That was a great moment in TV and I think it worked so well because it was so fucking dark.
Matt: And unexpected. They should take those risks more often.
Ryan: This show is basically like asking fans to ride along in a car full of annoying children for miles and miles in hope of seeing something really cool out the window.
Matt: But that leads to another key point here: the strange see-saw view fans have with the show's violence, gore, and zombie action. It used to be, they wanted more and more. But now they're mad about having so many zombie set-pieces. The show can't win.
Ryan: I personally don't understand everyone's argument for having more zombie action. I mean, I've been sick of zombies for about 15 years now.
Matt: If someone's watching the show for zombie scenes, then why are they watching it at all? Go rent a George Romero movie. You clearly don't care about the characters, so why waste your time with Greg Nicotero effects on The Walking Dead when you can rent movies and get that without any long-term commitments?
If someone's watching the show for zombie scenes, then why are they watching it at all? Go rent a George Romero movie. —Matt Barone
Ryan: The reason the comic works so well is because zombies aren't the main focus. It's the crazy, badass people they encounter along the way. It's the raw, lawless nature of trying to rebuild a society that has completely crumbled. That's the interesting shit to me. I wouldn't care if they didn't have another zombie death the rest of the season as long as "something" happened.
Matt: This season, in particular, it does seem like they're trying to have at least one big zombie sequence per episode. I'm not mad at it, though, because I'll always love zombies (I'm a sucker for zombie movies; always have been, always will be), but they're doing it at the expense of characters like Daryl and Michionne. They're becoming one-note soldiers, when they could be so much more.
Ryan: Agreed. Last season they moved away from zombies and it was for the better. The Governor is a much better, clear-cut antagonist than a "flu" or random zombie attacks.
Matt: Yeah, The Governor was a great, much-needed addition. I'm sure he's coming back at some point.
Ryan: I guarantee he'll come back for the mid-season finale and that will be the "oh shit" cliffhanger the show desperately needs, but do I want to sit through eight episodes of "supply runs" and red shirt deaths till we get to that moment? That's the conundrum I wrestle with when I watch each new episode where nothing happens.
Matt: Call me crazy, but I do care about the show's core group of characters enough to really enjoy the show overall. Rick, Glen, Maggie, Daryl, Carl (though to a lesser degree), and even Carol. The show needs to get rid of the dozens of other "prison people" and focus on them. Streamline the drama and conflict.
Ryan: That's where we differ. I say, kill off everyone but Rick and Carl.
Matt: And have it become The Road?
Ryan: Don't get me started on that Cormac McCarthy drivel. [Laughs.]
Matt: Drivel? Yikes, we'll leave that for another conversation. [Laughs] But you're saying just have Rick and Carl moving along and encountering various conflicts?
Ryan: No, killing off crap characters and encountering new, interesting ones. That's exactly why the comic is so great. There is so much death in the comic that you never know who will survive. You fear for everyone.
Matt: I can see that. Turn it into a full-on road show, rather than centralizing each season to one location (i.e., the farm, the prison).
Ryan: Exactly. The prison should have been done with at the end of last season. The first season had that sense of run-and-gun survival, and it was great. Show us the scope of this apocalypse.
Matt: I think it's harder for fans of the comic book to watch the show. It's that unavoidable need to compare and contrast.
Ryan: I realize they can never duplicate that but I feel like they can make wiser decisions on what to pull in and use.
Matt: I don't have that comic book attachment, so it's easier for me to overlook some of the flaws and focus on the strengths.
Ryan: Take any archetype apocalyptic storyline and there's better, more interesting shit going on then what's happening in this series. Mutants? Cannibals? Cults? Crazy survivalists? Any sci-fi story that's been written in the last 50 years has more interesting plot points. That's my main problem. Even The Road had cannibals.
Matt: To bring this full circle, then, why do you keep watching it? If you don't think they'll ever introduce those non-zombie threats?
Ryan: I guess, like Rick and the survivors, I keep pressing on, hoping that eventually I'll find some form of salvation. [Laughs.] The question is how much longer do I keep searching before I get so bored and just blow my brains out (or, turn off the show for good). I also feel like there is a great show in this thing somewhere they just need someone to bring it out.
Matt: It's the show's fourth season. It seems fairly set in its ways. That search may never end for you. [Laughs.] Especially with its monstrous ratings. The network isn't going to rattle the cage too much at this point.
Ryan: They're on their third showrunner now—maybe a fourth one will be the charm?
Matt: Scott Gimple has been confirmed for next season, too.
Ryan: Well, then, I guess you're right.
Matt: I compare you and The Walking Dead to me and Homeland. This current season of Homeland is very frustrating and, yes, bad, so I'm at the point where I'm ready to drop the show, no questions asked. I once loved Homeland, and there's still a great show living within it. But they're so misguided right now that it's too infuriating to watch.
Ryan: Lost was the only show I legitimately hate-watched all the way till the end.
Matt: Does The Walking Dead have that same kind of hold on you?
Ryan: Absolutely not.
Matt: Then it may be time to say goodbye to Rick and Carl, my friend. The comic books are still there for you.
Ryan: That's very true. I think I still watch it because no other show this time of year is taking up my time. Boardwalk Empire, Eastbound & Down, and American Horror Story are all I have.
Matt: Maybe start watching Once Upon a Time in Wonderland?
Ryan: I'm good.