Why AMC’s The Walking Dead is the biggest let-down of the 2012 tv season, and why that matters
Editor’s Note: In addition to podcasts with interesting Midwest-centric guests, Hansem and Dana will be writing periodic essays and articles on a vast array of subjects. Subject matter will be open-ended and free-flowing, just like our podcasts. Expect ruminations on anything from pop-culture to American foreign-policy. Check back often, and as always we encourage the community to participate and take this journey with us.
By the end of 2010, The Walking Dead was a household name. Once the critical darling of the comic world, Robert Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse property was picked up by the AMC network and debuted to both critical and viewer acclaim. Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, served as the series’ first showrunner, writing and directing the series pilot and co-writing other episodes within the first season. In July 2011, following weeks of rumors involving personal and budgetary disputes with network executives, Darabont was fired by AMC.
At the time of his departure, Hansem and I had several discussions on the future prospects of the television series now that it’s creative “true north”- in our opinion, anyway - was gone. I vividly recall both of us coming to the same conclusion - a conclusion that nerds of all stripes are all too familiar with: “Well, it had a good run”. As huge fans of the comic series and jaded by years of poorly handled comic properties that didn’t take the source material seriously (or at all), we couldn’t see a way that season two of the series would not disappoint. Hoping for the best, we held our breath and awaited the next season.
2011 rolled along and saw the hiring of a new showrunner in Glen Mazzara, previously a producer on FX’s stellar property, The Shield. Mazzara’s task then became walking Darabont’s study of humanity, as portrayed throughout season one and the first half of season two, back to it’s comic book canon. Beautifully paced, written, and acted, the first half of season two picked up right where season one left off. With Darabont’s impact and artistry still in tact, season two was a slow-burning character study on Rick Grimes and company’s struggle to stay in touch with their ever-dwindling humanity. It seemed that nothing could keep The Walking Dead down.
With two successful seasons of the series in the can, season two’s finale was a cliffhanger that put the characters back on track with the comic book canon. The group had stumbled across the prison, and Hansem and I began racking our brains over what Mazzara and his fellow writers had planned for the television reality of The Walking Dead universe.
[Spoiler alerts ahead for those who have yet to catch up on the first half of season three or read up to the prison arc in the comic book].
Here’s where things get complicated: As far as Hansem and I have been able to discern, AMC’s take on the prison arc in season three of the television series has been good (but not great) and still manages to be what we both feel to be the biggest let-down of the fall 2012 season.
While remaining a solidly enjoyable hour of entertainment on Sunday nights, the series has stopped transcending the comic book in nearly every fashion that seasons one and two did. The most glaring example of this transition can be made with the characters of the Governor and Shane.
The comic book version of Shane Walsh was killed off by issue six. He was gone from the fiction nearly as soon as he got there. Darabont took that same character and made him an integral part of the entire first two seasons. This served two purposes: 1) It kept fanboys of the comic like Hansem and I glued to our DVRs every Sunday night, just as excited to see what happened as newcomers to the universe were, and 2) It created an entirely new angle and perspective to a character that was almost an afterthought in the comic book. I will go so far to say Darabont out-Kirkman’d Kirkman with his blistering portrayal of character caught between his dick and his heart. I remember having several internal dialogues as to whether Shane or Rick was in the right on any given debate. It was win/win: The nerds got theirs and the Sunday night crowd got great storytelling.
Mazzara decided to take a different approach with his iteration of the Governor, and it backfired completely. Kirkman wrote the Governor as the penultimate sociopath, and really took that idea to its furthest extent. You’re not going to like the Governor, and you’re not supposed to like the Governor. He rapes a fan favorite character. He cuts off a main character’s hand. He beheads this other guy. It’s this whole thing. Mazzara took the brilliant creative precedent that Darabont bestowed upon the television version and pretty much shit all over it. Instead of writing an interesting new side to the Governor that everyone could appreciate and anticipate together, he wrote a vanilla, network television version of a previously established, veritable array of crazy.
This might strike some of you as counter-intuitive to the rest of the article. “Didn’t you just write that you wanted the television show to be less like the comic book?” Yes, we did, but that’s not the argument we’re making. Our argument is for creative, exciting, challenging, risk-taking writing - period. The Governor was certifiably evil in the comic book. We aren’t petitioning for part two of season three to write the Governor as the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. The concern is 100% about the direction the writing appears to be heading: Less stimulating, less shocking, less of a “must-watch” weekly event.
For our own nerdy hearts, I hope we’re wrong. We’ll find out in February.