The Walking Dead has been experiencing a serious ratings and critical slump for the past few weeks. Entertainment Editor Drew Dietsch and Fan Contributor Danielle Ryan sat down to discuss what might be causing the show to go astray, as well as their ideas on what needs to be done to get the show back on track. SPOILERS for The Walking Dead will follow.
DREW: With The Walking Dead registering its lowest ratings in years, fans are starting to wonder why this once gargantuan show is starting to slip in popularity. If there is one thing you could blame this on, what would it be? My pick is for an ever-expanding cast. The show has become so bulky and bloated with characters. Unfortunately, the only way the show knows how to deal with such a problem is through murder.
DANIELLE: I think the show’s primary problem is that it’s repetitive in its plots. The crew walks around, they meet a new group, someone dies horribly. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s turned into a “who will die next?” scenario instead of actual character development. I think a lot of fans finally realized that with the season premiere.
DREW: Agreed. The lack of surprise in terms of the show’s narrative structure has made the formula stale after so many years.
You wrote a great piece about shock value and how The Walking Dead doesn’t seem to understand how to properly use it. With the impact of the premiere out of the way, does it feel like the show is just meandering between big shock moments?
DANIELLE: It really does. It feels like The Walking Dead is trying to build up more tension for more shocking moments, but at this point viewers are numb. There comes a point in media where consumers become desensitized to those kinds of shocks. I remember when the Saw films were beyond shocking, but there were kids to in the theater by the time Saw VI came out. Torture films had become mainstream.
By now viewers of the show have to be at least somewhat desensitized to it all. That means the creators have to go even bigger for new shocks. How big can they possibly get besides killing Rick or Daryl? (The latter will never happen because fans would riot.)
DREW: On that subject, the fans have definitely embraced Negan as something of a secret protagonist. His popularity would seem to represent aspects of the show that fans enjoy: theatricality, viciousness, and suffering. That’s interesting to me because The Walking Dead didn’t start off that way. It was a much more atypical bit of contemplative apocalyptic fiction. The big reveal at the end of season one – everyone is infected – actually felt consequential and thoughtful (in a disturbing way). Has the show lost track of that and is that why people are deserting? Or has the misery simply become too overbearing without strong enough character work to back it up a la Game of Thrones?
DANIELLE: The misery without reason is just too much. Negan is fascinating to watch (and Jeffery Dean Morgan is killing it) much like GoT‘s Cersei. He’s interesting and slightly more developed than someone like Ramsay Bolton. Negan is that guy who longed for an apocalypse. He thrives on chaos and disorder. At this point, he may be the most interesting character on the show. Everyone else is just slowly suffering, and the moral questions at play early in the series seem to have been answered; after the world ends, only evil can thrive.
DREW: That’s a good observation. Maybe The Walking Dead just doesn’t have much to say anymore. Last week’s episode had the audience sit through a tired discussion about whether it’s better to be selfish or work together in the apocalypse. How can such a question be brought up when you’re seven seasons into a story like this? It’s lazy and way past due to be contemplating such trivial concepts.
Every week in my episode reviews, I point out the “zombie gore gag of the week.” The effects on this show have always been top notch – Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger are industry legends – but has the novelty of the gore also worn off?
DANIELLE: To a degree. There are still some incredible gags. Glenn‘s face will haunt me for years. American audiences have grown used to gore. Just look at the shows that would have caused a furor ten or twenty years ago: The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Preacher, Justified, etc. Violence has dominated American televisions since the Vietnam war, though it ramps up every decade or so. Gore will never get old, not entirely.
DREW: Is there anything The Walking Dead CAN do at this point to course correct? There are at least two more seasons left and probably more than that being planned just in case. What would it take to get fans back on the wagon again? Again, I feel like the enormous cast is a factor. If they could shave down the story to maybe six or seven key players, things might be able to even out.
DANIELLE: They need to focus on a handful of important characters and actually give them a chance to develop. If they introduce new characters, it needs to be a limited number and they need to have actual plots to focus on. When Abe was killed, it was sad but didn’t have nearly the impact of Glenn’s death because he hadn’t been developed. The show needs to give Maggie, Rick, Carl, Michonne, and Daryl a chance to really shine instead of just torturing them week after week.
DREW: If the only protagonists were the characters you just mentioned, I’d be hyped for the show every week.