The Walking Dead, AMC’s biggest cash cow has grown into a leviathan as lifeless as the zombie flesh-eating monsters that populate its world, says Tom Hitchenor.
Shuffling, meandering, groaning, and lethargic. The Walkers in The Walking Dead bear some considerable resemblance to the show itself, a kind of Meta similarity that showrunners and comic book creators Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard would not find favorable. Well into its eighth season after its 2010 beginning, it offers no sign of reaching a fitting conclusion after a renewal for a Season 9 with a view to continuing even beyond that. It begs the question, is this the new era of TV programming? So long as the money is right, are we set for institutions rather than creative works of fiction with much needed limited shelf lives? AMC, the production company for the show, chief Josh Sapan was quoted as saying “The use of the word ‘franchise,’ we don’t take lightly. It’s not a sloppy or casual word. We’ve studied the best. Some have been around 30, 40, 50 years. We have a chance for a lot of life in the franchise.” Although he was referring to the franchise as a whole, choosing to include sister production Fear the Walking Dead, it is a slightly disheartening statement for those who like closure in what they choose to watch.
Upon its debut, The Walking Dead was a revelation. In hindsight, it’s surprising that the zombie apocalypse subject matter wasn’t tapped for its television potential earlier. The graphic novels of the same name offer a ready-made fan base whilst providing established characters for the writers to expand on. Frank Darabont, co-creating and directing much of Season 1, was a safe pair of hands to launch the franchise to its staggering debut. The pilot, Days Gone By, remains to this day one of the great opening episodes. For the uninitiated, small town Georgia Deputy Sherriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes from a coma to find a world gone crazy and infected with reanimated corpses. The entire first season was fresh, unique and daring in addition to being visceral and violent. It was met with critical acclaim and the highest viewing figures that AMC had experienced up until that point.
It’s not too much of a stretch to argue that this was its zenith. The follow up series was criticised for its pacing issues, and whilst Season 3 saw an upturn in quality with the introduction of much loved villain, The Governor. Intriguing locations choices are a strong point, including large-scale prison that is home for a period, coupled with the current model village fortress style set up of Alexandria in the later years, but this is endemic of the direction that we seem to be heading. Our protagonists wander from curious home to curious home, face off against one flawed yet compelling villain to another one, as aimless as the cannibal munchers that inhabit the new world.
The Walkers themselves have lost all previous sense of threat to the main characters, seemingly there to provide a break from development scenes or to provide gratuitous violence. This may sound flippant, as the show does provide some genuine shock demises, great set pieces (often involving scenes with exotic looking Walkers) and excellent individual episodes, but it has all become rather formulaic. Episode 5 of the latest season posted the lowest viewing figures for eight years with 7.85 million viewers tuning in to watch events. Whilst this very large figure may appear to cause about as much worry and headache as sharing a hammock with a sleeping puppy on a Barbados beach, it is an alarming decrease to its Season 2 levels of viewership. Coupled with mixed critics reviews at best, including a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for last year’s offering, even its most ardent supporters must admit its become a frustrating and tedious watch at times.
With all the above evidence mounting, most TV execs would most probably decide to cut their losses and bring the proceedings to a swift conclusion. However, the amount of revenue that The Walking Dead generates for AMC is astronomical, and key for its growth and expansion. The media giant, which also owns BBC America, posted a $13 million increase from last year, to $648 million in total and added 15 million extra subscribers across all platforms also. Although it would be trivial to suggest that the media company relies solely on its golden goose, it is a very large cog in a massively expanding machine.
The question remains, should good business decisions outweigh the quality of its programming? With Breaking Bad and Mad Men on its CV, shows that were excellent but recognised the need to gracefully step aside when the time came, surely the same conversation regarding The Walking Dead should be had? But, with the aforementioned loyal fan base and marketing opportunities (the graphic novel itself and the excellent video game series) the bloated and self-serving show must go on. On a personal level, I would rather take my chances in the world filled with flesh eating monsters than one where revenue levels trumps creativity and good art.