These days, the Internet is riddled with fanboy rants (“This show sucks!”) and media critics’ alarmist (and largely click-baiting) articles about the declining ratings of The Walking Dead. While I don’t have a lot of patience for such rhetoric, I will admit that AMC’s hit zombie series has gone into decline. Rather than just take potshots, though, I would like to consider why the show has gotten off track. I offer the following half-dozen reasons:
- The ensemble has gotten too numerable. As TWD plays out its “All Out War” storyline this season, the show finds itself juggling too many characters (in too many different locales). Major figures end up being cast aside for weeks on end. When they do reappear, they are prone to unconvincing speechifying (about topics of suddenly vital personal import) or stupid decisions that land them in peril (e.g. Aaron and Enid’s ill-advised excursion to recruit Oceanside–the very group of women that has had their weapons previously stolen by Rick’s forces). In seasons past, TWD has thrived in its depiction of the moment-to-moment struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world; this season, it seems more preoccupied in setting up its various characters for Dramatic Moments.
- This “All Out War” is a little too Tolkienesque for this writer’s comfort. TWD is striving too hard for epic grandeur with its collision of battling factions (the gravitas of King Ezekial’s arc is also reminiscent of Theoden’s withdrawn moping in The Two Towers). Accordingly, an opportunity for grim and gritty realism–the inglorious gore of warfare–has been missed.
- Negan’s the reason. Even those who find his dialogue tiresome and juvenile cannot deny that Jeffrey Dean Morgan gives a commanding performance as the smiley sociopath. But the problem is, Negan is so colorful, he ends up overshadowing the other characters and making them appear drab by comparison. At the same time, it’s hard to get too invested in Negan, as the audience knows this archvillain is destined to be defeated.
- The Trash (People) buildup is a mounting problem. These refugees from a bad 80’s sci-fi movie are jarringly out of place in the world of TWD. Their existence is nonsensical, from their strange speech patterns (as ridiculous as King Ezekiel might come across at times, at least there is a rationale for his affected rhetoric) to the head-scratching choice to live in junkyard squalor. To its credit, TWD is always trying to push the envelope of originality, but the show arguably has gone too far with this tribe of exotic squatters.
- TWD has gotten carried away with a modernist storytelling approach, in which the timeline is fragmented and the narrative backtracks and overlaps. At best, this causes a loss of immediacy; at worst (as seems to be the case this season) it results in viewer confusion and an overall disjointed feel to the proceedings. The show might be best served by following a more linear trajectory, and flashing back selectively for special episodes (such as Season 6’s “Here’s Not Here”).
- Lastly, in the midst of “All Out War,” TWD seems to have forgotten about its eponymous monsters. In the mid-season finale, I counted a single walker shambling around (perhaps the undead were downplayed throughout to make Carl’s closing reveal that much more shocking). Some of the best aspects of the war narrative thus far were the siege tactics Rick & company employed to surround the Sanctuary with walkers; alas, even that came to an abrupt (and thus far off-screen) end. TWD would be wise to remember that its rotten populace serves as more than mere background noise or hand-cannon fodder.
In all honesty, I still find TWD to be an enjoyable show, and am sure to tune in weekly. Still, I cannot deny the recent decline in overall quality. Hopefully, things can turn around again, and the current stumble doesn’t lead to an all-out sprawl.