by Michael Brooks
I remember hearing about a new zombie show back in 2010. I was at college and down the hall a friend of mine, Steve, was excited to host a watch-party for this new show. Little did I know I would eventually watch every episode and become a weekly viewer.
At its peak The Walking Dead (TWD from here) was viewed by over 20 million viewers. Today, usually 3-5 million people watch TWD each week. Many people wonder why the viewership is so low. Certainly, it being low is relative. 3-5 million viewers each week still makes it an extremely popular show and right near the top of most cable lineups. But, why are there only ¼ of the viewers left from earlier in the show (Seasons 4, 5, and 6)?
Some of it is simply attrition. We are in season ten and the success of that the show has had was always unsustainable. The show was always going to lose some fans. That is certainly part of it but that certainly does not explain it. I think I know what the problem is for TWD, but before we can get there (part 2) we need to understand what made the show so popular in the first place.
TWD: The Best of All Worlds
The idea of the show was not unique. The idea of the popular comic it is based on was not unique. So, why did TWD take off so quickly and so well? Here is a brief overview of what made TWD, what it was.
1) Small-Scale Survivalism on Steroids
Survivalism may not be a real word but I am adding it into my word processor’s dictionary. Survivalism is alive in well in our world. Shows like, Naked and Afraid, Survivor Man, Man vs. Wild, Bear Grylls and more all make that obvious. We enjoy watching and imagining survival stories. TWD took that love for survival and placed it into a really cool world and did it really well.
For TWD Part 1 (Seasons 1-5) we were introduced to a small band of people in an unknown but relatively small place. The world was well-built but was not the focus. The focus was the fact that the people were fighting for survival all the time. Literally, every second could be their last. Life was lived moment-by-moment. That threat included zombies (look below) but survival was at the heart of every story line. Survival from the elements, survival from zombies, survival from strangers, and survival from each other.
They did the survival part of the survival drama in a very effective and powerful way.
2) Characters We Loved & Loved to Hate
Just as important as any other element were the characters that were crafted. There were characters that we enjoyed individually and together. They were real, conflicted, different, and blended together in a way that really glued you to each conversation. Rick (the main character) was someone you rooted for. Shane, his best friend, was still one of the greatest characters in all of the show. Daryl and his brother Merle were fascinating. Herschel and Maggie made you feel good about the world and brought light to a dark world. Glenn was excellent. And of course, Abraham and Eugene.
The characters turned into a family, a group, a tribe. We started growing close to them and enjoyed how they were developed. Negative enjoyment was included too. An appropriate amount of hated characters brought angst and frustration. Not too much (cough, Negan), but enough. The characters we hated deserved to be hated and created incredible tension. The dialogue and chemistry between the characters was almost incomparable for such a large cast of characters. This made TWD, what it was at its most basic level.
These characters were able to be the focus because the world was small and the battles were personal and mattered to every single person. This is at the heart of any good story and found its peak in seasons 2-4.
3) Effective Conflicts & Stories
This is broad but I will fill it out best I can. The plot of the show was done much better than in later seasons. The smaller world and smaller-scale nature of the conflict actually led to a better tension. They were not stuck with one problem, they had many and some that overlapped. Over and over new problems were faced from all directions.
First, the group had to stabilize as a group and find their footing (season 1). Then they stumbled onto a farm (because Carl was shot) that they thought could house them forever (season 2). The farm gets overrun so they have to find shelter and find an abandoned prison (season 3). There they meet their first archvillian, the Governor. This is resolved in one season and is done well. Then, the group again is on the move and meets other small groups and has to rescue other members of the team (season 4). Each stage of the plot was done well and housed many subplots. They did this by keeping the issues small enough to resolve efficiently but also big enough to create tension. The blend actually created higher stakes each week because so much was going on.
The plotting was truly excellent. It was chosen well and on the whole, rarely disappointed.
So, the question is: do we have the same world and story that we had in seasons one through five? Or, has something changed?
Yes. Everything has changed. A line has been crossed that will likely never be able to be taken back.
Next time we will dive into how and why TWD Part 2 (Seasons 6-8) ruined itself and why TWD Part 3 (9-10+) will never be able to return to the magic of part one.