Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A *no spoiler* review of The Walking Dead and why it is so successful.

The following review does not have any spoilers.

You can make the argument that we are currently in the golden age of television or you can argue that we are in the second golden age of television; either way, there's no denying that the best writers of our time have migrated towards the medium.

Today's television is punctuated with emotionally complex characters who engage in masterful dialogue about current, meaningful topics or the great mysteries of life and consciousness...and The Walking Dead is not one of those shows.

This season is my first experience with this show, and as the season finale came to a close last night, it got me wondering why this show is so deservingly successful in a landscape of emotional heavy-weight television. As I've grown older, I've realized that I enjoy writing of any medium that brings deeper insight and understanding of either pertinent, topical issues or the universal human experience. Whether it's the complexities and reality of the dark side of human nature, as in True Detective, or the hyper-dramatized reality of cutthroat, power-hungry politics of House of Cards, I feel as I have a rather high expectation of what I will dedicate my time to. Which is why I've been pleasantly surprised with my full engagement and enjoyment of The Walking Dead. 

The reason TWD is so successful, I think, is because it generally has a very clear sense of self-awareness. It is a show about survival, but more importantly the creators know it is a show about survival. That might sound simplistic, but if there's a lesson that you learn with age and experience in art is to know yourself, know what you can do, and then do it well. This show knows that surviving in the world which it created is supposed to be basic and simplistic. They dig into the deepness of the first basic human instinct and are able to find the rich complexity of survival instead of manufacturing it through esoteric, philosophical writing and over-dramatic acting. And for that, I'm impressed.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes
The two main criticisms you'll hear about this show are about weak writing and weak acting, namely from the Rick and Daryl characters. These criticisms, in a general sense, are not off base, but I will argue that it is a situation where an obvious weakness has, fortunately, turned into a strength. Great stories are great because they not only sell you on the premise, but they bring you into the story. They allow you to become invested with both the heart and the mind, into whatever world they create. In short, they have the power to make the unbelievable believable. There's a raw honesty to TWD and I think it has a lot to do with the simple, primal drive of characters such as Rick and Daryl. They are not characters that are emotionally reactive and they do not require consistent emotional transformations, because that's not the type of person that will survive the impossible odds that the story creates. Deep down, we, as an audience, either consciously or subconsciously connect with this group of people who are not Hollywood pretty or Hollywood emotional. Instead, they remind us of us, or at least what we would like to be if we faced a world of zombies. There's a realness there that not only sells the story, but takes us down the road with them.
Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon
 The Talking Dead
TWD, as I said earlier, has a massive fan base, which is not uncommon;  the difference is this fan base is completely engaged with this show on a level that makes other shows envious. There is a live show, The Talking Dead, that follows every episode. Actors discuss the current episode and it features real-time tweets, Skyped questions from fans, and quiz contests. Name another show that has that! This show is successful not because it is trying to match complicated, poignant dramas note for note, but because it knows what it is and what it can bring. It is the John Hartford of bluegrass. It is the ZZ Top of rock. It is the Stephen King of prose. The Walking Dead has its own personality and drive, and it taps into our primal desire for survival, which in the end, really is a big question of life.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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