On Endings, or How THE WALKING DEAD Refuses to Die [On The Contrary]
(NOTE: Don’t worry if you’re not caught up on THE WALKING DEAD. The following is SPOILER FREE!)
Ah, the best laid plans…yadda yadda yadda. I had been trudging through this lumbering season of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD confident that I could finally write off this show—a show I was never overly enamored with in the first place. It really is just a drawn out version of one of the classic George A. Romero zombie films, and though I love those movies, they tend to be as slow moving as their monsters. Dragging out a slow 2-hour movie to a multiple season television series. Yikes. The word I would use to describe THE WALKING DEAD this season would be glacial. And then they wrapped up the first half of this season with a bang—or rather, many bangs. Now I have to reset my DVR to keep recording the show when it returns in February.
What I find interesting about my entire reaction was that I was not enjoying the show this year. I found myself DVRing many episodes and fast forwarding through repetitive boring conversations between the characters philosophizing on life after a Zombie Apocalypse. (Note to whomever is writing the show now: please limit yourselves to no more than one of these conversations per episode—there are zombies to kill for heaven’s sake. Less talk, more splatter.) However, it never once occurred to me to simply stop watching the show. I was in, and was going to see it through, at least to some sort of resolution.
This brings up an interesting issue with television shows. The usual thinking is that it is much more difficult to create successful serialized show (one whose story continues and grows from episode to episode, ala BREAKING BAD, GAME OF THRONES, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, etc.) than it is to create a show with mainly stand-alone episodes (most sitcoms or procedurals like LAW & ORDER and CSI). Episodic shows are generally preferred because they can be re-aired out of order in syndication without confusing audience. They also make it much easier for a casual viewer to tune in without having to watch hours of previous episodes to understand what is going on. While this is true in that it is more difficult for a casual viewer to jump into an ongoing show they haven’t been with from the start, there is another angle to consider. Once you have an audience watching a serialized show, they become invested in it, wanting to know where the story will go and how it will end. Since the goal on cable is to hold viewers more than to attract new people (especially for HBO), this could explain why serialized shows tend to be on cable while episodic shows still dominate broadcast networks.
Why is it hard to break away, though? I think it’s like admitting defeat. Even if a show starts to bore you, abandoning it means you have wasted all of those hours watching it without even knowing the ending. It’s the same impulse that keeps people in bad relationships long past the expiration date—it’s hard to just walk away when you’ve invested time and emotions into something. You don’t want to see it fail.
And, as proven by THE WALKING DEAD this past Sunday, it’s always possible to turn things around. It’s amazing what a strong ending will do for a T.V. show or a movie. A show can be mediocre or worse, but so long as each episode ends with a thrilling moment or cliffhanger, we’ll think highly of it. TRUE BLOOD on HBO has done this for years, essentially filibustering its way through most episodes with terrible writing and characters, but always ending each episode (and season) with shocking cliffhanger. Just when you are about to check out, there is the promise of something better to come.
WALKING DEAD did not have so much a cliffhanger as a semi-resolution to some of the subplots, but it served the same purpose. Ending on a note just satisfying enough that now I have to come back for more slow-moving, dull writing in the second half of the season in the hope that it will lead to an ending to make it all worth while. It’s like dating someone who bores you, but not wanting to break up before Christmas because she or he might get you something good.
Maybe in a way this should be a hopeful discovery for artists and writers. You can do subpar work, but so long as you end strong, people will think highly of all of your work.
Now if I could just think of an ending to this…
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