Are people more effectively defined in the direst situations or through their day-to-day mundanities? Do we get to know characters better when they are in the crucible of tense drama or when they are going about their day as they normally would? There are strong arguments for either side, and I think that most would agree that a good balance of the two would result in a more textured character. But, what happens when heightened circumstances are basically all that is left?
This question springs into my mind every time I watch AMC’s zombie smash-hit The Walking Dead. First and foremost, I have not read the graphic novels upon which this series is based—I am only writing about the series thus far. The Walking Dead has scored some of the highest ratings in cable TV history. The zombie fiction genre is immensely popular at the moment—but does the zombie narrative lend itself to television?
What TWD does well is the zombies themselves. The action sequences are well choreographed and edited to create a sense of tension and danger. The FX team that creates the titular walking dead is doing great work. The zombies are genuinely terrifying.
The problem is with The Walking Dead’s living characters.
After an exceedingly strong pilot episode and a tour de force performance from Lenny James (whose character Morgan remains the most compelling on the show despite having only appeared in the pilot), TWD has stumbled when it comes to developing its central group of survivors. The first season centered mostly around the soapy love triangle surrounding the show’s central family rather than giving each individual character some depth. That, coupled with generally wooden dialogue, does not serve the characters well—to the point where I found myself rooting for the zombies.
One of the root causes, I think, of the poor characterization on The Walking Dead ties into my initial question. These people are living in the midst of the apocalypse. Trying to survive in the wake of the destruction of civilization is an extreme and pretty hopeless circumstance. What we see these characters doing is all under the grim backdrop of the end of the world—it is virtually impossible to ever see these characters having fun or doing anything like they normally would. We never get that other side of the balance—the small behavioral moments that create characters we love.
The second season of The Walking Dead would do well to take a note from Lost—a serialized drama that also had its characters under constantly dire circumstances but was able to develop them fully through good use of flashbacks. TWD did have a flashback at the top of its second episode this season, but that flashback showed one of the main characters, Lori, find out her husband has been shot. Sure, it’s dramatic, but does it tell us anything about the character other than that she cares about her husband?
The Walking Dead needs to find a way to let us get to know their characters under circumstances that don’t involve zombies. Otherwise, it will be hard to care about Rick, Lori, Carl and the rest of the survivors when they are cornered by a mob of walking dead.
The zombies are awesome, though.