On Peak TV and ‘The Walking Dead’ Dumpster Problem

On Wednesday, AMC released a clip of the first four minutes of the mid-season premiere of The Walking Dead. Watch it here before reading, or I’ll become part of the problem I’m about to discuss.

I recall a time not six months ago when a peek into a new episode of The Walking Dead meant a kind of exhilaration that involved an increased heartbeat and sweaty palms, so delighted was I to indulge in one of my favorite shows. But the feeling of disenchantment that came over me watching the above clip is in and of itself disappointing, and I realized that a show I once loved unequivocally has got some work to do. TWD‘s second half of season six has two major problems to contend with: one it unintentionally created, and one it (definitely, awfully, terribly) deliberately created.

If even after my cautioning you didn’t feel like watching the clip, it picks up with Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham traveling down the road in the oil truck they found at the end of last half season. The trio happens upon a gaggle of ne’er-do-wells that want to take whatever weapons our heroes have left and then follow them back to Alexandria. They are operating under the advisement of some other ne’er-do-well named Negan.

“Who’s Negan?” Abraham asks, testing the patience of this new threat. I imagine the purpose of that line is to echo my own internal question as to whom the presumed leader of these ne’er-do-wells may be.

Here’s the first problem: I’ve never so much as looked at the cover of a TWD comic, but I already know who Negan is. He’s the worst of all the bad guys in The Walking Dead universe, at least the worst one since the Governor. He wields a baseball bat with barbed wire wrapped around it. He’s going to be played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. His character might appear in this season’s finale but he’s mostly going to be a big deal next season. He’s the one who kills Glenn.

And all of that was listed off memory, because if you have two eyes and follow TWD even slightly in your internet travels, you can’t help but know that much.

Would anyone cry “spoiler” at knowing so much about Negan before he’s even introduced? The internet tends to consider something spoiler-worthy if it involves the death of a major character and/or the extreme consequences of a plot line. Knowing the identity of Negan so early on is certainly not something that comic fans of The Walking Dead consider to be spoiler-worthy; they obviously know who he is and are anxiously expecting him (otherwise this talk wouldn’t happen in the first place). But even before that four-minute clip was released today, the strictly-television-fan of TWD already had a frame of reference for this guy. And we are allowed to call that a spoiler.

This existing knowledge is a spoiler that operates in a worse way than someone yelling “spoiler alert” before announcing the death of a character. Consider the experience of watching this, or any, television show, in that we’re all along for a ride, and the fun of the ride is experiencing things as the characters experience them. Comic fans may consider the ride to include picking up things that they’re expecting to find, but they’re on the same ride nonetheless. But as a strictly-TV-fan of TWD, the ride continually becomes less exciting as it moves along because we’re being told so much about what’s to come.

Let’s talk about it: I had been hearing about the Wolves arriving at Alexandria a full year before they were ever seen. Sure, constant web-talk of the Ws carved into foreheads and limp walker torsos falling out of trailers created anticipation for their appearance, but the ultimate consequence of all that talk was an underwhelming introduction to the mildest baddies since the “claimed” crew. It’s like Christmas Day. There’s four weeks leading up to this one day in which you watch all the movies and listen to all the music and buy presents and wrap presents and pretend that you love your family. And then the big day comes, and you realize that your presents actually weren’t as thoughtful as you imagined and your family is way more annoying than in your Christmas fantasy. It’s not that I was disappointed with the Wolves after all of the internet speculation and fodder (and they may very well have more to do this season). There’s just no way for the show to shine on its own after so much talk.

Before the pretentious sector of comic fans come at me with a “don’t read it then” kind of vitriol, I acknowledge that (on top of it being mostly unavoidable) this is not a fixable problem. In fact, all of the web-talk is part of the glory of Peak TV. (Which is the pithier way of saying “The Second Golden Age of Television,” though we can get technical and say the Golden Age ended with the conclusion of Mad Men, but that’s for another time.) Peak TV arguably began with Lost coinciding with the rise of social media, as that was a show that not just welcomed, but thrived upon, viewers’ involvement; what better way for a viewer to get involved than proclaiming their thoughts upon the eager ears of the internet? If it weren’t for rabid fan speculation and the accessibility of message boards in which to bounce theories, TV likely wouldn’t have had the cultural resurgence it did. Most shows these days are recapped and reviewed and picked apart all over the internet, but since The Walking Dead is one of the most discussed shows by fans and critics alike, it falls victim to over-saturation of coverage.

The Walking Dead has shown a distinct willingness to incite conversation around the show: Talking Dead, Walker Con, that stupid two-screen-experience, not to even mention the internet as a whole. In its effort to become the peak of Peak TV, it’s actually done itself a disservice, because all of this coverage (while fun for anyone who wants to luxuriate in the fandom) forces the show to shout over itself in an attempt to outdo the fanatical conjecture built around it.

It seems to me that it was in the effort of shouting that caused showrunner Scott Gimple to jump the shark. (Which, I believe, one day will also be called “dumpstering.”) And it’s what caused the second aforementioned problem: killing Glenn then waiting four episodes to announce that he, as everyone had surmised weeks prior, crawled under a dumpster and survived is simply the worst thing this show could have done. It may be cynical, but it’s not hard to imagine that the actual purpose for “killing” Glenn was just to generate even more buzz around the show.

Gimple himself acknowledges the buzz in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter after Glenn’s death: “Some of those theories could be correct. I read all sorts of things about this, and some of it is right and some of it is wrong. But I love that people are this passionate and engaged and are looking at this like a CSI thing. It’s incredible.”

Several weeks later after and when we’ve learned Glenn is alive, also with THR, his tune changes: “It was exciting to see the audience so keyed into it that it really became a big thing to people. The responses I got direct from fans seemed to be all very positive. But from a journalistic aspect, there was a disconnect … the two reactions I was getting were very different. … I don’t agree with the [loss of] credibility thing. That’s a very interesting way to look at it — that people are telling the audience how to watch the show and what to believe.”

Wrong. The audience is everyone watching the show, fan or journalist, and everyone is involved in the dialogue surrounding the show that the show itself helped create. So, Gimple, you simply can’t distinguish between the “fans who love what you do no matter what” and the “journalists who are anxious to tear down everything you do,” because more often than not the fan and the journalist are one and the same. In the latter of those interviews, he goes on to say that he believes the Glenn situation was “very much in line” with things they’ve done before. But regardless of Gimple’s audience member distinctions, it’s safe to say most people would agree that it’s not that someone died, as many characters have done on this show. It’s that they took the death back.

The larger consequence of dumpstering Glenn is that we can no longer accept any death that The Walking Dead presents. They’ve set the precedent that there’s now the possibility that a presumed dead character can be resurrected. But worse, the exhausting ordeal of experiencing Glenn’s demise, then waiting so long to see his actual fate, has made us weary of death. The very thing this show built itself upon is now going to work against it.

The four-minute clip ends with Head Ne’er-do-well pointing a pair of guns at Abraham and Sasha under the pretense that he has no problem offing anyone. As the score crescendos and the stakes are raised, are we really that concerned? After all, the show sliced an emotional gash into us at the sight of Glenn falling into a horde of walkers, and this wound was gaping for a month before it was hastily and cheaply stitched up. How susceptible will we be to future gashes, particularly ones for lesser characters, when we still have the scar from the first part of this season?

But just as you patiently waded through that metaphor, so will I through the back half of season six of The Walking Dead. There may be a larger consequence to Glenn’s dumpstering that I, the humble TV fan, cannot foresee. My frustrations come from a place that’s tremendously disappointed in a show that for five seasons could do no wrong by me. The internet fodder is one thing, and I’m self aware enough to recognize that I’m contributing to it now, but I’m wondering if I would have ever thought this way if the dumpstering had never occurred.

So what’s going to happen now that I know so much about Negan? Will I really be that shocked at his inhumanity? Will this show ever devastate me again, in the ways it used to, when it was poignant and meaningful? The mid-season premiere for season five was one of the single best episodes of a television show I’ve ever seen. Now that we’re days away from six’s mid-season premiere, I doubt we’ll ever feel the way we felt about Tyrese again.

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