Finding Hope During the Zombie Apocalypse: Nielson Ratings for The Walking Dead
Last weekend, The Walking Dead wrapped up the first half of its third season- I've only finished season 2, so no spoilers, please.[ref] And if anyone knows a way to (legally) watch season 3 online, please let me know.[/ref] According to The A.V. Club, the ratings for that midseason finale were good- really good. Its numbers were on par with a show airing on one of main broadcast networks, almost unheard of for a cable show. This got me thinking.
While I've been going through seasons 1 and 2, I've been reading Zack Handlen's reviews of each episode here. While Zack and I enjoy the show, I agree with most of the criticisms he describes as well. It's not an occasional bad episode here and there, but the way the overall stories are structured. It often feels like the plot circles around the same crises over and over again, as if the characters want desperately to move on to something new, but the writers are always saying, Stay where you are!
The characters have their problems as well- there's a few we focus on the most (Rick, Laurie, Shane), and others are so underused I think they've been forgotten about. (Seriously, did T-Dog have anything to do in season 2?) Other times, characters will behave in ways that are inconsistent with what they've done before, or dumb enough to warrant a facepalm. (Lori's car ride in Nebraska was one of those for me.)
There are lots of other shows that have covered similar territory and not had the same problems- Battlestar Galactica and LOST spring most readily to mind. But were trying different things: BSG poses a question at the end of its first episode- will the human survivors eventually find Earth? Putting aside day-to-day threats, like the Cylons, this quest is always there, acting as the backbone of the series. TWD doesn't really have the same things- everyone's mission is just to survive until tomorrow.[ref] The show that The Walking Dead most closely resembles, to me, is probably Jericho, about a small mid-western town dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. But it was canceled- due to low ratings. Or rather, it posted similar ratings to TWD, but on CBS.[/ref]
LOST has a neat format where each episode has a flashback[ref] At first... [/ref] B-story focusing on one of the characters before[ref] Sort of... [/ref] they crashed on The Island. By the end of seven seasons, we've gotten to know each of them intimately, much more than we know lead characters like Rick and Shane.
None of these problems makes the show unwatchable- we still have some gnarly zombie kills, and if you ask me, Bear McCreary's theme song alone is worth the price of admission. In addition, the writers do seem to be moving things in the right direction, especially in the second half of season 2.[ref] And from what I hear of season 3, it gets even better.[/ref]
But character and plot issues are the kinds of things that should drive viewers away in droves. If your story is too serialized, people may not watch because they're not caught up. If your characters are bad, they won't watch because they don't care. Yet The Walking Dead has always had good ratings. AMC ordered season 3 after only first few episodes of season 2 had aired. So my question is, Why?
If I were to pick one problem that should be the biggest hurdle for a mainstream audience, it's the slow pacing of each season. This, we are told by our screenwriting manuals, is a cardinal sin: Never bore your audience. And yet people don't seem to mind it. Even if they just came to see a stumbling corpse get a pick axe through the brain, they're still watching. Perhaps they're feeding off the lulls created by the slow pace, which make the zombie attacks even more exciting.[ref] If there's anything I think we can all agree on, it's that The Walking Dead does not skimp on its zombie attacks. Bravo. [/ref]
This, oddly enough, gives me hope. While I know many shows garner millions of viewers while peddling to the lowest common denominator, The Walking Dead is not doing that. It's trying to be smart and sophisticated, and it's got a huge audience in spite of its flaws. And if The Walking Dead can have a slow, thoughtful pace, then so can the things I make.
At least on cable.
P.S. If you haven't seen this already, check out this video, where a guy with the handle Artificial Fear does a kickass heavy metal cover of Bear McCreary's title track.