On October 16th, AMC resumes the second season of its breakout hit, The Walking Dead, to much fanfare. Though the ratings for the first season were the highest in AMC’s history, the show was subjected to criticisms from fans and media alike, often with the complaint that the drama behind the scenes of the show was more compelling than what was portrayed onscreen. With writing shake-ups, deviations from the source material, and contention leading to the eventual departure of beloved showrunner Frank Darabont, coupled with the fact that viewers’ first taste of the zombies vs. survivors saga was a scant six episodes, season two represents, at best, a fresh start and, at worst, a “do or die” second chance to live up to expectations.
So what can The Walking Dead do better this time around?
Considering the lion’s share of the complaints about the program have stemmed from substandard writing, let’s start there. While the show certainly tells a rich story, and the effects and production values are beyond reproach (at least in this writer’s opinion), the weakest links have been incredibly wooden dialogue, heavy-handed exposition, and comically one-dimensional characters.
Fortunately, these are easier fixes than many other aspects of the show. A show will only be as compelling as its characters, who in this case…haven’t been. We began the first season with a cast of characters that were best described as “Sheriff’s Deputy,” “Deputy’s friend,” “wife and son,” “old guy,” “sister #1,” “sister #2,” “black dude,” and “Asian kid,” “redneck brother #1,” and “redneck brother #2.” Forgive me for omitting a few, but you get the idea. Ideally, as the season progressed, we were to be treated to a backstory and go beyond the most superficial descriptions.
It didn’t happen.
By the end of season one, we were short a sister, and a redneck was short a hand, but beyond that, we had no more knowledge about any character than we did when we began. The only compelling character study we got (and then only mildly so) was the scientist in the finale, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be turning up in season two.
I understand that six episodes is a small window in which to hit the ground running, engage a fickle audience on a as-then-still-unestablished network, and provide a decent story arc, but the lack of depth given to these characters is borderline negligent, especially considering how much time those characters spent just sitting around talking.
A longer season two and the establishment of a cohesive writing staff affords the producers the opportunity to tell us more about these characters. Sure, the masses don’t want exposition infringing on their bloody zombie warfare, but the greatest attribute of The Walking Dead is that it’s as much about the people as it is the situation. Without getting us to care about the survivors, the show is squandering its largest asset.
Then there’s the dialogue. Oh, that crappy dialogue. The solution here is more tactical than strategic. The dialogue throughout the first season was so-matter-of-fact and stereotypical that it almost feels like you’re rooting (or not) for cardboard cutouts, rather than people. Clearly, the first response here is simply “hire better writers,” but beyond that, the decision to reject Darabont’s impulse to simply farm out writing details to freelancers was a necessity to fix this problem. The same staff will become familiar with and take a sense of ownership in the characters in a way that freelance contributors never could. That said, they’ve still got a job to do, so let’s see if they’re up to the task.
The other outstanding issues with the show are largely contingent on the writing problems, so if the ship can be righted in that regard, my other complaints will largely disappear. For instance, even though the first season was only six episodes, the pacing was at times painfully slow. Sitting around camp. Sitting around the CDC. Sitting around camp again. These pauses can be used effectively to enrich the characters and give viewers a breather from the action (“Fly” in season three of Breaking Bad is a perfect example.) However, if the writers can’t get their house in order, the producers best move to a more action-oriented approach to the story, which would play to the shows gory strengths. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to this, but so far, the pauses in action have done little to progress the plot and have created neither sympathy nor empathy for the characters.
Similarly, the drama between the protagonists has fallen way short of the excitement created by “man vs. zombies.” We are all expecting Merle to come back, so let’s hope when he does, there’s a lot more to his character and conflict than we saw in the second and third episodes of season one.
Despite these criticisms, The Walking Dead is a good show that I enjoy more than I probably should. Season one proved it’s a long way from the potential created by both the source material and outstanding production design. I want The Walking Dead to be a great show, which is within reach, but this relies on some significant improvements. It’s the third-best show on AMC, and likely won’t crack the top two anytime soon, but it can do a lot better than it has with some pretty easy fixes.