AMC’s The Walking Dead is a show that does one thing right. It kills spectacularly special effects-laden zombies in gruesomely awesome ways. It scrimps on everything else; writing, acting, character development, and any semblance of a plot. And that’s okay. Walking Dead is entertaining, and I mean that sincerely, in a SyFy Channel original movie sort of way. At its Season 3 best, when we see the show’s protagonists running around a near deserted prison killing dozens upon dozens of prison guard and inmate zombies, Dead is a SyFy movie extended out to three seasons. It’s the undead long version (or is it the long undead version?) of Supergator vs Dinocroc, or Ice Spiders, or Hydra. The only difference between Walking Dead and the typical SyFy movie is that a SyFy movie knows it is about mutated giant spiders or humongous man eating gators, whereas Walking Dead, with an almost blissfully complete lack of self awareness, tries to be a show with deeper meaning. It thinks it’s a show that’s Not Really About Zombies, but as the dreadfully awful Season 2 at the farm showed, Walking Dead is only watchable insofar as it shirks the character development it’s not capable of anyway and sticks with the gory zombies alternately eating humans and being gruesomely destroyed by humans.
The show fails as serious drama because the writing and the cast are thoroughly reprehensibly bad, starting with lead actor Andrew Lincoln, who plays main protagonist Rick Grimes. Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC’s masterpieces, struck gold with Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston as their leading men. Don Draper and Walter White may not be good persons, but, thanks to Hamm and Cranston, they are compelling characters that often simultaneously repulse and intrigue. (Yet far more people watch Walking Dead than either Mad Men or Breaking Bad. As Grantland’s Andy Greenwald says, “It’s proof that heady adult dramas will always lose out to dramas in which adults literally lose their heads.”) Unfortunately for Walking Dead, Andrew Lincoln’s acting is deader than Abraham Lincoln’s body after a night at the theater. Rick is the show’s ostensible moral center, yet he carries no emotional resonance. He is not believable as the leader of the group of survivors. His numerous “we need to stick together” speeches are cringe inducing and laughably awful (and he’s turning his son Carl into a future serial killer). During a pivotal scene where Rick meets Season 3’s main antagonist Governor Eyepatch, the leader of a competing gang of zombie apocalypse survivors, and himself a stock cartoon villain who keeps the heads of dead zombies (or are they heads of dead people? live zombies?) in water filled jars, the conversation literally goes as follows: “You’re the governor.” “You’re Rick.” “We have a lot to talk about.”
The first two seasons are largely spent with Rick in his permanently stern and constipated look, thanks to his simmering anger at Lori, his wife, and Shane, his best friend, for sleeping together, even though Rick, like the viewing audience, never seemed to like Lori anyway, and at the time of said cuckoldry both Lori and Shane had thought Rick was dead. While Rick’s facial expressions and voice tone never change, the internal consistency of the Walking Dead universe is ever fluid; one moment, Rick and the gang will walk past a landscape strewn with dead bodies, until Shane dies in Season 2, then every dead person reanimates as a zombie and must be shot in the head, not just the bitten. The only ironclad rule in the Walking Dead universe seems to be that just one black male character may be alive at a time. (Poor T-Dogg!)
But I’ve done enough complaining. Walking Dead has figured out that Americans like zombies, especially zombies being dismembered and decapitated. Walking Dead has figured out that Americans like seeing wooden characters get eaten by zombies like termites eating a rotted log. I just can’t decide if I want the Walking Dead writers to accept the fact that they are stuck with Andrew Lincoln, not Jon Hamm or Bryan Cranston, and go the full SyFy self aware route, or if I want the Dead writers to keep playing it straight with the deluded belief that they are producing actual drama. Either way, I’ll be watching and laughing at intentional comedy, if it’s the former, or at unintentional comedy, if it’s the later.