Television series are an interesting medium for storytelling because there’s a forced delay for their release, yet a story that goes on and on for years. In my experience what allows audiences to continue being invested is the characters that stay with us, with whom we experience the plot, and who react honestly despite cliffhangers, summer breaks, and other contrived interferences. It allows us to believe events are really ongoing, and we want to believe.
In my lifetime of watching, there have been a few beloved stories that went entirely off the rails. I can usually pin it down to the writers (or whoever makes the decisions) choosing to force plot despite, rather than because of, their characters.
Bones, a quirky crime drama based on Kathy Reich’s books, achieved this in an early series by revealing that one of the main characters was actually working for a Big Bad, and had been for months. It was such a revelation that even the actor claimed he didn’t know ahead of time. The writers just wanted some conflict to shake up the team. In doing this they destroyed their credibility in writing stories about the remaining characters, who as far as audiences knew could turn at any time “because it was interesting.”
The X-Files is notorious for this, replacing Mulder when David Duchovny’s contract was finished. Die-hard fans (like me) held on and accepted Agent Doggett as a temporary alternative, but there isn’t a fan alive who claims the series finished as well as it started. Great characters are not interchangeable in this way.
JJ Abrams lately of Star Trek and Star Wars fame may well be the God of Ruining Good Things for how he structures his television shows. In both Lost and Fringe he presented us with fantastic, lovable and hateable characters who navigated fascinating plots for years, and were then shoved forward in time when the plot demanded quickening. This left us scrambling to fill the gaps in our knowledge of their lives and motivations and pick up the pieces of what might have been an exciting ride. But why weren’t we along for the ride?
All this discussion brings us to The Walking Dead, and from here on in there will be spoilers. Seriously.
In future when it’s discussed no doubt the showrunners and writers will admit the season 7 premiere was a gamble. 40 minutes of suspense and monologue, with multiple deaths, including one character who’d been with us since the beginning. Death isn’t unusual on the show, even with important characters, but consider how it was presented in this episode: drawn out, brutal, and gory. Extraordinarily cruel. This was intentional, first to align with the comic book, and also to set the stage for a new season that includes a villain who makes The Governor seem mild.
We can look at the source material, the comic book, for a clue as to what went wrong. Although the same character dies in the same way, it’s not a five minute 2-for-1 the way it is in this episode. Additionally, that’s a comic book and not a live action hour where the audience is jerked around through time via one stunned character’s memories and fears. You can choose to keep reading a comic issue right through, and haven’t necessarily waited months to find out Oooh, who’s going to die? played up as much as possible by AMC. So although the details are the same, the presentation is not. In the comics, this was a tragic death, one of many. But the television episode was created to make its audience feel tense, uncomfortable, and bad, without relief, for as long as it played, and then longer. Was that really done to serve the characters and their real motivations? Or simply to propel the plot of a stagnating television series at least one more season?
Somewhere, a script writer is high-fiving their buddy about a job well done. Unfortunately their success has a price, which is this audience now understands they aren’t watching their well-known characters react to the situation, but puppets kneeling silent while a contrived situation unfolds to make the plot go further. In my opinion, this was a failure.