I have a love/hate relationship with AMC’s The Walking Dead. The network recently announced plans for a spinoff series from their gory horror comic book adaptation, and if the original series’ ratings are any indication… it will be a hit.
I remember the day when the series was first announced. My excitement was CRAZY, and I immediately marked the occasion on my calendar (conveniently on Halloween night). I had never read the comics before, but I knew they were good. I also loved all things “Zombie”.
The pilot was gripping, and fully satisfied my need for an emotional apocalyptic story. If you had asked, I would have said that this show was going to be the next big thing; six seasons and a movie! I never would have guessed that I’d be right… and that I’d completely lose interest at the same time.
After two seasons of droll characters, minimal levels of zombie-fueled intensity, and a story that seemed to lack direction… I gave up on my favorite TV show. It was about a full year before I returned to Kirkman’s universe in the most unlikely of mediums: Telltale’s The Walking Dead, a videogame.
For those unfamiliar, Telltale Games is an independent digital publisher that specializes in interactive stories. Calling these products “video games”, however, is a bit misleading. Each of Telltale’s franchises sell their chapters as “Seasons” which are each divided into five “Episodes” released a few weeks apart. I usually describe a Telltale game as an “interactive television series” instead of a game. The finale episode of Telltale’s second season of TWD, titled: “No Going Back”, was released only a few weeks ago, and it made me weep like a preteen (GIRL) at a Justin Bieber concert… only in a sad way. A sadder way. I was sad. It’s sad.
Although the ratings for every iteration and deviation of Kirkman’s universe are high, Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead seems to receive the highest praise. After several recommendations, I purchased the game, and fell in love with it. It’s a flawless narrative experience that I recommend to anyone and everyone.
Having spent two seasons in the television series, and two in the Telltale series, I feel that I’m qualified to compare the two. So here are three things AMC would have to learn from Telltale in order to convince me to rejoin the horde.
1. KEEP IT THEMED
Both adaptations deal with several themes: humanity, religion, relationships, choice, survival, family, hope, innocence, etc. Unfortunately for AMC, Telltale’s story is much more streamlined, yielding stronger results.
Telltale’s first season features protagonist Lee Everett, a convicted murderer, with a 9-year-old girl named Clementine in his charge. The game is designed in such a way as to create an attachment between the player, as Lee, and Clementine. Even though we are controlling a fictional character, the illusion of interaction with Clementine feels very genuine, and her survival becomes just as important to our avatar, Lee, as it does to the audience (or the player). It helps that the voice acting is very strong, deepening the illusion of a relationship.
Clementine becomes Lee’s “spine”. In storytelling, a character’s “spine” is their “superobjective”, or their strongest desire that compels them through the narrative. Lee’s spine is to protect Clementine, and this spine guides Lee’s actions throughout the series. How Lee attempts to protect Clementine is up to the player, as the gameplay is structured around player choice, essentially a “choose your own adventure” structure. Regardless of the path any player chooses, the goal remains the same.
This superobjective is manifested in several ways; we keep Clem out of harms way… even if it means placing ourselves into it, we teach her how to use a gun, we cut her hair short to prevent Zombie’s from grabbing it, we can even choose to instill the ethics of survival or to teach her to value universal morality. Clementine grows up quickly, and it’s directly because of the player’s choices through our protagonist. While Lee is leading Clementine, Clementine is also affecting Lee. The more attached they become to each other, the more open they are with their pasts, their fears, and their hopes.
Lee is a massively underqualified father figure. He’s made huge mistakes, which, in our world, would immediately disqualify him from parenthood. This is the theme of Season 1: Paternity. Up until the very end, the entire story is about Lee and his relationship with Clementine.
Let’s compare Lee Everett to Sheriff Rick Grimes.
Rick opens AMC’s first season with an excellent spine: find his family. He is in the middle of a world he doesn’t understand, having been unconscious in a hospital for an unspecified amount of time. He returns home only to find the house abandoned… but he discovers clues, clues that indicate they fled the zombie horde. In short, there’s hope that they’re still alive. And thus our hero embarks on his quest!!!
…not three episodes later he finds his family.
This is halfway through the first season.
AMC’s first season was expensive to produce, so the network only purchased six episodes. With such a short season it shouldn’t have been too difficult to extend Rick’s spine to the final episode. This would have provided us with a first season that feels more “packaged”. When our character’s spine is resolved too early, it removes much of the emotional weight that would accompany it. What’s worse is that once Rick finds his family, he seems to lose any semblance of a spine. What is his goal? What do they do next? It’s difficult to pinpoint it beyond anything as simple as “survive”, but for a zombie story that’s not very creative… is it? Anyone and everyone want’s to survive, so why are we following this story?
The result is a season that lacks a theme. There is no real label we can attach to AMC’s first season. The subsequent season seemed to come a little closer, but there are too many themes this time, and they are split amongst too many characters. There’s sexuality (Glenn and Maggie), mortality (Hershel), familial bonds (Carol and Daryl), paternity (Rick and Carl), Marriage (Rick, Lori, Shane), etc.; and it can be a bit difficult to keep track of them all. It’s almost as if by having it all take place on one location, Hershel’s farm, AMC assumed that the multitude of subplots would be easier to follow. This is mistaking a constructed story for a crafted story. Every part of Telltale’s first seasonal narrative eventually comes back to Lee and Clementine; AMC’s narrative is all over the place.
2. MAKE EVERYTHING IMPORTANT
A close friend of mine once told me that a truly great film uses everything twice. If something weighty happens, but it’s never brought up again… it’s only filler. If something happens more than twice, it’s repetitive.
Both of Telltale’s seasons implement this storytelling tactic to great effect. At the end of the first season’s first episode, Lee Everett has to decide whether or not to permit a woman to commit suicide after a zombie bite. At the season’s finale, Lee has to choose whether or not to ask for the same treatment from his adopted daughter.
It doesn’t always have to be so literal though, and the second season uses foreshadowing with a more subtle approach. During the second season’s first episode, Clementine is alone. She stumbles upon a friendly dog who accompanies her as she scavenges for food. Although Clem and the Dog form a report, their relationship is cut short when the Dog attacks Clementine in order to steal food. In self-defense Clementine kicks the dog away, impaling it on some tent-poles. Clementine then must decide whether or not to put him out of his misery, or leave him to suffer. During the season finale, Clementine must decide whether or not to put a beloved companion, Kenny, out of his misery whilst he is in a fit of rage. Kenny is a danger to everyone around him, and he has a knife at the throat of another group member. Kenny is a mad dog, but he was a loyal dog to you. The player must then decide whether or not put Kenny down, just as they had to decide what to do with the mad dog.
By contrast, AMC’s the Walking Dead seems to be full of moments that just don’t matter to the story in any way. Rather, it’s a series of highlights, which are broken up by some droll soap-drama that slow the action as opposed to intensifying it.
Let’s dissect AMC’s second season. In the premiere, a child goes missing in the group. They spend half a season looking for her in the shelter of a nearby farm, only to discover that she was in the farm’s barn the entire time… already dead. There is some bickering over supplies and sexual drama until the finale. During the finale an enormous horde overwhelms the camp as the survivors flee in search of a new refuge.
We know that Rick and Shane are eventually going to have to talk through their differences, and we know that eventually we’ll be heartbroken to learn of the child’s fate… but it’s less satisfying when things just seem to happen at random from a result of circumstance.
Telltale’s series is wrapped up into a beautiful gift, whereas AMC’s series feels like it’s been improvised. Several of the AMC episodes are filled with incredibly superfluous horror sequences which, removed from the show, wouldn’t change any dynamics of the series.
The most odd of which is during the second season, when a heavy-set walker finds itself trapped in a well. The team agrees that they need to tie a rope around the zombies neck in order to remove it from the well, since killing the zombie would only pollute the water supply. For one thing, this has no thematic or narrative connection to any of our characters’ superobjectives… and secondly, it simply doesn’t make sense. A dead body in a well… has already polluted the well. Removing it without killing it won’t matter. Just ditch the well. It’s a silly scene, and completely insignificant to the story’s grander arc.
3. CREATE LIKEABLE CHARACTERS
This is, far and away, AMC’s The Walking Dead most common complaint. I had stopped watching the show by the time Lori died in Season 3, but I certainly knew it happened when my facebook feed was cluttered with “hallelujahs.” I felt the same way when Shane died, and I was praying for the death of Andrea and Carl through several episodes. There are a few diamonds in the rough, such as Dale, Glenn, Maggie, and Daryl… but the rest are either useless or boring… and that unfortunately includes our droll “goody-two-shoes” protagonist Rick Grimes.
Compare Rick, once again, to Lee Everett… a man convicted of murder whose now fathering a 9 year old orphan. He has a history, and most of it’s unknown to us. But he’s compassionate, kind, and endearing… unless you threaten those close to him. There’s an argument that takes place during the first episode of the first season regarding whether or not to kill a child who had potentially been bitten. If you choose to stand up for the child… Lee’s reaction is pretty scary. He’s certainly not a softie.
Let’s also compare AMC’s Carl, to Telltale’s Clementine. They are very similar in that they’re both children who’re in the progress of losing their innocence to a world gone crazy. The difference between the two is that Carl is a constant source of conflict without personality, whereas Clementine is a receptor of conflict who boasts a strong personality. She’s soft-hearted and weak, but she’s strong hearted and has the capacity for feats of bravery (especially in the second season). She even adds some significant humor to the story. Clementine is a character, and Carl is simply a plot device.
It’s very important to make sure that all your characters have more redeeming (or interesting!) qualities than negative ones, and give them a background that justifies those qualities. Creating a well-rounded and compelling character is difficult, but it’s especially important for villains. Shane was the group’s leader before Rick returned, but this doesn’t justify Shane’s power-hungry attitude throughout 16 episodes… even if it did, Shane has no positive qualities that encourage us to root for him, and no qualities which add intrigue to his character! None of his actions really come as a surprise, and his super objective is unclear, which prevents compelling drama from exisitng.
There’s a incredibly compelling villain in Telltale’s second season named Carver, voiced by the wonderful Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs). Carver has no redeeming qualities, but his character carries a strong presence into every situation. There’s no questions about it, Carver is ruthless, but his actions make sense. We understand his decision making process, and we fear the authority he commands in his totalitarian seat of power. In short, it’s difficult to predict Carver’s actions, but it’s certain that they will usually be horrifying, and are always justified by circumstance. Shane’s character seems to act at random, on occasion making logical decisions, and on occasion making strange ones… without a clear reason why. Carver wants to survive the apocalypse in a seat of authority. Shane wants to… sleep with Lori, I think?
Lily, the group’s acting leader in Telltale’s first season, often makes brash decisions based on her emotions. She is very similar to Shane in a lot of ways. Lily is also an emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted person. She watches her father’s face get smashed in, is responsible for divvying out an extremely meager supply of food rations every day (which she occasionally refuses for herself), and struggles to sleep at night. Lilly deals with a lot of personal and emotional garbage which transitions into her ability to effectively to lead the group. Lily also sacrifices her personal comfort for those around her. She’s selfless. This selflessness eventually causes her to “snap”, and murder a member of your group, for the good of the group. Even amidst this heated moment, it’s distressing to watch as Lily falls… completely betrayed by her own fear and exhaustion. She’s real. She’s authentic. Everyone in Telltale’s universe is.
AMC gave us Shane, Andrea, and Carl.
In conclusion… it ultimately comes down to creating a well-rounded experience. Telltale’s experience sets out with an objective… to make you feel the weight of parenthood during an apocalypse (Season 1), or how to deal with being a child whose lost their innocence (Season 2). Both seasons are an emotional rollercoaster. I can only describe AMC’s TWD as a soap opera occasionally interrupted by zombie action sequences. It’s certainly doing something right, as it’s one of AMC’s highest rated shows, but I think the new spinoff series ought to aim a little higher.
I believe that Telltale proved that the viewers want a story about zombies, but they need a story with heart.