“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.” – Winston Wolf, Pulp Fiction
The Walking Dead is an odd show. It gets crazy high ratings, but everyone seems to complain about it. No two fans can seem to agree on what episodes work. The show goes full steam ahead and does wall-to-wall action? Too shallow. The show slows down a bit and actually attempts some character work (as it’s done in the second half of its 4th season)? BORING. But the ratings remain great. Life in the apocalyptic Georgia forests goes on.
The show doesn’t scare me, I don’t particularly care about the fate of any of the characters, and even creative zombie killing is starting to wear on me. There’s only so many ways that you can splatter an unbelievably thin skull (it’s like cracking an egg at this point). The problem is, the show’s strength is the shallow stuff. Greg Nicotero does a tremendous job with the zombie makeup and effects. People watch this show to see zombies devour people and get eviscerated.
The people who make TWD seem to recognize this weakness, hence its attempt at character building in season 4. We’ve seen some flashbacks (and dreams that work like flashbacks). This is a convention that Lost used for years to help build characters up and give them a theme to build an episode around. People tired of it eventually, and Lost did go gimmicky with it after a while (the flash forwards were great, the flash sideways however…), but it was still a crucial part of the show and its characters.
The Walking Dead has mostly avoided that, due to following the lead of the comic book. Robert Kirkman had no interest (at first) on dwelling on characters’ pasts, as he had them constantly moving onward and forward. Television is a different beast though. There are budget limitations, and a greater need for character work.
Michonne, in particular, has been given some much-needed depth and might be the best character on the show at the moment. They have also found a little bit of room for humor. Moments like Carl triumphantly eating a giant container of pudding really help round out TWD. They save us from constant doom and gloom and teary-eyed philosophy.
Maybe all the bulk of this show needs to do is kill time and fill in the gaps between moments of action and horror. People hated season 2, but they loved the Sophia reveal and the big finale with Hershel’s farm burning to the ground. To put it another way, the main course is probably going to be good, but why can’t we enjoy the side dishes too? If the audience is going to be upset about what awful things happen to these characters, then the audience needs to forge a connection. TWD can only benefit from attempting better characterization. It’s never going to be Mad Men, but it doesn’t need to be.