Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why I Watch The Walking Dead
How strange that such a benign show should prove so divisive. It seems odd to me that the program should inspire such a vociferous reaction on the part of its critics - who are seemingly legion - all of whom see the inexplicable success of The Walking Dead as some sort of referendum on the death of American high culture. Which is an exaggeration, but no more so than any of these breathless denunciations.

I admit I'm baffled, and it occurs to me that a large part of my bemusement in this matter might stem from a pure disconnect with whatever passes for critical consensus in contemporary television. I'm not a snob: I watch TV. I like watching good TV, and there's a fair amount of it these days. What there is not, at least not in my opinion, is good television drama. I am of the belief - built on years of observation and careful consideration - that America has lost the ability to produce effective drama. I haven't seen but a handful of American drama films in the last five years that haven't made me cringe - either because of bad acting, poor writing, simple childishness, or the general air of vapidity that has come to infect almost every attempt to produce "serious" stories in contemporary America. We are supposedly in the midst - or, at least, have just emerged from - a "Golden Age" of television drama, of which the supposed zenith (The Sopranos) was an amiable enough example of middlebrow entertainment, but by no stretch of the imagination any kind of great achievement. The Sopranos is only a great show in the context of all the terrible shows it succeeded, and I suppose it is to the show's credit that it has spawned a number of halfway decent imitators. But seriously, folks: if you think The Sopranos is a great and meaningful work of art, my suggestion is that you read a God-damned book once in a while.

If that sounds confrontational? Good. I'm not speaking from ignorance here: I sat through every episode of The Sopranos - every plot twist, mini-epiphany, and fizzled character arc. I grew attached to the characters out of inertia more than anything else, more the result of spending dozens of hours with appealing performers than any elevated quality of the material itself. And just that statement points towards exactly why American drama - both television and film - usually fails: the mediums are filled with performers, not actors. If that seems like a pedantic distinction, well, it probably is. But I can't take drama seriously if the actors are mugging like idiots - the unearned self-satisfaction of the drama-camp tyros on Mad Men seems barely distinguishable from something you might expect to see on Glee.

So, yes: the undercurrent behind so much of the criticism leveled against The Walking Dead is that it's a "terrible" show, as if being a poor show (as opposed to "merely" an entertaining show) is somehow a sin. It's predicated on an inflated overestimation of the mean quality of televised drama over the last 10-15 years. It doesn't help that The Walking Dead consistently sets viewership records, whereas critical darling Mad Men - and was there ever a more profoundly overpraised show? - gets all-time best ratings by pulling in a scant 1/3 the viewership of The Walking Dead. Well, gosh-dang, isn't that a shame?

People say the acting on The Walking Dead is terrible, but I honestly can't see it. How is the acting on that show any different than the violent scenery-chewing that passes for profound acting on any other overpraised basic cable television show? I'm not trying to be contrary here, I promise: I honestly can't tell how the acting on The Walking Dead is significantly worse than the acting on Mad Men. At least on The Walking Dead I'm not often pulled out of the show by moments of hammy "little kids walking around in their parents clothes" off-Broadway amateur hour emoting. I can readily believe that the folks on The Walking Dead are desperately scared rednecks wandering around the backwoods of Georgia trying not to get eaten, not contemporary actors pretending to look snazzy in their parents' clothing.

I grew up in hick towns in Northern California - far north, just south of Oregon. The parts of California that most people don't even realize exists, way out in the middle of nowhere. The types of places where Confederate flag bumper stickers are a regular sight, usually attached to pickup trucks with gun racks. (And, yeah, obviously California was never part of the Confederacy, I am very well aware of that delicious little piece of irony.) I also lived in Oklahoma for a few years. So I know from "Good Ol' Boys" even if I've never lived in the deep South of Georgia. And one of the things that show gets exactly right - in my estimation - is its evocation of Good Ol' Boy attitudes and behaviors. This isn't an element of the show I've seen discussed often, but the setting is absolutely crucial to the show's drama. It would be an entirely different story if it were set in Southern California, or New England, or Northeast Ohio, or the wilds of Montana. But no: it's set in rural Georgia, the land of Good Ol' Boys and proud self-proclaimed rednecks. And the characters who comprise the show's main cast are by no stretch of the imagination great intellectuals: a couple small-town police officers, a couple lowlifes, some homemakers, a few assorted nobodies. Not a single strategic thinker among them. There's a lawyer who spent most of the first season and much of the second trying not to kill herself. A veterinarian. They're not that smart, they're not that dumb, they're just normal everyday people. Walking cliches? No more than your average Good Ol' Boy. It's a definite type, and furthermore a type to which the self-identifying exemplars enthusiastically conform. I can't help but wonder if there isn't something of a class element in much of the criticism of the show - instead of upper-middle-class WASPS, we're down in the deep south with poor whites and - gasp! - people who actually own guns.

People criticize the show for the fact that the characters consistently act like idiots - well, yeah, I believe that. The show wouldn't really be the same story if it was filled with people who knew what was going on and acted appropriately in all situations - most people, when push comes to shove, just aren't that good in an emergency. And the situation we're given on this show is nothing if not a long, never-ending emergency, the kind of situation that frays your nerves and demolishes your resolve over long periods of time. As annoying as it might seem, it's refreshing to see a story where people so consistently do the wrong things: we're all so used to seeing movies and reading books where people always know what to do that the sensation of seeing people who do stupid things on purpose seems almost radical. Genre fiction especially is held in the sway of the cult of competence: no one likes to read adventure fiction starring idiots. People like to identify with fantasies of extreme competence, we like to believe deep in some part of our brain that if we were put in that situation - whatever it may be, dodging zombies, fighting aliens, racing cars down crowded city streets - we'd know just what to do. In reality, we wouldn't. Fight or flight doesn't always work to our benefit. It's not the same thing as stupid teenagers in a slasher film making the stupid decision to go back in the house instead of just running down the street as fast as they can - it's people in life-or-death situations presented with bad options who make the worst possible decision because they're tired, they're sick, they're worried half to death, they're operating on incomplete information. They get worn down and they die because they make stupid mistakes.

A few years back in class a professor passed out in front of me. I was sitting in the front row and he sat down on the table behind him and just sort of nodded off, faded slowly onto the floor, before he could even finish saying, "I don't feel so good." Everyone else around me stood up like a bolt and ran to his side, but I was rooted to my seat - I couldn't do anything. I felt a little bit faint myself, truth be told. No one at all cared about what I was doing, no one noticed, but I had just sat there while this guy keeled over right in front of me - I felt like a rank coward. I used to work a stressful job that required constant alertness and - very occasionally - split-second decisions and actual physical reflexes. (That was when I worked in the mental hospital, dealing with occasionally violent patients.) I was good at my job. But that was because it was my job, I could deal with it, I walked into the building and I was "on," ready to do these things for which I was paid. But when my professor passed out on the ground three feet in front of me? I didn't do a damn thing. That was just life - and sometimes when unexpected and stressful things happen in life you just sit there with your thumb in your ass. Sometimes we just aren't as good at dealing with surprises as we think we are.

The point is precisely that these people have been put in an impossible situation that requires every iota of their intelligence and skill to survive, and they just aren't prepared to - and, more to the point, aren't able to perform at this level of constant stress. And as much as we, the audience, sitting at home would like to believe that we would do better, it's important to note that every stupid mistake made on this show is made in an air of either vague or definite panic. No one gets to make plans, the best they can hope is to be able to recover from unforced errors. Usually they can't. Whenever the attempt is made to deliberate problems in a calm and rational manner, the process is usually overwhelmed by strong personalities with definite agendas, agendas influenced at least in part by the fact that the constant stress of unreal pressure is causing them to crack ever so surely. Those that survive - and we know that some will survive - will learn to do better. The stupid will die off, the smart will learn from their mistakes - just like people in warzones do, or people running from ethnic cleansing or civil war.

And this, ultimately, is what I find so compelling about The Walking Dead: more than just about any show on TV right now, it is about right now, the moment in which we are currently living. In case you haven't noticed, everything is falling apart right outside your window. Large swaths of people have lost confidence in all levels of contemporary society - you can't turn on the news without seeing further proof of the deepening political, economic, environmental, and psychological crises at the heart of modern life. Oh, wait, excuse me, if you turn on the TV what you really see is a bunch of talking heads and millionaire entertainers whistling past the graveyard of rapidly crumbling western civilization, with massively rich playboys running for president who might as well be speaking Swahili for all their words hold any relevance to the life that is being lived (endured?) on the ground not just across the country but across the world.

 So what zombie shows like The Walking Dead - and Armageddon fantasies in general - actually offer is a way out. This is something demagogues have understood for thousands of years: the idea of immanent disaster, a final tally, closing of accounts, confrontation between good & evil, holds immense appeal for people who feel completely trapped and helpless in their own lives. As strange as it may seem, the end of the world is an empowering fantasy: if everything you take for granted about the world you live in and the life you live suddenly disappeared, if there were no rules, well, you'd have the freedom to do anything you wanted, wouldn't you? Sure, you'd be scared and running for your life and probably wouldn't be able to think straight because you couldn't close your eyes without seeing the faces of all the loved ones you left behind to be eaten, but you'd be on your own with no one responsible for your life but yourself. (Putting aside the fact that these kinds of "end of the world" scenarios actually do happen and have happened across the planet with depressing regularity - hell, are currently happening as we speak in far-off lands we only hear about on late night BBC World Service broadcast.)

Because - here's the thing - the modern condition is one of abject helplessness. People know things aren't going well. Although people across the spectrum disagree and the hows and the whys, there is a broad consensus among a surprisingly diverse array of interests that things are falling apart. Debt levels keep rising higher and higher - and, yes, that bothers the far left just as much as the far right, but for entirely different reasons. Summers and winters are weird now. The lockstep advance of corporate and bio-political coercive power continues unabated. Politics as we know it is essentially a null category and even people who still line up their ballot to vote for the right-center rats over the even-further-right rats are aware of this fact.

The difference is that the crises and emergencies we encounter in our daily lives have no immediate cause. We can't shoot "capitalism" in the face; we can't fire a crossbow shaft through "democracy" or "liberal consensus"; we can't take out "student loan debt" at the knees or run over "environmental degradation" with a truck. Action to change the world around us is long and arduous, and the forces arrayed against even the most gossamer possibilities of substantive change are truly formidable. How much better to imagine a fantasy wherein real actions do matter, where all politics have been radically reduced to local action - nothing is more local than the space between a barn and a farmhouse. What if you were in a life-or-death situation where what you - you personally - did actually mattered? You know, as opposed to the real life-or-death situation we're all in now when even the concerted effort of millions of people across the planet can't even dent the stalwart opposition of multinational corporations and banking conglomerates. Just like now, as many people feel helpless and frightened as feel active and empowered. The difference is that it's so much easier to understand just why the world is falling apart when zombies have killed 99% of the population, as opposed to now when our real enemies are not individual or even collective people but systems, vast dysfunctional "isms" whose collective death grip threatens to strangle the planet nigh unto asphyxiation.

You could say that the zombie plague genre - long since having surpassed its status as a micro-genre and having grown into a significant and lasting fixture on the pop-culture landscape - has become for the 21st century American psyche what the Western genre was to that of the 19th and 20th. I say this not necessarily as a die-hard fan of the genre: it's very rarely done well, it's prone to a lot of in-jokey silliness, and it's just as formulaic - if not moreso - as westerns were in John Wayne's heyday. But bear with me: the western was a genre of hope and national triumphalism, the endlessly reiterated story of strong individuals making their way through a chaotic landscape, creating order through strength and wit, carrying the "virtues" of civilization in the wake of the gunslinger. At the core of the western was either the implicit or explicit promise of manifest destiny, the understanding that the fantasy of the untamed west had receded into the pages of history books, because the west had been tamed, the wilderness had been mapped, the savages definitively routed. This has been the explicit subject matter of the most significant "revisionist" westerns of recent years - Unforgiven, Deadwood, almost Cormac McCarthy's entire oeuvre.

The flip side of this is the zombie apocalypse (and it's worth noting that McCarthy produced his own end-of-the-world tale - if not exactly a zombie story - with The Road). Instead of inherently hopeful, the zombie apocalypse is inherently pessimistic. There is no longer the promise of immanent civilization, a political and social order made possible by the exertions of stolid and courageous individualists. Civilization is gone. Instead of cowboys leading wagon trains in advance of the coming expansion of the commonwealth, you've got small bands of survivors fleeing the ruins of cities and towns - what were once the great symbols of progress are now the infested warrens of cannibalistic killers. The only chance for heroism is survival. Rome has fallen, and those poor bands of stragglers left to huddle together for warmth can't look to the east for the sudden arrival of horse cavalry to save the day. It's a profoundly, sickeningly hopeless myth, eschatological pornography, inherently humorless and implacable.

Is The Walking Dead a great show? Perhaps not. It strains against the limits of hour-long television production. The performers are game and the stories are certainly timely but there is doubt whether or not the formula - which, if the show follows the book, will prove crushingly fatalistic and inescapably depressing over the long run, with no solution or resolution in sight or ever provided - will prove tiresome over the course of however many seasons the series will run. For the moment, it succeeds because it has caught the updraft of a definite mood - a certain vein of crushing despair welling up under the facade of a soft recovery, the indeterminate knowledge that even if it feels like things might be getting better, the augers of future hardship simply don't lie. For now the audience seems to relish the slow suffocation and gradual whittling of the main cast. We'll see how things stand when the show is on season eight and the characters have turned into hardened killers with thousand-yard stares. The inherent humorlessness of the show is a necessary concession to the source material, but already the show veers towards sententiousness and self-parody. But if you accept that the show will always be deathly serious, there are also moments of profound beauty livened by the never-dissipating atmosphere of existential dread.

Horror is customarily a finite genre - you will have to look hard for example of horror fiction that can be successfully sustained in serial format. If the villain / monster / menace can't be dispatched at the end of the movie, well, what is left? The sense of cathartic release one customarily expects to find at the conclusion of a horror narrative never arrives, replaced with a hard, grinding anxiety elicited by the certainty that the threat remains unvanquished, unvanquishable. We never get to see these people enjoy a moment of hard-won peace, it's just one damn thing after another, nauseous uncertainty punctuated by recurring moments of blinding white-hot terror. Is it any wonder that the characters on this show walk around half in a daze, unable to think straight, making mistake after mistake? You would too, if you were in a horror story from which you couldn't wake up and from which there was no promise of release - oh wait, you already are.

1 comment :

EmmaWK said...

What happened to the professor? I need to know!