One of the things about writing a book about zombies is that it becomes kind of necessary to keep up on the genre. In the five years since Theories of International Politics and Zombies came out, this wasn't too much of a burden: Read the occasional prestige zombie novel, watch the occasional bastardized film version of a zombie novel and watch The Walking Dead on AMC.
As that show's ratings have exploded, however, there has been the inevitable proliferation of spin-offs and homages, including AMC's Fear the Walking Dead and the CW's iZombie. And, well, it's getting a little more taxing to keep up on it all.
Fortunately, I think I've discovered a significant zombie life hack to cope with these rising demands: Stop watching the Walking Dead franchise.
The problem is not that either The Walking Dead (TWD) or Fear the Walking Dead (FtWD) is entirely without merit. The former has produced some interesting characters, particularly Melissa McBride's Carol.
The latter also has some talented actors, particularly Kim Dickens, Ruben Blades and Colman Domingo.
The problem with these shows is that they seem unable to escape a single, unrelenting theme: The post-apocalyptic world is a Hobbesian nightmare that forces surviving humans to evolve into nihilistic killing machines.
The first two seasons of TWD set up a personal and philosophical tension between leads Rick and Shane. The former thought it was possible to cooperate with others, and the latter thought it was necessary to embrace the horror. Well, Shane lost his personal battle with Rick but he's won the thematic war. The one thing The Walking Dead has excelled at in its six seasons has been to force every character that's survived into taking more and more brutal actions to continue to survive.
This evolution is logically inevitable given the show's central premises. The problem is that, in the end, there's increasingly little daylight between the main characters and the myriad baddies that the show has introduced. Any character who deviates from this type is usually the victim of a shocking death.
With that kind of thematic constraint, the showrunners have resorted to narrative shortcuts to move along the plot. Making Carol suddenly decide that she can't kill anymore, or having Rick careen between depression and overconfidence, or making five of the major characters decide to leave their base of operations without any plan whatsoever is ... problematic. As Washington Post contributor Sonny Bunch noted, the show is predictably cruel. Even the introduction of the latest Big Bad in last week's season six finale, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Negan, feels anti-climactic.
It's too bad, because every once in a while TWD hints at more interesting narrative directions. Last season, the integration of Rick's hardened group of survivors with Alexandria, Virginia's sheltered community could have been interesting - if, yet again, the show hadn't stacked the deck so heavily against the original Alexandrians.
This season, the emerging relationships between the main characters' redoubt, Alexandria, and other survivor communities offered the potential for other thematic notes to be played. Even Negan could have been a welcome exercise in post-apocalyptic state formation. But, as Bunch noted, " The Walking Dead is nothing if not cruel, to characters and audiences alike." Which means it's also predictable and therefore not a must-see.
As for Fear the Walking Dead, well, it's basically for people who like "The Walking Dead" with whinier and less-savvy characters. The idea of seeing how society actually fell apart when the dead started rising from the grave was an intriguing premise, but this show kinda botched that chance in its first season. This season of "FtWD" looks like a replay of TWD's Season 1, only at sea and with more millennials. The Daily Beast's Melissa Leon aptly summarizes the issues with Season 2's premiere, which aired Sunday night:
"Apart from the introduction of sea zombies (fun fact: they float), little else about Fear's fixations here distinguish it from its sister show. The same beaten-to-death, post-apocalyptic moral quandaries - is there room for kindness and generosity in a world ruled by fear? Is it possible to survive without killing fellow human beings? - begin to consume the characters of 'Fear,' the way they've obsessed Rick and Co. for six increasingly tedious seasons. The same overbearing nihilism also seems well on its way to infecting Fear, as it dwells on one tragedy then the next, relying on gore in the absence of story-built tension."
Indeed, the show's online Flight 462 has more interesting characters than FtWD. So yeah, I think I'm walking out of the Walking Dead franchise.
To be clear, I'm not giving up on the zombie genre entirely. Rob Thomas's iZombie has done something I was beginning to doubt was possible: It's given a fresh spin on the genre. By tweaking the rules of the zombie canon just a bit - i.e., not introducing the apocalypse within the first 10 minutes of the show - Thomas has created a complex, layered world with, you know, interesting characters and narrative arcs. The most enjoyable character on any zombie show on television right now is Rahul Kohli's Ravi, and it's telling that he simply couldn't exist as a viable character on either TWD or FtWD. So I'm looking forward to that program's season finale this week.
The arc of any zombie show will usually bend toward a nasty, brutish and realpolitik worldview. But there's an interesting way to get there and beyond, and there's a rote way to do it. I fear that TWD has gone rote.