‘The Walking Dead’ is suffering from AMC’s fiscal austerity: How to kill a good thing
Direct your gaze to fiscal austerity-era Greece. Survey the near-apocalyptic landscape of riots, tear gas, heavy weaponry, streets littered with debris, and tell me if it does not resemble the world of “The Walking Dead”? Extending that line of thought, let’s suppose that “The Walking Dead”—adapted from Robert Kirkman’s cultish comic—isn’t so much a graphic study in post-apocalyptica, but a keen satire of post-2007 global economics. Albeit unintentionally.
One of the great pleasures of journalism and, indeed, of writing in general, is to draw connections. To read a creative work as a doppelganger of social, political, religious or economic reality.
Frank Darabont, the writer and director of “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Mist”, amongst others, originally brought “The Walking Dead” to television with the help of AMC. Anyone who has seen The Mist will grant that Darabont, who seemed to have been inspired by “The Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” homed in on American religious fanaticism and terrorism. He also examined the way fear transposes itself into hysteria. It was a study in human baseness disguised as a Lovecraftian supernatural horror film.
That Darabont saw “The Walking Dead” as not only an opportunity to entertain but to satirize American and, indeed, global civilization seems certain. At least from my perspective. This is nothing new for the zombie genre, but that’s beside the point.
From a certain perspective it seems that Darabont and “The Walking Dead” writing staff sought to create a visual metaphor for humanity’s almost delusional efforts at control. In the series, that which is being controlled pre-apocalypse is irrelevant, really—it could be anything. Terror, disease, the planet’s ecosystem—make whatever readings of the show you like. The critique of control spills over into every episode of this post-apocalyptic world. Humans, so accustomed to an almost casual, non-Darwinian life, are thrust back into a Hobbesian state of nature.
But who knew Darabont’s ugly departure at the start of Season 2 (axed by AMC executives) would signal the emergence of yet another reality in these modern times: fiscal austerity.
Darabont’s complaint? Budget.
Season 1, a mere six episodes in length, was essentially one very long film. The first episode is one of the most riveting pieces of television I’ve ever seen. The interplay between Rick and Morgan—one a neophyte survivor, the other acclimated to post-apocalyptic life with son Duane —is excellent filmmaking. It was our point of entry into a disintegrated world. It is only in Episode 6, however, that the melancholy of “The Walking Dead’s” world comes into full bloom. Darabont accomplished this with a $3.4 million budget per episode over six episodes. The second season budget? $2.7 million per episode over 13 episodes.
There was an expansive scope to Season 1 despite its geographic limitations (a zombie apocalypse must necessarily make travel rather difficult). Early on it was life on the road for the survivors. We the viewers saw the silent, barren landscape through the characters’ eyes. Conveniently, Season 2 was one of settling down into sedentary life on Hershel’s farm, with occasional ventures outward to keep audiences interested. Narratively it was necessary for Rick and his compatriots to come upon Hershel’s land and attempt to re-establish civilization. At first. A safe haven needed to be found, even if fatigue was the primary motivation. But as the season wore on, and the search for Sophia became interminable, the series underwent narrative atrophy. This was, in my opinion, not born of any plot necessity but the direct result of AMC’s budgeting. Their fiscal austerity, if you will.
I cannot think of one reason why Sophia’s turn into a “walker” and climactic zombie assault on Hershel’s farm couldn’t have come mid-way through Season 2. The desire to have 50% indoors locations, as reported by ScreenRant, is visible throughout the season’s arc, with the rare exception (Shane’s medical supply run and Rick and Glenn’s rescue of Hershel). Many of the exteriors were likewise just outside the house. What the audience gets is not so much the best possible narrative, but one tailored to fit the cheapest budget.
This sort of cinematic fiscal austerity hardly made a dent in “The Walking Dead” fandom. The fans who complained over the tedium at the Hershel homestead were unknowingly bitching about AMC’s austerity cuts. As the world goes, so does to television industry, you might suggest? Hardly. Even in the worst of economic times, entertainment is the one area in which Americans will spend money. And as one of television’s highest rated shows, advertising slots should have been at a premium.
So where does this leave us as “The Walking Dead” Season 3 comes to a close?
It’s beyond argument, as far as I’m concerned, that the purgatorial stasis at the prison compound and Woodbury is further evidence of AMC’s fiscal ways. A belief perhaps that people can be expected to derive more from less; that if only more money can be pocketed, AMC will be the better for it. But this shouldn’t be interpreted as a broad criticism of AMC as a television studio (although that certainly is worth examining). In addition to “The Walking Dead,” AMC has given audiences “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”, collectively three of the best shows on television, with some of the most committed fan-bases on the planet. They are the envy of almost every TV channel/production company. But the actual creative forces behind these shows aren’t always treated as such.
Don’t take my word for it. Read Sons of Anarchy writer/executive producer Kurt Sutter’s critique of AMC, a response to the announcement that “The Walking Dead” showrunner Glen Mazarra would be leaving:
AMC is run by small-minded, bottom-line thinkers who have no appreciation or gratitude for the effort of it’s creative personnel. Time and time again we see events like what happened today with Glen Mazzara. They continue to disrespect writers, shit on their audience and bury their network. Mazzara took the work-in-progress that was “Walking Dead” and turned it into a viable TV show with a future. Without him, that future is dim. Showrunners are not development executives, we’re not cookiecutter douchebags that you plug into a preexisting model. TWD will suffer. Even Zombies need consistency. “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” will be gone soon. So will AMC. I hope their fucking stock takes a dive and the shareholders line up Sapan, Dolan and Collier and shit in their open hands. Cunts.
Rather eerily like complaints against the political and upper classes, is it not? Granted, Sutter wasn’t drawing an analogy here—I am. But the critique is very much the same.
Let’s not completely fixate on the negatives. With last night’s episode “Clear”, “The Walking Dead” fans were treated to a vacation. Rick, Carl and Michonne ventured outside the prison and Woodbury. Back in Rick and Carl’s hometown, we saw the pervasive evidence of an unraveling mind—Morgan (returning at last) had descended into grief-induced psychosis. Again, we got to see the scope of this post-apocalyptic world, however modestly. We may have laughed at the hitchhiker screaming for Rick to stop the car and give him a lift; but if we were truly thinking, we’d know that the episode’s writer, Scott Gimple (the new showrunner), was showing something else. In the world of “The Walking Dead”, what is very often most interesting is that which is found outside Rick or the Governor’s closed circles.
I can’t be certain of it, but it would seem that AMC spent a little bit more money on this episode than the others. That or the filmmakers are incredibly resourceful. Either way, “Clear” showed us, albeit ever so slightly, the world exterior to Rick and the Governor and how interesting it can be.
The show could work with a much larger geographical and narrative canvas. We’re told that the show’s writing and directing staff are trying to craft the most compelling stories for us. To a degree, that it is true. But what Kirkman, Glen Mazzara and new showrunner Gimple don’t say in interviews is that they are working within the limitations of AMC’s budget. This is nothing new: Hollywood is always concerned with the bottom line, unless the industry is force-feeding us the shittiest big budget abortions imaginable (“Transformers,” “Clash of the Titans”).
But the positive response to “Clear,” with its greater radius of action, to say nothing of Morgan’s reintroduction, should teach AMC a lesson. “The Walking Dead” is only as good as the expanding envelope of its vision. And perhaps they’ll have to break the bank a little bit to keep the fans, such as myself, coming back. That, or risk losing the audience and then the show.
After Sunday, they’ve got our attention. Now, can they keep it or will they kill it?