Sorry, ‘The Walking Dead’ Will Never Be As Good As the Comics
With 'The Walking Dead' returning for the second half of its fourth season, I decided it was time to revisit the Image comic book series that inspired the show in the first place. What I found was inconsistent, talky, often wooden and frequently uneventful. What I found was also compelling in spite of itself and superior to its TV adaptation in virtually every way. As a comic, 'The Walking Dead' is flawed but hugely entertaining. As a show, 'The Walking Dead' is broken and needs to be completely retooled.
Last year, I wrote on the things that the TV version of 'The Walking Dead' needed to fix. When the new season premiered, it became immediately obvious that producers had fixed nothing and that, somehow, the show's deep-rooted problems had actually gotten worse. And like that, any love I had for 'The Walking Dead' vanished.
Until now. I genuinely think Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's comic book series is fantastic, worthy of its success and actually accomplishes what the show fails to do. In fact, the comic actually showcases solutions to almost each and every one of the show's weaknesses. With Kirkman so heavily involved in the production of the show, why didn't he literally take a page from his own book?
The basic conceit of the show and comic series are identical: Sheriff Rick Grimes and his family struggle to survive in the zombie apocalypse and unlike the typical zombie story, we get to see what happens before and after your typical movie plot. Like the show, the comic features a massive cast of broadly drawn characters, wooden dialogue and a penchant for extreme violence that often involves series regulars having truly awful and blood-curdling things happening to them (the lucky ones die quickly). It just all comes down to execution.
The show is just a bunch of bland people walking in circles, occasionally interrupted by a head-stabbing or a zombie bite.
Let's start with a common criticism of both the comic and show: the suggestion that "nothing happens" in any given episode or issue. This is a fair criticism. Both iterations of 'The Walking Dead' are infamous for their long stretches of uneventfulness, but the big difference is how this is portrayed in their respective mediums. If the characters in the comic have a peaceful few weeks, Kirkman and Adlard dive into the minutiae of post-apocalyptic living. Characters make plans and discuss the nitty-gritty details of their daily activities. Things that would be downright boring when condensed to a few conversations of precious TV screentime are strangely fascinating on the page. With all the time and space in the world, the comic finds things both beautiful and sinister in a slow story arc. Sure, this means the comic can suffer a little when read month-to-month, but when read collected (as most people do), it has the detail and pace of a terrific novel.
These little things, these quiet moments, land on television with a thud. The very nature of television writing means that we can't spend five minutes talking about anything mundane, so the day-in-the-life viewpoint that makes the comic so compelling is replaced by a false sense of urgency. Even when nothing is happening, the show acts like it's in a hurry. It all feels so lost in translation.
Kirkman said he set out to make a zombie story that keeps on going after the typical movie would have ended and comic actually feels that way. When the characters escape from a disastrous and seemingly climactic situation, the series revels in examining how the survivors piece it back together in excruciating detail. The show glosses over all of this to save time, while simultaneously taking its sweet time. AMC's 'The Walking Dead' wants to have its cake and eat it, too. In other words, it's boring.
The comic and the show also share another huge negative in their broad characterization and expository dialogue and to be fair, this is where even the most ardent comic book defender may have to shrug his shoulders and admit defeat. Subtext and subtlety simply do not exist in Kirkman's world and characters continuously speak their minds, stating the obvious and saying in a hundred words what one, word-balloon-free action would have made clear. It's a problem, but at least when these talkative, unsubtle characters start rambling, we know who they are.
The characters on the show are, after four seasons, still thinly sketched caricatures at best. What is Rick other than determined? What is Glen other than "the nice guy"? What is Carl other than the kid with the big dumb hat? In the comics, I've seen Rick and his crew actually go on a real emotional journey. I've seen them grow, change and deteriorate. Sure, they always made their thoughts and opinions 100% clear and Kirkman never met a point he didn't want to drive home with a sledgehammer, but these flaws are far more forgivable than the sins of the show. The comic offers simple and easy characters, but the show offers blank ciphers. Even after a massive mental breakdown, the AMC Rick Grimes is still pretty much the same guy that he was in episode one.
We can probably lay this at the feet of the show's frequent behind-the-scenes problems and showrunner revolving door. A TV show requires a steady hand and consistent voice. With three people running this thing over four years, no one has lasted long enough to give the show and its characters a clear, consistent voice.
But, let's address the statement proposed at the top of this article. Even if the show improved, it still would have a hard time matching up to its source material for one major reason and, sadly, it's not something that can be fixed with better writing or characters who are worth a damn. The comic's greatest attribute (and the reason it can live up to its grand mission statement in the first place) is its unlimited scope.
While the show is hamstrung in every episode by what's possible on a TV budget, the comic can imagine sequences that would be too expensive for a blockbuster movie. It can go anywhere and do anything -- it's limited only by what Kirkman can think up and what Adlard can draw. He may not be able to string together dialogue as well as many of his peers, but Kirkman has one incredible imagination and a keen sense of plotting. With 100% control of everything that happens in every panel, he makes up for any of the weaknesses we've talked about by delivering a zombie soap opera that's simply unparalleled. On the page, there's an innate grandness to 'The Walking Dead.' It's an epic in the truest sense of the word.
In the show, the characters go to a place, hang around the place for a season and move on. When they do move on, they tend to stick to similar-looking roads that are really easy to find and shoot on in Georgia. It's not the show's fault that it can't capture the grandeur of the comic, but it is at fault for not compensating in other vital areas. The comic of 'The Walking Dead' is an enthralling story with occasionally lousy dialogue that wins us over with sheer grandiosity and nerve. The show of 'The Walking Dead' is a bad TV show that feels tiny and cheap.
Like a good soap opera, I'm truly addicted to the world of the comic and can justify my enjoyment even in the darkest moments. Like a bad soap opera, the show is just a bunch of bland people walking in circles, occasionally interrupted by a head-stabbing or a zombie bite. There's nothing wrong with liking junk, but when why settle for bad junk when there's great junk readily available?