January 7, 2013

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If humanity is caught-up in a zombie apocalypse, surely the question that’s going to be at the forefront of our collective consciousness is: Can you ever make an arc-based television show that isn’t fundamentally a ridiculous soap opera?

Where is the line drawn between epic storytelling full of big themes like vengeance, ambition, duplicity, sex, valor, betrayal and sacrifice, and schmaltzy, lowest common denominator, emotionally manipulative script gimmickry?

It appears to be a subjective distinction since many of these themes are the cornerstone of Greek myths, Arthurian tales, Shakespearean plays or and even Bible stories. The ingredients of the great stories of our culture exactly the same as the ones that seem so trite and contrived in shows like The Walking Dead. Is the Rick/Lori/Shane love triangle any different from the Agamemnon/Clytemnestra/ Aegisthus triangle? Not really. And in the end, the tale plays out in classically tragic form—the usurper is vanquished and the hero is punished for his hubris.

So is it, then, the skill of the chef and not the ingredients which determines if an epic tale is a hearty, satisfying meal or a cheesy, stomach-turning and guilt-inducing indulgence? Perhaps.

The Walking Dead trowels every story-telling gimmick on as thick as possible and doesn’t shy away from the cliffhangers. There appears to be less of a recipe being followed as much as the larder being raided. Anything that’s the slightest bit sweet, salty or fatty that might keep the audience engrossed is tossed in a given a good stir.

The question is, could anything different be done on a television show based on long-arc storytelling? Arguably, Battlestar Galactica‘s strengths an weaknesses all stem from the show being a soap opera set in space. Without the “soap” aspect, it could only be a series of battles and firefights which would have gotten even more tiring (even more quickly) than it did over four seasons. The “soap” elements provide a human element to engage the viewer and help them stay invested in the story and the characters. At the same time, “soap” is like a drug. Each hit has to be a little stronger to achieve the same high and things inevitably spiral upwards until every possible sexual relationship has been explored and someone loses an eye.

But where BSG could perhaps have avoided a few of these pitfalls, could anything other than soap opera melodramatics be done with The Walking Dead?

I’m drawing a blank for possible narrative alternatives. Other than raiding yet another abandoned drug store for supplies and endless waves of zombie attacks (there, frankly, needs to be more of these) what’s left for the characters to do but draw alliances, betray each other, manipulate the situation, grasp for power and plot revenge along the way? Remove the sex and duplicity and it’d be The Endlessly Walking Living show and that’d be arguably a lot worse. Or at least a lot more boring.

I’ll take “soap” over boring any day.

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