The Decision That Doomed THE WALKING DEAD to Mediocrity

What if they'd gone Team Shane?

When AMC announced that its next original series would be an adaptation of Image Comics' wildly popular zombie saga, The Walking Dead, fans of the book were thrilled.  They were even happier to learn that the show was being shepherded through production by director Frank Darabont and super-producer Gale Anne Hurd.  And when Darabont revealed that he'd tapped Greg Nicotero's KNB Efx to handle The Walking Dead's extensive gore effects, the fans went apeshit.  At that point, they were convinced:  Robert Kirkman's comic series was in good hands.  Heck, with a creative team this talented in place, how could The Walking Dead possibly disappoint?

I suspect this is why no one seemed all that concerned when AMC announced that they'd cast British actor Andrew Lincoln (largely unknown in the States outside his work in the 2003 rom-com Love Actually) in the lead role of Rick Grimes.  This character would be the backbone of the entire series, so obviously the actor taking on the role needed to have the goods.  As written in the comics, Rick Grimes is...well, he's not what you'd call "lovable" or "fun".  He is what you'd call "deeply conflicted, angry, haunted, and desperate".  More importantly, though, he's the leader, the guy who all the other survivors look to for guidance, justice, and the occasional morale boost.  This means that on top of all those other things, Rick Grimes would need to be charismatic.

Was there any reason to believe that Andrew Lincoln could become that guy?  Perhaps not.  But then again, Lincoln didn't land the role by getting his name drawn out of a hat:  Frank Darabont hired him, presumably with good reason.  This was the same guy who spent years unsuccessfully pitching a zombie-centric series to networks before finally convincing AMC to take the plunge, the guy who hired KNB to supply the series with a constant stream of brilliant gore effects, the guy-- nay, the bad motherfucker-- who directed The Shawshank Redemption, dreamed up a way better ending for Stephen King's The Mist, and whose Indiana Jones 4 screenplay will make you weep for what could've been.  Were we not going to give Darabont the benefit of the doubt?  Of course we would.  What could go wrong?

 

Before we answer that question, let's take a moment to give credit where credit's due:  from the very beginning, The Walking Dead has been a ratings monster, the biggest AMC—or any other basic cable network, for that matter—has ever seen. With each passing season, the viewership has only increased in size (the pilot pulled in over 5 million viewers, while the abbreviated first season’s finale brought in 6 million; the second season went from 7 to 9 million in between its premiere and the season finale, while season three found the show regularly crossing the 10-million-viewers-per-episode mark), and the interest surrounding the show is apparently strong enough to support a Walking Dead talk show, several Walking Dead video games, Walking Dead books, Walking Dead action figures, and—coming soon—another Walking Dead TV show (a spinoff set in the same reality of the original series).  Make no mistake:  it’s a huge moneymaker, this goddamn thing.

I mention all of this upfront for a reason.  See, I’m about to say some extremely critical shit about The Walking Dead (critical shit about the show’s writing, its characters, its pacing, the relationship it has to its source material, the show’s incredibly problematic casting—oh, there’s gonna be all kinds of critical shit being said), and I want everyone to understand that I say these things knowing full well how successful The Walking Dead has become/always was/will go on to be.  Yes, the show (and all the officially licensed games, toys, books and tie-in shows surrounding it) generates an enormous sum of money for AMC.  Yes, more people become fans of the show with each new season.  Yes, the cast is massively popular and generally treated like The Beatles whenever they appear together (and probably even when they’re flying solo) out in public.  Yes, yes, yes-- agreed, on all counts. Let’s acknowledge that we all recognize these facts, if only so we don’t have to go over them again later. Are we all on the same page?  Good.  Now, here’s why I don’t care about any of that shit.

For one thing, a depressing number of underwhelming-if-not-straight-up-bad things make money every day (see also:  Cinemark Theaters;  the Paranormal Activity franchise; Grown Ups 2;  anything Twilight related;  Criss Angel;  the Transformers movies;  Dean Koontz;  The Big Bang Theory;  Taco Bell; Cauliflower;  Kid Rock, etc).  Those things may generate cash, but that doesn’t mean I’m obliged to enjoy them, nor does it mean that they’re to be considered above criticism.  Same goes for that huge viewership:  while impressive as it is to see a gory zombie series putting up those kind of ratings, ratings themselves don’t have any bearing on how good or entertaining a show is (who here remembers Terriers?  It was just me and four other people watching that show, and it was awesome). And as for the cast’s popularity:  by “the cast”, do you mean “Daryl”?  You must, because A) no one’s rushing the stage at Comic-Con to get within caressing distance of Hershel, and B) Daryl deserves it, because Norman Reedus has pumped more charisma into The Walking Dead than virtually every other cast member on that show combined.

And that, right there, is The Walking Dead’s biggest flaw.  One of many, to be sure, but for my money this is one is the show’s slashed Achilles heel, the fundamental weakness destined to prevent The Walking Dead from ever breaking out of its shuffle and into a much-needed sprint:  many of its cast lack charisma, and none moreso than the show’s lead, Andrew Lincoln.  From the very first episode, Lincoln’s Rick Grimes struck me as a total blank.  I gave writer/director Darabont the benefit of the doubt in those early episodes, hoping that Rick’s blankness was intentional:  maybe, I’d think, they’ve got Rick’s character dialed down to nothing in order to help the audience quickly identify him as our stand-in, the everyguy/girl blank canvas we can all project onto while watching the show.  Or maybe, I thought, this Lincoln guy turns into the most compelling actor on the planet whenever he’s playing something other than “Grief-Stricken and On The Verge of Tears” (that one still might be true:  we’ll find out if Rick ever decides to try on a different emotional state).  I gave Lincoln, Darabont, and the writers several episodes to find a way to make Rick compelling, but it simply never happened.  That first season was only six episodes long, and by the end of it I was convinced that a critical casting error had been made.

Meanwhile, the show introduced another type-A character into the mix, a cop named Shane.  As portrayed by actor Jon Bernthal, Shane was easily the most compelling character on the show for as long as he was on it. Like several others, Shane’s based on a character of the same name from Kirkland’s comics…but unlike several other characters, TV Shane gets fleshed out into an honest-to-God character.  In the books, Shane enters and exits the series very quickly, only sticking around long enough to teach Rick a valuable lesson about trusting others in a post-zombie world (bonus:  Comic Shane also teaches Rick a lesson about how quickly his wife will start banging dudes after disaster strikes).  Having made his point, Comic Shane is then gunned down just as he’s about to kill Rick.  TV Shane and Rick didn’t have this kind of confrontation until the end of season two.   Given his talent, it seems obvious that the show would want to hold onto Bernthal as long as it could, but--just in case there’s any doubt-- more than one member of the show’s creative team confirmed as much to an interviewer.

Can ya blame them?  Shane is a genuinely interesting antihero, everything that Rick Grimes is not.  Whereas both have conflicting emotions and troubling thoughts, Shane deals with his by becoming increasingly volatile, menacing his fellow survivors and slowly going insane (and in a measured, relatively believable way) over the course of the first two seasons.  Rick, meanwhile, deals with his conflicting emotions and troubling thoughts by getting into progressively tedious “heated conversations” with other characters, bickering with his unpleasant wife, and-- of course--  looking grief-stricken and on the verge of tears.  Whereas Shane makes reckless plays in the heat of the moment, more often than not his quick-thinking and itchy trigger finger keep him alive.  Alive, and a lot more fun to watch than Rick, who likes to torture himself by weighing every possible option, getting into at least one “heated conversation” with Hershel about those options, and ultimately making the wrong choice when called upon to take action (which, of course, affords Rick the opportunity to torture himself further, all but guaranteeing this cycle would quickly begin anew).  Whereas Shane’s creepy on-again/off-again relationship with Lori (Rick’s wife) makes almost every one of their conversations tense and compelling, Rick’s conversations with Lori are naggy on both ends, repetitive and frustrating to listen to.  And in terms of acting, Bernthal was also the anti-Andrew Lincoln.

Even though savvy Walking Dead fans knew Shane’s time on the show would be limited, and even though we’d all seen Shane do some pretty unpleasant shit by that point (remember Rapey Shane?), and even though Rick was the show’s lead character just as much he was the comics’ lead character…some viewers got vocal about being on “Team Shane”.  Innocuous fan chatter, right?  Sure.  But from my perspective, this is also the moment where The Walking Dead doomed itself once and for all.

By the time Rick and Shane's showdown happened, the show had taken a number of deviations from Kirkman’s original text (nineteen episodes' worth, in fact).  But that was OK:  before the series even began Kirkman was making a point to let fans know that AMC’s The Walking Dead  was not going to be identical to Image Comics’ The Walking Dead.  Characters that appeared in one version might not appear in the other (a move the show went for right off the bat), stories might be similar but play out with drastically different results, storylines might be combined, consolidated, or excised entirely…the two would share DNA, but they were always intended to be alternate dimension-style versions of one another.  Again: Kirkman, Darabont, and others made this clear early in the show’s history.  This was great news, as it meant that longtime fans and newcomers were both covered:  the former could still tune in and reasonably hope to be surprised by the plot, while the latter would come in knowing nothing and was free to check out the comics to catch the “alternate” version.

Add all of this up-- Lincoln's lacking charisma, Bernthal's consistent watchability, the way Rick's interactions with the rest of the cast were ever as interesting as Shane's, the fact that Darabont and Kirkman wanted to make the Walking Dead TV series its own animal in surprising ways that encouraged fans to engage both versions, the "Team Shane" contingent, and on and on-- and what conclusion do you come to?  The obvious answer is also the correct answer:  you kill off TV Rick, make TV Shane the lead.  Just consider the ways in which this decision would have approved the show:  you'd have a more charismatic actor in the lead role, not to mention the dramatic possibilities inherent in a violent-but-generally-well-meaning-nutcase tasked with leading a group of survivors across an apocalyptic hellscape.  You'd be doing something no other book-to-film adaptation (least, none to my knowledge) had ever attempted, charting unknown creative waters from there on out.  You'd blow away the longtime comic readers-- none of whom would've really expected that-- and you'd ensure their viewership from there on out.  Newcomers would have probably heard about Shane's imminent demise by then, so they would've been just as shocked...not to menton more determined than ever to hunt down the comics and find out how the story played out in the reality "where Rick survives" (darkest timeline?).  If you're Robert Kirkman, you get the chance to make changes you may have always wanted to make to your storyline and cast, and you could use a second go-round to employ some of the story ideas you'd decided against in the past.  If you're the showrunner/director, you're going to be further stamping your name into the TV version of the franchise, visualizing many of Kirkman's ideas for the first time (for instance:  Shane VS The Governor) and earning kudos for taking such a unique approach in adapting a successful brand.

I mean, Jesus, is there anyone who wouldn't have benefited from this outcome?  I mean, besides Andrew Lincoln?  Just spend a few minutes daydreaming about how awesome a Shane-led Walking Dead might've been.  If you don't quickly find yourself marveling at what might've been, well, you probably just have a shitty imagination.  Trust me, it would've been awesome.

Instead, Shane was forcibly retired in the second season finale.  Gone for good, he joined Frank Darabont's L.A. Noir-esque detective/crime/whiskey/fedoras series over at USA (we don't have time to get into all this, but Darabont-- the dude who'd successfully pitched the show in the first place-- had left The Walking Dead shortly into production on season two).  It's called Mob City, and it'll air in early December.  Trailers look decent, and it's certainly good to see Bernthal on camera again.  The moment Shane was killed off of AMC's Walking Dead, my patience for the show (and Rick, in particular) began to wane.  Granted, season two had been a merciless beating to sit through, but I finally made it through the second season finale thanks to Bernthal's Shane.  Once season three began, it didn't take long for me to grow frustrated with the show.  The prison setting didn't interest me (yay, another static environment after we just spent an entire fucking season standing outside a barn), Michonne wasn't working for me, the Governor was an absurdly watered-down version of the Comic Governor, Andrea was acting like a giant asshole...plus, no Shane.  I checked out for good a few episodes into season three, but recently I gave the show another shot when the fourth season premiered.  I really did go into it with a positive attitude (I'd read a few reviews and word sounded decent), prepared to give it a fighting chance to win me over.

Fifteen minutes into the fourth season finale I went upstairs and folded some laundry.  Whatever magic The Walking Dead almost or could have had, it was gone.  That's OK, though:  with 10 million-plus viewers each Sunday, they don't need my whiny ass.  Even if I'm not a fan of the show anymore-- and even though I may have seemed a little rough on Andrew Lincoln above-- I'm genuinely happy for the success of those on the show, am glad to see so many people rallying behind a big, gory genre show.  That's worth tipping a hat to, no?

Bonus Questions:  What the hell is the deal with The Walking Dead, anyway?  What's up with the revolving cast of showrunners?  What's up with all those whispers about a contentious set, of interfering network suits, of Robert Kirkman being kind of a dick to work with?  What's up with Darabont leaving the show so abruptly?  Would contract disputes have made it impossible to go the "Shane For Rick" route?  If so, what would AMC have had to pay Lincoln to wiggle out of that?  Was such a thing ever discussed?  Lots of curious little questions.

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