There's an enemy that The Walking Dead has yet to defeat; an enemy with a perfect record in television terms—viewer fatigue. We just gotta accept it. The Walking Dead isn't "great" anymore. At best it's mostly OK. I don't think anyone disagrees at this point. And it comes from a network's hubris that they can have both quality and quantity—especially once a TV show hits that elusive eighth season. When serialized dramas hit this point, it never, ever goes well. But the inevitable question after that, is why?
In the case of TWD, a lack of conclusions has become its most fatiguing problem. Even when we don't necessarily know the exact details of what'll happen next, we pretty much do. We've seen it before: good guy Rick meets bad guys, kills some, turns some, allies die violently and suddenly, rinse and repeat. In-between all conflict and resolution, we get some low quality bullshit that fills a space with an un-ending drag that leads into a new season. At this point, the show seems to be out of ideas that will intellectually grab us, other than a new zombie kill of the week. When I try to think examples of serial drama shows that ran into this same problem, a few come to mind, all of which clearly stretched themselves too thin the further into the series they went: Dexter, The X-Files, 24, Smallville, Prison Break, and The Vampire Diaries. All of these shows maintained a healthy, if dwindling, audience the further on they went, even as the quality of the show slowly degraded (or in some cases, like Dexter, dropped off a cliff). And that "too big to quit" mentality continues with the ratings monster that is AMC's The Walking Dead, which is so successful it almost certainly allows the channel the artistic freedom to run better, but little-watched, shows like the recently concluded Halt and Catch Fire.
But like the series finale of Star Trek: TNG says, all good things must end, and there comes a time when the viewer wants to see the show start moving towards a conclusion.
"I just want to feel like a show isn't stringing me the hell along," says James Bullock, a friend and former television critic from LA over a phone chat. "Once I start to feel that, I'm checking out, because I'm at an age when my time can't be wasted, and shows like TWD are beginning to feel like they're wasting my time."
One of the worst examples of this came in the form of Lost from 2004 to 2010. The ABC hit relied on the promise that there was a much deeper story behind its island mystery that, in the end, made absolutely no sense and failed to truly deliver on its grand premise.
When I spoke to Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse, he suggested that much of the criticism can be blamed on the network forcing too many seasons on a show that could have had a much shorter narrative arc.
"We actually had a beginning, middle and end—unfortunately it was network television. That meant riding a successful horse as long as you can. You ride it until that horse drops out from underneath you," Cuse said of the series. Shows like Lost often tried to fake a procedural format over network pressures, but given their episodes were never entirely self-contained, each new monster-/problem-/flashback-of-the-week did more of a disservice to a show's eventual conclusion through their inconsistency. Serial television shows demand a commitment from their viewers that is built on trusting that the showrunner's will be taking them on a satisfying journey and eventual destination. Nothing undermines this trust more than a show spinning its narrative wheels and offering nothing more than 'Hey, we are still on the air!'
It's a delicate balance to maintain intrigue over an extended period of time (especially over the better part of a decade!) while still delivering satisfying installments week after week that lead to conclusions that make sense. And even harder still to maintain all that when networks, ratings, and/or budgets are involved. "We were the first to negotiate the end of our show on network television. And it wasn't an easy process, but we had a certain amount of mythology and we didn't know if it had to last two or nine years, and it was paralyzing," Cuse said.
Successful serialized shows in general are still rare to network TV, often suffering from cancellations before they have time to tell their entire story, giving the viewer a case of narrative blue balls. (See: Firefly, Freaks and Geeks)
It's on cable where serialized shows tend to have the best results when it comes keeping their legacy intact through a strong endgame: The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, The Shield, The Wire, Breaking Bad (final episode is debatable), and Mad Men, among others. All finished strongly within seven seasons, although Game of Thrones is technically finishing on a season 8, thanks to two shortened final seasons.
Game of Thrones may be breaking the cardinal rule for the serialized show in its high seasonal number; but it still avoids the pitfalls of that by having a clear endgame. Unlike Lost or TWD, GoT avoided boring seasonal stretches by pushing for 10-episode chunks within its first six seasons—avoiding unnecessary characters and scenarios from George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy novels. The fat was cut, making for a tighter and faster paced show whose seasons generally ended on high notes (even if your favourite character was stabbed to death by a knife in the heart).
HBO's The Wire (five seasons) also did something similar despite having less seasons. Show creator David Simon had always known when his show would end. From its beginnings in 2002, he had it scouted out like a visual novel, with each season exploring an aspect of inner-city life, from the drug trade to Baltimore's longshoremen to politics, to education reform—all absent episode fillers (minus one annoying serial killer subplot).
From an artistic standpoint, it seems obvious that an end date helps focus writers and lead to more satisfying conclusions for viewers, but in today's fractured television world, there are no hard and fast rules.
Since Netflix and Hulu entered the game with their own exclusive shows, there hasn't been an indication that "endings" are in most of the cards. Shows like Luke Cage, Daredevil, Orange is The New Black, and The Handmaiden's Tale generate discussions, critical praise, and aren't held to the same rating standards as made-for-TV shows. Netflix has yet to even actually properly "end" a serialized drama, and even the years past-its-prime House of Cards may not have a final season due to sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey.
I'm not exactly sure what the solution is for The Walking Dead is at this point. It's run out of interesting stories to tell about its world and especially about its characters. It's in season eight and there's nothing to suggest any kind of satisfying end game is in the near future. Maybe I'm expecting too much from AMC, thinking TWD belongs in the same quality drama category as Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and instead doesn't belong in the category of "we'll keep airing this until it stops making bank."
On a simple level, I guess there's nothing about the Walking Dead that has me wondering "How will this end for character X?" in the way that was built into the DNA of The Sopranos, or even Mad Men. And that might be more on the showrunners than AMC. If a show doesn't having you asking that question by season eight, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
And to be plain, TWD is looking very, very wrong right now. Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.