Apparently I wasn’t the only one who stopped watching. Can it be fixed?
When I wrote my post about Why I Stopped Watching the Walking Dead, I hadn’t paid any attention to how the show’s ratings were going this season. I was just upset about the direction one of my favorite shows had taken, and the way other fans criticize each other when their opinions differ. But it seems that many other fans are taking action rather than just complaining about the show in comments sections. The Walking Dead’s ratings have dropped from a high of 17.03 million viewers for the season premiere to a low of 10.4 million viewers for episode 6, “Swear.” That’s a drop back to season 3 levels of viewership.
The Walking Dead Wikipedia ratings page has all of the detail you could want about TWD’s ratings, both for the length of its run and for this season, so I’ll just share this chart:
The chart shows that season 5 was the overall peak in ratings, with seasons 4 and 6 being roughly equal (and a decline that started in 6B), then a steep decline over season 7 so far. That fits with both metawitches opinions of the quality of the show over time, and many of the comments from longtime viewers we’ve seen around the web. The show plateaued in season 5, and season 6 was a clusterfuck. I gave up on reading recaps of season 7 after a few episodes when it became clear that there wasn’t enough plot or character development happening to justify the writer’s time.
The ratings decline has followed the show’s decline in quality. It’s nothing new, and shouldn’t be unexpected. It’s also not simply because it’s an aging show and people are moving on. People are still passionate about TWD, and want to watch. At least 17.03 million of them are willing to watch occasionally. They just aren’t being given what they want.
So, what exactly went wrong and how can it be fixed? Let’s look at it in more detail. The first few are inspired by the six reasons Charlie Mason mentioned in his TVLine article, with my own additions:
- People hated the season premiere. It was too gory and violent, and it continued to toy with us the way all of season 6 did. Enough with the endless fake outs, especially with the way they played with Glenn’s life. Stop using gimmicks like “playing with time,” to use show runner Scott Gimple’s words, and go back to writing a show with heart and substance.
- People hate Negan, and not in a “love to hate him” way. They just hate-hate him. Which is really a feat of bad writing, considering what a charismatic actor Jefrey Dean Morgan is, and how much excitement there was leading up to his debut. They’ve taken his character too far, and JDM is too good at emanating gloating, sadistic, evil incarnate. Viewers just don’t want to see it. Negan needs to be dialed back- either kill him, or deliver some well-earned justice.
- The cast is isolated from each other. Since season 4B, when the prison fell, the characters have been separated from each other, and episodes have tended to focus on only a few characters. It worked in 4B, because it emphasized the way that the Governor had torn the close knit Grimes Gang apart. But now it’s become just another gimmick that the show runners use to avoid writing complex plots and character development. We might only see a favorite character a few times a season, and they only interact with a few other characters. This show isn’t an ensemble show anymore. It’s broken. To fix it, they need to start checking in with more characters, more frequently, so that viewers don’t forget the characters and their storylines in between appearances. They need to remember the relationships between characters the show has built in the past, and show that those characters still remember them, too.
- We don’t spend enough time with the characters we care about, unless they are about to die. This is a sub problem of #3. Because each episode only focuses on 2 or 3 characters out of a huge cast, we have to wait weeks or months to see the characters we miss. Then when the regulars do get a story arc, odds are good that they will be dead at the end of it, unless they are one of the core untouchables. It wouldn’t be so obvious who was about to die if the show went back to spreading the attention around. As it is, I can’t remember the last time I was shocked by a death the way I was in the first 3 seasons.
- We spend too much time with characters we don’t care about. Why waste our time with people we’ll never see again, or won’t see for long, when we could be with the people we know and love? This show has taken to introducing characters, then either killing them or pushing them aside, so it can introduce more new characters. It’s a zombie show, of course people will die, but the first 4 seasons balanced that with rich characters and plot lines. Now the new characters and settings are used to avoid developing the old ones. Let’s watch Alexandria develop without Deanna, and continue to see how the various factions works things out. We can get to know the other communities, but Alexandria and the main cast should stay the focus.
- The storylines have gotten too dark. And this is the show that had Carl shoot his mother in the head during one of its best storylines ever. Those early storylines were dark, but the grimness was always justified by the situation. Now, we’re just getting sadism and gore for the sake of exploitation. And to win Greg Nicotero’s make up more awards. In reality, the apocalypse should be a mixed bag at this point. Packaged foods and medicines are spoiling; some things are becoming scarce. But people are organizing, and relearning skills from pre-industrialized times. Libraries still exist, those skills shouldn’t be completely lost. The giant hoards of zombies should gradually be becoming less of a threat as they fall apart from wear and tear. One of the things S6 did right was to show Rick & co training the Alexandrians in zombie fighting. Before Noah died (see #4), Reg was going to teach him the engineering skills necessary to improve the wall. That could’ve been another interesting storyline. They’ve touched on it. How do you make improvements with the zombies there? How do you test the improvements? How do you train the next generation without schools? How do you decide who’s the best person to be your successor? All kinds of potential for conflict and drama, if you expand those ideas out to the entire community, in addition to the need to feed, clothe and protect everyone. Focusing only on protection, and taking it to the grossest extreme, strips the show of everything that made it a show I wanted to watch.
- The writing is lazy and relies too much on gimmicks. Gimmicks such as too many cliffhangers or showing the events of an episode out of order to confuse the viewer and disguise the fact that not much happens. Then there are the cheap tricks. Like all of the teases that led to Glenn’s death, starting with him sliding under the dumpster in 6A, up through killing Abraham first in the season 7 premiere. We knew Glenn was going to die. The writers would have better served the story by finding ways to make it meaningful, or by trying to elicit real emotion, rather than grossing us out and then forcing emotions with a fantasy sequence. They also have a long history of setting up storylines and character arcs, then dropping them, or killing the character abruptly. Hello, Terminus. Goodbye, Denise and Noah. Then there are the strange tangents that go on too long. Two episodes’ worth of the Governor’s solo wanderings? And the writers have come to rely too much on visual effects instead of storytelling. It all adds up to a wandering story without much cohesion or depth. The solution is obvious. Fire the show runner (again) and writers and go back to writing a show that can stand up to its HBO Sunday night competition. Because…
- It’s got more competition. Television is a different world than it was 7 years ago. Every night is now filled with more comic book shows, more horror shows, more sci-fi shows, more post-apocalypse shows, and more suspense-thriller shows. TWD is not the mind-blowing event that it was when Rick shot that little blonde zombie in the head at the gas station or Dr. Jenner blew up the CDC. It has direct head to head competition this season with HBO’s Westworld, which has a metacritc score of 74, a Rotten Tomato critical score of 89%, and viewer score of 92%. TWD needs to up its game in the form of relevant and riveting storytelling to keep up with the competition. It’s done the opposite.