The Walking Dead, pt 2

I have to start at the end of this thesis first, which, I know – everyone hates non-linear storytelling, but deal with it.

All of the commentary so far (including my own) has failed to mention the BIG REASON there may be no writing staff for Walking Dead next season.

Nope, nothing to do with Darabont’s ego.

No, it isn’t that they think it’s the better way to go.

It’s not stupidity at work (seriously, it’s not).

IT’S MONEY.

“The Walking Dead” is the first series produced by AMC Studios.  As such, it was a HUGE investment…an investment they haven’t recouped yet.  AMC (the network) will recoup from ad sales and that will flow back to the studio for the second season order, but the producers are faced with a major problem: They need to make 13 more episodes of this thing.  As quickly as they can.  AND THEY HAVE NO MONEY.

I don’t blame them for going the freelance route — it makes total sense.  If you understand the money issue, you understand the logic.

But as I, and others have already argued, this is an issue that needs to be considered without the money crunch entering into the equation right off the bat.  For the show to continue being successful, and thus feeding the coffers of the studio and network, the show needs to be cohesive, feel ordered and well constructed.

To do that, you need a super human working non-stop for a couple of years or you need a staff.  AMC doesn’t have 2 years.  They don’t even have a year, though that’s how long it will take to get the second season on TV.

Freelancers will speed up the process considerably, but it will come at a cost to the quality of the show.  It can’t be helped.  This is an episodic show – one episode leads into the next.  It is very hard to freelance that.  You can freelance the heck out of Star Trek or shows in the 70’s or 80’s because they are a completely different construct for storytelling.  Most episodes exist independent of one another.  I can turn on Star Trek: TNG and watch a random episode…and not worry what happened right before it or right after it (unless it’s “Best of Both Worlds, part 2” or one of the other 2 part season finales).

Trust me, a freelance show would be in my best interest.  The point has been made all over – it’s a way to find new writers! Fresh blood!  But let’s get real — if there’s no staff, there’s no chance that new writers are going to get a shot at writing a script.  The smart move is to find seasoned writers, people working on other shows who have pedigree (like, Glen Mazzara, who wrote an episode this season and is currently running “Hawthorne” on TNT) to make sure that you are receiving high quality writing which can be massaged for continuity.  That means going to heavy hitters — Whedon alums, LOST scribes, BSG writers…you get the picture.  Li’l ole me is not going to get a script.

BUT

I MIGHT have had a shot of getting the writer’s assistant job (probably not, I know no one over there who could work that miracle, sadly) and as an assistant you have a shot at co-writing an episode later down the road or getting your own script.  If the show goes enough seasons, you might get bumped up to staff writer and then you’re even better off.  As a freelancer…there’s no shot of that.

So, the whole ‘no staff for the show’ thing still strikes me as a very bad idea.  The showrunner (presumably Darabont at this point) didn’t create “The Walking Dead” — Robert Kirkman did.  Neither of them have run TV shows before.  They don’t know what it takes to do the job which is far beyond vetting scripts from freelancers.  (For more on what a writing staff does, go read Kay or Lee’s posts).

Okay – I got that piece out of the way, now I’ll back up to the Twitter conversation I had over Sunday/Monday with my good friends Dave, Kira and Michael.

After “The Walking Dead” ended on Sunday night, I tweeted this:

"Trying to figure out how best to write up my thoughts on "The Walking Dead" thus far.  Nagging in my brain starting to take hold full time.I further tweeted that I had identified three issues with the show, which I felt, if addressed properly would really elevate the show (you can see the actual tweet in the image below).

In response, Dave piped up with:

[Okay — this method is gonna get exhausting. I’m gonna start typing in the tweets we sent and you’ll just have to take my word for it — if you want to verify the conversation below, you can do a twitter search on ‘davidanaxagoras’ or ‘teelajbrown’ to see most of them.  Sorry – just trying to speed the process]

So then Dave tweets further:

Dave: Is the other one the fact that the Sheriff has no reason to be invested in the survival of these strangers, unlike Jack?

Now, I did have an issue with this but not nearly as much as Dave does:

Dave: I have no idea what Rick is about. He’s a chump for being cheated on, he left his family moments after finding them again…

Shawna: i thought ‘why does Rick care about rest of the group’ was an issue but there are bigger story construction fish to fry.

Dave: There may be larger issues, but you can’t hang a show on a char like him and you don’t come back weekly for story constructs.

Dave: I think they’re improving, and I find the show mildly enjoyable, but LOST casts a looooooong shadow over TV drama.

Dave: Also, LOST had the good sense not to show us what was in the hatch before they opened it…look what you’ve done I can’t stop

Sorry about that, Dave.  I didn’t mean to stir anyone up, but clearly I’d struck a nerve with SOMEBODY.  Imagine my surprise when this got picked up hours later by Kira who chimed in:

Kira: Hmm. I’m not bothered by the same issues in Walking Dead as you are. (SPOILERS ahead for any mutual followers)
Kira: Rick’s caring about the group — without having to — is precisely what makes him a leader…

Kira: …as opposed to everyone else who just wants to look after what’s theirs.

By the way, I totally agree with this — in the comic.  So far in the TV show, I don’t think this has been adequately illustrated.  As I mentioned before it always feels like there are scenes missing — the stuff cartilage between big moments that help us understand the ‘whys’ of character actions.

But let’s continue:

Kira: And the show makes Rick face the emotional and survival costs of that approach. Lori calls him on it.

Kira: Re. pace: since the CDC’s like 10 miles from where they were, I appreciated them not dragging the journey out.

Kira: Esp. with that wrenching (and, I suspect, not over) story point of Jim on the road to cover the distance.

This, by the way, I have a split opinion on – I think the CDC goal feels non-organic to the story, even with Jim suffering so.  But I agree that we’ll see Jim again.  It’s the nature of this show (or, at least, what I imagine the nature of the show to be).

So now here comes Michael with his thoughts:

Michael : I see Ricks char as being driven by his role as an idealist police, now burdened by the fact…

Michael: …his shift will never end. The quick arrival at CDC also seems to be a direct answer to Lost…

Michael: …we not only opened the hatch right away, we showed you what was on there at length 1st as if to

Michael: say “this is in no way about answers. This is not the island. Doesn’t matter why zombies are here”

Great point by Michael — I think this is exactly what the CDC story is about, but that doesn’t make it right to do it in the first 6 episodes — we’re just meeting our survivors. Now we’re meeting THIS GUY (Noah Emmerich) and it’s just an abrupt departure.

Now the tweets get fun:

Kira: Agreed. And I see the CDC as different from the LOST hatch. Both are valid story devices.

Kira: Don’t see what’s inside: mystery. See a messed up guy in a messed up situation: suspense.

Kira: Will CDC guy save our gang? Can he? Is this an even worse place?

Michael: I would [wager] this is a preemptive strike at “curing zombism” There is no cure, now go survive.

This is where I note how much I love my friends.

Dave: Not a mystery, I agree. But narratively speaking, it takes the wind out of the stories sails.

Dave: I’d be much more invested in Rick if we had stuck closer to his POV — not knowing what CDC held.

Dave: I do like the whole CDC set-up. Just wish we had discovered it as our main chars did.

Michael: conflict for Rick is between his role as father and husband and his role/need as group leader.

Dave: Good point but need to see this dramatized–jack did not believe he could lead, no conflict for Rick

At this point, we all agreed we need to settle this with some mud wrestling and a night watching the finale (okay, I made up the mud wrestling part).

So why did I go to the trouble to recreate this whole conversation? Because it was good, for one thing. For another, I like that we can discuss the show without it getting into ‘WHATEVER U HATERZ — THIS SHOW ROXXORS” and other fine examples of discourse that populate the web nowadays (darn kids).

So now it’s your turn — You’ve heard what I had to say, what a few other people have to say…what say you? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What brilliant point are we missing, but you didn’t?

[Thanks again David, Kira and Michael for allowing me to repost their tweets!]

Posted under analysis, writing

This post was written by Shawna on December 1, 2010

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The Walking Dead, interlude

We interrupt my continuing rant about “The Walking Dead” to direct you over to Kay’s blog Seriocity – because, seriously, she nailed about 2/3 of what I was going to cover in part two, and there’s no way I can top it. Here’s a sample:

Darabont, ultimate television historian that he is not, wants to model The Walking Dead on how the BBC makes TeeVee — with a showrunner, no staff, and freelancers coming in to write episodes. First of all, I think the BBC model works because production over there is an entirely different animal than it is here. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t there story editors on BBC shows?  Isn’t there some experienced framework in place to make the shows run smoothly? And haven’t the majority of the showrunners come up through the very stringent system so that they know how it all works? Don’t they have — dare I say it — experience? And don’t the freelance writers also know precisely how the system works, and how to pitch and write scripts for these shows?

Since that’s not how we do it here, I can’t imagine that this sort of thing would run smoothly. Actually, hang on a minute… I actually have experience with this sort of thing! I was on a show where it was decided that the majority of the episodes would be freelanced. This led to hearing A LOT of pitches and not surprisingly, an enormous number of those pitches missed the mark. Because see, that’s how our system is designed. It’s almost impossible for freelancers to pitch an acceptable story to a US TeeVee show, which is why the WGA required freelance episodes are usually given to friends or assistants.

Seriously. You need to read the whole thing.  Plus, I need more time to finish part 2.  Hey, I have a pilot to re-write, a webseries to work on…Shawna’s gotta eat.

UPDATE: Lee Goldberg has weighed in.

UPDATE #2: Michael Patrick Sullivan has blogged this as well – and yes, the alluded to tweets will be revealed in part 2, I swear!



Posted under analysis, blogs

This post was written by Shawna on December 1, 2010

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The Walking Dead, pt. 1

[I give up — I’m splitting this into two parts.  This is a long one.  I haven’t done a really long one for awhile, and as news continues to break/spill/bleed about season 2, it gets even longer.  I have to thank Dave Anaxagoras, Kira Snyder and Michael Patrick Sullivan, all of whom have blogs in the blogroll and who contributed to the Twitter conversation… which is now in Part 2. Also thanks to my sister Julie, who is probably even more rabid about the show than I am, and who helped me verbalize some of the nagging doubts.]

I had been looking forward to “The Walking Dead” for more than a year.  It’s possible I take this show too seriously.

Five and a half weeks ago the show premiered to ratings that AMC has never seen for any of its original dramas.  Over 5 million people tuned in the first night to see what zombies on TV would be like.  As of this Sunday the show is still pulling in over 5 million viewers (the 5th episode had higher ratings than the pilot), and I’m sure the audience for the 6th and last episode of this season will be just as large.

I know, five million isn’t a lot in network tv land, but for cable, and for AMC it is a massive success of a show.  The pedigree of the show is top notch — Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” comic as source material, Frank Darabont, Gale Ann Hurd, Greg Nicotero, Bear McCreary…these are the names of people you want associated with this kind of show.

I watched the pilot four times.  I loved how it moved.  I loved the pacing, the music (the sparseness of it)… oh, heck, I’ll just excerpt my own review:

“The Walking Dead” is more than just another zombie story.  It’s a story very much about the living, the survivors, as many zombie-filled futures are.  What separates this show from most of the others is its focus too on the dead.  Other films, like “Zombieland” and “Dawn of the Dead” while great entertainment, use the zombies almost exclusively as target practice.  The pornographic elements consist of the myriad creative ways to finish off an undead human.  Here, the death, and the “putting down” of the Walkers, is treated with gravitas.  The dead are not just targets; they are our neighbors, our friends, and our family.  When one contemplates what it would really be like to deal with a mysterious outbreak which kills and then resurrects the dead to walk with no consciousness save for where their next meal may be, it’s a frightening scenario.  Even harder would be the task of putting down someone who was once your husband, mother, or child.  How can you look into their eyes to put a bullet between them, even if the soul seems long gone?

The trajectory of the first six episodes closely follows the source material, with a few new characters added to the tale and some slight modifications in the storytelling.  Rabid fans will notice the differences, but what changes do take place make sense for this new canvas; telling the story on TV allows Darabont and Kirkman to put a little more meat on the bones of the comic book story skeleton, allowing certain moments to breathe and play out a little more fully.  At times the narrative may feel slow, but in truth, it’s moving at a speed which makes sense.  Most of these [ed. – other] stories move at warp speed, as survivors race through zombies to get to safety.  Here, we care about the characters, their problems beyond whether a flesh-eating monster is around the corner.  When Rick encounters Morgan Jones (Lennie James, in a wonderful, affecting performance) and his son Duane, he sees firsthand the impact of the chaos he missed.  Morgan and his son have been through a lot, and their experiences are but a taste of what Rick will encounter on his journey.

Of course, now that I’ve seen more than the first three episodes, which is what I was basing this review on at the time, I’d say that the show isn’t quite hitting the mark on all of these points.  Don’t misunderstand – I am a fervent supporter of this show, a FAN, but I can no longer ignore the thoughts that nag at my brain every week when I watch it.  A part of me says, ‘you NEVER argued this much about LOST or BSG in their first seasons and you love those shows,’ but I also know that my expectations for those shows were far different than what I had for this.

So, it is with all of this preamble that I jump into those nagging thoughts.  These are the issues that keep popping up in my head every week when I watch the show.  Some of these are legitimate questions the show should raise, but most of them are dangerous plot and character stumbling blocks.  And with news that there may not be a writers room for next season…well, we’ll get to that.

The pilot, in my opinion, was nearly flawless in its execution, so most of my issues are focused on episodes 2-5 (I haven’t seen 6 yet, so I’ll reserve any judgment there – perhaps all my questions will be answered next week!)  For the purpose of catching you up with the story (or refreshing your memory) here are the highlights of each episode, as posted on the AMC website:

Issue Two: They need a clear goal.  Look, I love the comic book too, but let’s put it aside (I’m saying that a lot in this piece).  Independent of any other source material, the group needs a goal; survival doesn’t cut it.  We are all, in a sense, surviving.  But what keeps me coming back to follow this group is what they decide to do about their survival.  In LOST, the clear goal was “get off the island.”  In Battlestar the clear goal was “find Earth.”  Everything else was secondary (and, for LOST, even when they got off the island, it wasn’t the end – the goalposts moved, which is just fine).

I know Rick finds Lori and Carl practically right away in the comic, but I felt less enthusiastic about the turn of events in the tv show.  Why?  Well, I’m okay with dumb luck, but it just seemed so damn EASY, especially after all he goes through in the pilot.

Issue Three: Whither character logic?  I get why they had to go to Atlanta to get Rick’s bag of guns (and the radio inside), but if I were one of those other survivors in the group, I’d be like ‘hey, let’s go find another sheriff’s office or police department or a military compound and go get some guns. Let’s stay out of the huge city with thousands of flesh-eating zombies.’  Rick won his argument too easily, and that was just the beginning of the logic problems.

Is Shane in love with Lori? I have no idea — there is nothing in his words or actions that prove that he is, but he’s drawn to aim his weapon at Rick in the woods?  To what end?  It isn’t a motivated character action.

Characters will die and there will be lots of mourning, but we only knew Amy for 4 episodes (less, if you consider how little we saw of any one except Rick in the pilot).  I get that Andrea is going to be pretty upset about her sister being dead, but the crying over the body just went ON and ON — this wasn’t an earned scene at all.  You want to show she’s hanging around her dead sister’s body?  Fine, cut back to her now and again, but we’ve got a show to do here, people.  What purpose did it serve to watch Andrea caress and mourn her sister for so long?  We spent longer with Boone on LOST than we did Amy.

I also get nervous when it appears that characters are acting in ways counter to general logic.  Logic dictates that if you are in a zombie apocalypse and that you want to go to, say, the CDC in a zombie infested city, you have a well defined plan of action — you don’t just all hop in the caravan and drive to CDC!  If that had been remotely a good idea in the past, SOMEONE WOULD HAVE DONE IT.  No, logic dictates that they need a backup plan.  If no one is left alive, they need to know where to go next, or have enough gas/food/etc to get to safety.  Their plan is all or nothing.  That’s no plan!  I’m not following Rick anywhere with his “well reasoned” planning.  On LOST when there was a big plan afoot, usually two things happened: a few people would disagree and follow a different course of action.  This allowed for great shenanigans between factions of the group.  Jack takes some people to the caves, Sawyer stays on the beach with other dissenters.  Both are right, in their logic, and we get to see it all play out.

Ultimately, if Rick thinks (and he’d be right in doing so) that the group has kinda been doing the wrong thing, just sitting out in a quarry, not moving, he should say so.  I want to see a standoff between Rick and Shane as to what is the right thing to do.  I want to see the others in the group pick sides.  I want there to be discussion off to the side between Dale and Andrea (“Hey, you think we should tell Rick that Lori and Shane seemed to be getting familiar?” “Nah, let’s leave it alone”), just to show that people are aware of the conflicts and the drama.

I think most of these issues could have been resolved had there been a writers room for season one, but there wasn’t.  There was no showrunner — there was Frank Darabont, who was writing and directing the pilot and there was Robert Kirkman, the comic creator who also wrote an episode of the series, but no one was steering the ship of the show forward through the rocky waters of television.

And then, today the news spreads that there may not be a writers room in season 2 either:

EXCLUSIVE: I hear The Walking Dead writer/ executive producer/ director Frank Darabont has let go of the writers on the hot freshman AMC series, which has already renewed for a second season. That includes Darabont’s No.2, writing executive producer Charles “Chic” Eglee. Writer turnover on series between seasons is commonplace but wholesale overhauls are unusual. What’s more, I hear Darabont is looking to forgo having a writing staff for the second season of Walking Dead altogether and assign scripts to freelancers.

Uh oh.

The freelance model is employed by the Starz/BBC series Tourchwood (sic), which in turn borrowed it from the U.K. where the show originated. Having BBC as producer has allowed Torchwood to proceed with no writing staff but I hear such a plan on an U.S.-based series such as Walking Dead may face issues with the Writers Guild.

Okay, let’s back up a second.  I left out an important quote from the piece:

Darabont, who hails from the feature world with The Young Indiana Jones as the only series credit before Walking Dead, ended up writing 2 of the first season’s 6 episodes of Walking Dead – the pilot and the second episode – and co-writing/rewriting the other 4. Two of those 4 were written by non-staff writers, one by executive producer Robert Kirkman, on whose comics the series is based, and one by Glen Mazzara.

The reason the pilot was so good is that it is almost VERBATIM the comic.  Seriously.  You can go pick it up and read it, and the pilot is pretty much what you see.  When it goes off the path a little bit (starting with dropping the bag of guns in Atlanta), we start to see some story issues.

The other episode that resonated pretty well (despite flaws left over from the wackiness of going off book) was episode 4…which was written by Kirkman.

Some people have brought up in the comments of that post at Deadline Hollywood that J. Michael Straczynski practically wrote Babylon 5 by himself, with only a few freelancers contributing.  I don’t think the example is exactly relevant because Bab5 existed in Straczynski’s head — not as a story that has been read and enjoyed for several years.  He was also writing Bab5 as a TV show, not adapting a comic book, which requires that the story alter slightly for telling in a different medium.

What “The Walking Dead” needs, just like “Lost” and “BSG” had – is a room of smart, skilled writers who can build a season long arc (example: “we’ll get them to XYZ point in the story by the end of the season”) and then break the individual stories.  They can draw from the comic the plot beats, even some of the imagery and dialog, but for thematics to be at work, you need to craft that.  What is lacking in these first 6 episodes is a sense of thematic cohesion.  Once Rick finds his family, there is no long term goal, only short term goals that take us from episode to episode — get to the camp, get the bag of guns, get Glen, go to the CDC… “survival” as a long term goal is expected.

I’m cutting up my post into two parts, because it’s getting ridiculously long.  Also, I kinda want to spark discussion that I can use in part 2 — I’ll be posting up some twitter discussion I had with @davidanaxagoras @sugarjonze and @redrighthand yesterday that I think is worth considering (much of their insight counters my issues).

Remember this: I love this show.  I want to write for this show.  Desperately.  I also want these nagging thoughts to go away.

Posted under analysis, writing

This post was written by Shawna on November 30, 2010

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