Samuel Brace asks why can Telltale make better Walking Dead stories than the TV show?
Why isn’t The Walking Dead very good? Why isn’t The Walking Dead the show it could be, should be and has been? Why does the TV show suffer, flounder and falter when the very same IP excels in another medium? Why can’t AMC make a good TWD story but Telltale Games can?
Comparing mediums, normally, isn’t a very good idea. A TV show and a video game are two very different ways of experiencing content and any attempt at comparison between the two wouldn’t normally lead to anywhere helpful. But Telltale’s The Walking Dead isn’t a normal video game, it’s essentially an interactive animated TV show. What makes Telltale’s product succeed — in most people’s eyes — isn’t the game mechanics or visual fidelity, it’s the quality of the story told, the same thing in which a TV show’s value is normally measured. So the comparison here is a comparison that can be made. The experience of watching an episode of AMC’s television series isn’t drastically different from sitting down with an episode of Telltale’s game.
So, if the comparison is just, and one that is worth our time, the question is; why can Telltale deliver to us a compelling narrative while the TV show with its vast resources cannot? The answer to that question can be found in the question itself. The resources available to the AMC series afford the show expansiveness; they allow the show to be bigger, brasher and noisier. The TV series, with the increasing success and popularity it has found over successive seasons, has continued to grow, and as result of this very success, it has felt the pressure to do more, to be bigger. And that is the problem.
Bigger, noisier, larger, louder. These things are killing the TV show while the video game by Telltale has remained small, narrow focused and deliberate. That insular method of delivering a story is what makes Telltale’s version of events so engaging. Its small group of characters and rather cosy story allows the audience to fully engage and attach to everything that is playing out. The tale of Clementine and her various protectors/friends is a small one, her relationship with Lee and Kenny is the focus of the narrative; it is what drives everything forward. Yes, there are other characters, but bodies always drop, faces come and go so often that it is always Clementine, it always comes back to our heroine and her guardians. The mission might change but the core dynamic never does. The same can’t be said of the TV show.
AMC’s series is of course about Rick (mainly) but with the expanse of the show, both fiscally and in terms of cast, the heart of the series has become lost. Yes the show is all about survival, and I have nothing against that, such a broad theme can work and does work with the game, but only if we care about the people surviving. Rick’s group has grown so dramatically, not just in core characters but in no named/no faced bums that take away attention from what the show should really be about — Rick protecting his family with the help of some friends while trying to survive the apocalypse. This hasn’t been the case since season 2. With each new season, the shows creatives have tried to achieve more. They have tried to include more characters, larger battles and bigger set pieces. AMC’s series needs more room these days, it needs the space to include the asinine amount of characters and their respective baggage. I want to take that room away from them. The show needs to drop half the cast, lock the surviving few in a building and return to the themes of what once made this show great. AMC needs to take a lesson from Telltale, narrow its focus and create drama not from war, not from fifty different stories from fifty different characters, but from personal, intricate dilemmas that affect the four or five people at the story’s heart.
This exact scenario is why AMC’s new spin-off show, Fear the Walking Dead, has in its first season worked so well. It’s about a family surviving in a world they don’t understand. It’s a narrow, small story, set against the backdrop of a big and terrifying world. Telltale does the same thing, their new Michonne centred entry into the game series was more engaging in its first episode than I can remember the TV show being in a very long time. It focuses on a woman, lost and confused, trying to survive while being tormented by the demons of her past. It’s simple stuff and it doesn’t take a lot of money and resources to achieve. More importantly, it’s a damn site more entertaining than four wishy-washy conversations about who gives a damn delivered by characters that were introduced ten episodes ago, that no one would miss if they never turned up again.
What makes Telltale’s series work is the same thing that makes HBO’s Game of Thrones work. It kills of its big characters, the ones you care about, before you have the chance to get sick of them. This is a method that works because as an audience you never know what to expect, you can never be comfortable. The Walking Dead does the exact opposite of this. It trolls you with character death teases over and over again, hitting you over the head with the same clunky character beats of people that stopped being interesting two seasons ago.
AMC needs to kill off a bunch of faces, or at the very least, send them away. By doing this they can capture some of what makes Telltale’s The Walking Dead so enthralling. They can narrow their focus and figure out what story it wants to tell. It will have the time to develop characters that have real conversations with each other. It can put its small band of survivors on a course that will keep our attention from episode to episode, instead of what it is doing right now, which is essentially two flashy episodes at the beginning and end of a season with a bunch of filler in between, filler that tries to be character driven but fails miserably. I’m not saying disregard character moments, quite the opposite, I want more of that, but only if it’s done well. Unfortunately, with TWD, it rarely is.
There is no reason why the TV show can’t achieve what the video game is accomplishing. There is no reason their story can’t be as engaging week to week as Telltale’s. Other shows do it, other popular big budget shows do it. The Walking Dead can do it. The first step to fixing a problem is recognising one exists. The Walking Dead has one and it can fix it very easily. They can start to fix it in one episode. With a bunch of deaths and a return to a centralised, focused tale of drama and horror, AMC’s The Walking Dead can be the show it used to be, it can deliver an experience that matches its video game counterpart. What on earth are they waiting for?