[9 December 2010]
One of the great strengths of television as a storytelling device is its episodic, yet indefinitely framed sense of time. Television’s season format allows for longer-form storytelling, longer still for stories that span the length of an entire series, while individual episodes allow for more focused moments. The viewer experiences narrative time both in measurements of years and the present moment.
This effect of story experienced both in the long and the short term is evident especially in shows that do not slavishly follow a timeline, but instead shake things up through flashback or dream sequence, as in Twin Peaks and The Sopranos, or in allowing longer periods to suspend between picking back up at the beginning of a season, as with Battlestar Gallactica and Mad Men. One of the most inventive uses of the return from “summer break” at the beginning of a season was the addition of Dawn in the Season 5 premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The sudden appearance of the Dawn character was instantly disorienting, but also interestingly significant of television’s standard practice of haphazardly inserting previously unknown characters into established narrative worlds.
While it may be early to speak definitively about The Walking Dead as a series, the show has already capitalized considerably on this great strength of the television medium, as well as expanded significantly on the corpus of the zombie tale (pun intended). AMC’s prestige monster outing seems all the more expansive and detail-oriented, and thus more thrilling, for being played through a medium that allows for slowly built moments of suspense. The zombie apocalypse as portrayed in the pilot episode is quietly riveting, as in the protagonist’s long, slow walk down the dark corridor of the abandoned hospital, the spyglass view shots of the zombie hive stumbling aimlessly around the street, a child insisting to pray over an evening meal while the world quietly comes to an end just outside his doorstep.
Zombies are scary, unlike vampires or wolfmen, but not for being individual; they’re scary because they are legion, faceless. The zombie apocalypse implicates human culture at large, and in the case of The Walking Dead, the television culture at large. Unlike their monster counterparts, zombies do not stand parallel to humanity as freaks to be feared but alter “normalcy” itself, wearing the clothes of the living but behaving and appearing like something wholly Other.
Mainstream television is rarely a medium that pushes boundaries of normative behavior but more frequently reinforces already established cultural currency. More ordinary, less monsterish programs most often take the backdrop of the young, urban community; large urban centers, like New York, often stand in for the known world on sit-coms like Friends, Seinfeld, and Mad About You. Single-camera programs, on the other hand, offer insight to little-known enclaves of the greater cultural consciousness, as with Friday Night Lights, Law & Order, or The West Wing, but these shows still deal mostly in commonalities of normative behavior, though with the added interest of how their particular community has adapted.
The Walking Dead attempts neither of these approaches; it operates with the death of a culture as its backdrop. What connections of normalcy that exist are expressed as constantly under threat of redefinition, if not extinction. Like other genre-heavy programs before it, such as LOST and True Blood, The Walking Dead reduces the cultural norms that act as the lifeline between television character and viewer to the most fundamental aspects of human existence: survival. Thus, the presence of zombies on television, their necessary revision of “normalcy”, can be said to constitute an innovation of dramatic baseline for the medium.
As zombies’ true menace is the slow-creeping dread of suspense, and the just as slowly creeping realizations of their cultural implication, a longer, more lived-in form gives this menace room to play out to the bitter end.