Thursday, March 22, 2012

Can "The Walking Dead" cling to life years from now?

It's been years since I watched an hour-long drama for any length of time. I find the format to be a real challenge for a couple of reasons.

First, it's an hour. I can usually convince myself that I have 30 minutes for, say, Modern Family or Community, but an entire hour? That's frequently just too much to ask of me, especially when I have other pressing matters such as not doing yard work or losing at Words with Friends.

Second, it's not just too much to ask of me: it's too much to ask of the writers. Writing one good 45-page script is doable. Writing two of them is probably well within the range of possibility. What about five of them? Six of them?

How about writing 22 of them? And then doing that again after a short break?

My biggest problem with hour-long dramas has nothing to do with the writers and everything to do with the format. If a traditional television season is 22 episodes and each one-hour episode is about 45 script pages (I'm following the "15 minutes of commercials for each televised hour" principle here), one season of a show requires nearly 1,000 script pages. That would be a lot for William Shakespeare, let alone mere mortals.

As a consequence of churning out so many pages, all focused on the same characters (for the most part), these shows inevitably descend into dramatic caricatures of their earlier selves, with dramatic elements seemingly tossed in willy-nilly to generate enough tension to drive us through the current episode and prep us for the next. As a result, the line between prime-time drama and day-time soap opera can oftentimes be blurred.

The Sopranos faltered toward the end of its run, I believe, because the storytelling value of its characters' lives had been exhausted (even though I don't believe any season of that show featured 22 episodes). The X-Files similarly wore down (on a more traditional network schedule), as did ER, The West Wing, Hill Street Blues ... well, the list goes on. I think it's happened to just about every hour-long drama that's lasted more than three seasons.

(I think police/crime/mystery procedurals are largely exempt from this, as they don't rely on serial storytelling. If Monk was still on the air, I'd still be watching it. Every freakin' week.)  

Right now, The Walking Dead is the only hour-long program I watch. And I'm absolutely hooked. I'm hoping we are many, many seasons away from the storytelling fatigue other programs encounter, because this is a non-traditional schedule -- season one was, I believe, six episodes and the just-completed season two was 13 episodes. That's two seasons with a lighter episode load than a network drama would be required to produce in a single season.

The fantasy underpinning of the show would seem to serve it well, too, not unlike Star Trek: The Next Generation's ability to mine its own fantasy underpinnings for season after season of quality writing. 

Despite the loss of season one showrunner Frank Darabont -- a loss that had some writing off the show -- this second season ratcheted up the human drama without overreaching while providing genre fans some great frights.* Now if Lori could only keep on eye on Carl every now and again, we'd all be good.

I don't know ... maybe I should be lamenting. Nineteen hour-long episodes of any television program represents 19 hours of my life I could have spent napping or trying to start my old lawnmower. Still, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that The Walking Dead continues to bring life to my television viewing time for many years to come.

* Yeah, I'm a fan. Check out the proof.