When good shows start to smell

Airing of Grievances, The Art of the Story

Benjamin Franklin famously said that guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. The idea being that both are delightful at first and can be enjoyed for a while, but in time you will begin to tire of them and at a point you will really not want to be in the proximity of them. Three days for guests and fish. 7-8 seasons for most successful television shows.

The television show expiration date is one that can be manipulated somewhat, depending on the show’s premise and the ability for the scope of the show to expand without losing credibility. Signs of impending doom for a show include the addition of a major character and a large change to the premise of the show. These are both indicators that the writers have used their best ideas and are frantically searching for more.

—– SPOILER ALERT: THE WALKING DEAD —–

I have been watching The Walking Dead since my son suggested I watch Season One on Netflix in preparation for Season Two. We binge watched that first season in a weekend and I was completely hooked. I had never watched any zombie shows or movies before, save the Scooby Doo show as a child and had very few preconceptions about zombies to begin with, so this show was able to set the table for me.

This new world that Rick Grimes woke up into was populated with animated corpses that would attack any living beings they encounter and eat. There were very few survivors and your best hope was to find others and look out for one another, raiding the stores and homes that were suddenly vacant for food and supplies. Season one was more about the zombies in the beginning, but quickly shifted toward being more about the human interactions with the ever present danger of zombies prodding the humans to keep moving.

As the seasons progressed, the zombies became less and less the worst threat in this world. Reduced resources and the resulting conflict between groups of survivors became a bigger problem. This is why the Prison, Woodbury, Terminus and Alexandria became such interesting arcs. The addition of the Hilltop added intrigue as a potential friend or rival with Alexandria. The survivors began to reclaim a sense of civilization.

Up to this point, everything was feasible, if you allow your acceptance to include a world overrun by corpses that walked around seeking living people to consume. Under that premise, it was believable that people would raid stores and homes, that some groups would try to be agrarian and defensive while others would be more apt to fight and raid even the other survivors to their benefit.

The show has been in a really good place for several seasons, but ratings have slipped a bit. The premise of the show cannot continue to be one of lather, rinse, repeat forever. Even compelling storylines and characters cannot keep a similar concept going indefinitely. The story has to be kept fresh and has to continue to advance. And sometimes the only way to do this is to kill off a major character and build up new characters to change dynamics. You can do this in a post-apocalyptic story.

—– SPOILER ALERT: NOW I’M SERIOUS! —–

The current season has the survivors fighting a group that calls itself “The Saviors.” This is a group that finds the nearby groups of survivor communities and runs a protection racket on them. Each understanding they come to is unique to that group. In the case of Alexandria, they are to give half of everything and all of their guns, which makes long term survival in this world unlikely at best.

The first half of the season did two things.

  1. It built up the Saviors so everyone would know that they are the big dog on the block. They killed two major members of Rick’s group, both strong fighters and they did it in cold blood. They are too strong for our main group of survivors and too ruthless to be allowed to continue.
  2. The other thing the first half season did was introduce the viewers to other groups in the area. These groups are generally unaware of each other, though they are all fairly well established.  And that’s where the bounds of belief begin to stretch.

The Hilltop is a group that lives on the grounds of a living history museum. I could see that. The Kingdom? Some dude convinced other survivors that he was a king like Hamlet who had a full sized pet tiger, and they should wear armor made from motocross gear and act like knights? A group of women who kill any outsiders on sight and their community has no men whatsoever, even if it was the Saviors who killed all of the men? And now a community that lives in a garbage dump maze and who have somehow lost their ability to speak coherently with others in just a few years?

The gameplan for Rick is to try and convince these groups to band together and kill off the Saviors once and for all. In the years his group was without a home base, when they would scout from one area to another, hunting and foraging as they went, they did not see any of these other people, and now they’re tripping over them? And these groups had no knowledge of each other? Every group has been making attempts to provide fresh food for themselves, but every group has also been raiding the canned goods as they go. But only the Hilltop and Alexandria had any real knowledge of the other? And the Saviors were unaware of Alexandria all this time?

I’m invested in this show. I either want the show to return to feasibility or I want it to come to a logical and conclusive end. I don’t want to see it fizzle out the way so many others do. Fonzie jumped a shark on water skis while wearing his leather jacket. Roseanne won the lottery and the story changed from one of a lower to middle class family just trying to pay the bills to one of a recently widowed millionaire. The audience could no longer relate and the show was cancelled.

The Walking Dead is now it its seventh season and an eighth season is in the works. The writers claim they have enough material to produce an additional 5-7 seasons. If the show doesn’t return to a look at society under a lens where there is no universal government, law or order, if it doesn’t become the Western that apocalyptic shows really are, then I don’t think we’ll have a season nine.

I hope you’re still reading. I hope you keep reading this.

Side note: this can also happen in a Christian context. The newness of one’s faith may begin to fade and they are desperate to return to that feeling once again. Sometimes the person will change churches. Sometimes they will change denominations. Sometimes they will begin to incorporate religious practices that are inconsistent with Christianity! As often as not, these people are rooted in their own feelings instead of Christ. This is idolatry in your own feelings and in your own self and is detestable before God. I am not saying that these people cannot be true Christians, though it is possible that they may not be. I am saying that these people need to repent of this sin and turn to Christ as the only satisfying need in their life.

I don’t believe you

The Art of the Story

Last night I watched “Walk the Line” with Joaquin Phoenix for the first time. This movie is a biopic of the life of Johnny Cash from his younger years as a poor child of a sharecropper, through his dark years of addiction and a failing family life, to his eventual proposal to June Carter. I enjoyed it very much and several details of his younger life come into play in his later years. This is a movie that I would suggest you watch more than once and I suspect you’d pick up on more things as you watch it again.

One such pivotal event in his life was his audition for Sun Records, which is shared in this post. Johnny and his band are playing the gospel song they have been practicing together for just this moment and the producer cuts them off to tell them that he wouldn’t be interested in music that won’t sell. Their song was already well known and was a radio staple with other bands performing it and there was no angle for Johnny to approach it that would set it apart from the others. Or as the producer said, “I don’t believe you.”

This belief had nothing to do with the sincerity of Cash’s belief in God, but in the way that his belief was presented within the song. It had been rehearsed to the point where the genuineness, the emotion, of the song was stripped out. That, and the market saturation of such songs, was going to be the premature doom of Johnny Cash’s career and he needed something that was relatable right at that moment or his band would be wished a good day and he would either go back to selling items door to door or he would take a job at his father in law’s business.

He sang “Folsom Prison Blues” on his own, since his band wasn’t familiar with the song yet, and the rest is history. As the movie progresses, he understands the plight of prisoners more and more as his behavior takes him down a path where he can identify with outlaws and outcasts on a more personal level. And the ill-advised concert inside Folsom Prison marks the point in the story where he comes full circle, embracing his outlaw identity and reclaiming his status as one of the biggest stars in the history of these United States of America.

His success really developed when he stopped singing the same songs as everybody else and sang out of his own experience as a poor child raised during the Great Depression, acquainted with death and sorrow, and never quite being accepted by his own father. It was out of this underlying desperation that he was able to sing a song that caused the producer to believe him enough to sign him to a contract. And it was this desperation and the success that he chased that took him down many dark paths.

It struck me that much of the arts that we have enjoyed in the last few generations have been inspired by hardship. People tend to celebrate that which they identify with, and celebrations often take the form of song. Where is the next great blues act going to come from or will new examples of this expression fade into disingenuousness? How can you sing about the summer days of youth when your childhood was spent looking at a screen? What kind of believable artistic expression comes out of a culture of uninhibited hedonistic desires with internally rejected consequences?

I’m glad I watched this movie. It told a compelling story and did not sugar coat Johnny Cash. It did not overlook the fallout of his choices or place the blame for the outcomes elsewhere. It made me think. It made me feel. It made me care. The movie has been out a good decade now. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and look it up!

Two Shows Coming to Amazon Prime Video

The Art of the Story

Amazon Prime Video doesn’t have the brand or saturation of Netflix yet but it is rapidly gaining thanks to Amazon’s dominance in online shopping and the quality (if not the quantity) of the shows. People get Prime for the free shipping and a lot of us don’t even think about what’s available in Prime Video.

Well please allow me to direct your attention to two shows that I have enjoyed very much. Shows that will have you directing your smart TV, Roku, game console or connected DVD player toward Amazon the next time you want a good story.

The Man in the High Castle, Season Two

This Amazon original is set in the 1960s, but not the ’60s that you may remember or imagine. The premise of this story is that the USA did not develop the hydrogen bomb or win World War II. Rather, Germany was able to make their own bomb and they ended the war by dropping it on Washington D.C.

In the years following the war, all continental territory of the US (and I believe neighboring countries as well) is under an occupied status. To the west of the Rocky Mountains, the Japanese rule over the people. To the east of the Rockies the Germans control the people. Within the Rockies there is a buffer zone. The Germans and Japanese have a tenuous partnership, and the citizenry is quite literally living in the middle of the way things are and the way they should have been.

There are films that are being passed around the black market. Films that show things that the occupying forces do not want the people to see. And there is a resistance that is trying to get these films to The Man in the High Castle. And nobody seems to know why he would want them or what he would do with him. But it’s important that they arrive. Deathly important.

The story is top notch. The struggle of the characters is felt. You will find yourself loathing and loving the same character at the same time. Season two is coming out soon. Right now would be a great time to watch season one in preparation for it.

The Expanse

The Expanse Season 1 is coming to Amazon Prime on Dec 14th. I watched the season on the SciFy network and it prompted me to buy the book. I know, that’s a bit backwards. But I found that the series is faithful to the book, which makes the nerd in me very happy.

The premise is pretty straightforward. The show happens roughly 200 year in the future. With certain jumps in technology, Earth has begun to explore the solar system. Major leaps in knowledge have been made, but not in understanding or wisdom. Humans are still humans. We have colonized Mars as well as the asteroid belt, and the citizens of Mars have declared independance from Earth. We have also colonized the asteroid belt and begun mining the asteroids for mineral and resource wealth. The belters, likewise, no longer see themselves as citizens of Earth. Three factions, each with their own understandings and misunderstandings, each with a grudge against the other two.

The story is told from the vantage of a police detective on one of the asteroid stations and also from the captain of a small ship. Both found themselves in a mystery that they didn’t ask for and the rabbit hole in each case is much, much deeper than they could have imagined.

Let me be blunt here. If you are still crying that FOX cancelled “Firefly” like I am, you absolutely need to get on board with “The Expanse.” It has been a long time since science fiction this good was presented to us, on the large screen or the small. It is time to invest in the converging stories of “The Expanse.”

Stupid Zombies > Smart Zombies

The Art of the Story

Yesterday, I shared my opinion that slow zombies make for a better story than fast zombies. Gripping stuff, right? Well today, I’d like to share my opinion that stupid zombies are better than intelligent zombies. And hear me out, it is more logical!

Theoretically, zombies are animated corpses with just enough brain activity to move about and feed to satisfy their continual starvation pains. Somehow, many movies translate this into fast moving, cunning zombies that are capable of hatching elaborate plans and using teamwork to get at a living person’s brains, which would require the use of a tool of some sort to get at the grey matter.

Say what? Animated corpses displaying such a degree of advancement? If I were an evolutionary theorist, I would assume that zombies are just the next, better stage of evolution, not a monster! It would be the human evolutionary duty to continue to reproduce to later have people metamorph into zombies, probably as a rite of passage. This makes absolutely no sense! Not that evolutionary theory makes sense anyway, but work with me here.

Stupid zombies (like the slow zombies) are not able to take over the story to an imbalanced level. Thus, the character development – emotional investment – regular watcher of a show is far more conducive. Smart, fast zombie movies rely on special effects. Slow, stupid zombie shows rely on character development and (gasp!) story telling.

Along similar lines, it requires intelligent animated corpses (triple contradiction!) to make brain eating the role of the zombie. No, the Walking Dead does a much better job of this. Stupid zombies, when they are able to capture a human, will eat any living flesh they can get into their mouths. And they don’t care if the victim is living or dead when they bite into them, but if dead the victim should be recently killed in order for their parts to be desirable.

This is yet another reason the Walking Dead is the best zombie story out there. And this is coming from someone who didn’t care for zombie stories a few years ago. Perhaps this is because every zombie production I had seen before was reliant on special effects and over the top zombies to attract the viewer. TWD certainly has this, but the focus is where it truly belongs, on the survivors. It is a compelling story that keeps me coming back, not the premise that the characters are living in a post-apocalyptic world.

Slow Zombies > Fast Zombies

The Art of the Story

While I’m no expert in the genre, I’ve been watching The Walking Dead from the beginning and seen a few examples of zombie movies. Over-thinking things way to much here, I just gotta say that I prefer the “slow zombie” aspect of The Walking Dead over the “fast zombies” that are depicted in most of the movies. Why?

In a fast zombie show, the entire story is about the surviving humans surviving against the horde of zombies, that are often quite intelligent and not really unlike the Aliens movies when you think about it.  They have superhuman abilities and can rely on cunning and even teamwork as they go after the human protagonists.

In a slow zombie show, the story is more about the surviving humans interacting with each other. The zombies are a very real danger to them, but more than that they are trying to survive without the supports of society. Medical care, rescue teams, police, grocery stores, all gone. And you have to make survival decisions for the good of the self and the group.

In a very real way, zombie shows are today’s version of a western. The hero/group is surviving in a hostile frontier world. There are dangers all around, from wild animals, from humans native to the landscape and from other survivors who may see the main characters as a target to obtain resources or to join their lawless exploits. And it is lawless. There is no legal structure whatsoever. Oftentimes, it is a survival of the fittest story and the characters must make horrible decisions to continue on to the next day.

Slow zombie shows are conducive to character development. And character development creates emotional investment among the viewers. And emotional investment keeps the viewers watching week after week. That is why I love “The Walking Dead” so much. The lack of emotional investment is why I am unable to suggest “Fear the Walking Dead” so far. I’ll explain how this may or may not be a fair assessment in a future post.