I watch a lot of TV. This is old news. Sometimes, though, my obsession with keeping up with TV gets unhealthy, particularly when I’m unwilling to quit a show I don’t even like anymore.
It’s “The Walking Dead.” “The Walking Dead” is what I’m talking about.
Critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls “The Walking Dead” an example of the “Bad Relationship Show, taking its audience for granted or treating it like garbage for weeks, then doing or saying something that momentarily makes you think the series is delivering on its promise, only to backslide quickly and become ostentatiously mediocre again.”
I’ve stayed committed to far too many Bad Relationship Shows. I watched all eight seasons of “Dexter” and all six seasons of “Glee,” two shows that repeatedly sprinkled hints of potential in their later, bad seasons, only to fail at delivering on that promise. When Debra (Jennifer Carpenter, “Limitless”) from “Dexter” discovered her brother’s secret at the end of the sixth season, the show impressively depicted the fallout, giving her the agency to break off her relationship with Dexter (Michael C. Hall, “Six Feet Under”) — only to lionize him and slaughter Debra’s character development with an ill-advised quasi-incest plot.
“Glee” was the ultimate example of this pattern, waffling between promising and abysmal so rapidly it induced whiplash. Rachel (Lea Michele, “Scream Queens”) and Kurt’s (Chris Colfer, “Struck by Lightning”) move to New York briefly revitalized the show with a new setting, but the new characters back home were left in the dust when it came to interesting storytelling. Subsequent seasons featured countless plots that went nowhere, and yet I kept watching; it felt wrong to invest so much time in the show only to stop five years in. I thought, at least, that the show would end on a high note, recovering with an emotional series finale that made you remember the show in its prime; that’s what happened with “The Office.” Nope. It was bad.
“The Walking Dead” is the most prominent show in pop culture that fits this mold, still getting huge ratings despite its repeated violation of the audience’s trust. The fourth season was a recovery season of sorts, and the fifth season was by far the best of the show’s whole run. Then the sixth season happened, and I got burned worse than ever.
Enough think pieces have been written at this point, so I don’t need to explain why the latest “The Walking Dead” premiere was so bad. I’ll just say that after a horrifically bad season finale last year, a lot would have to be done to earn back my goodwill, and the premiere did not do that. It was more of the same, and it should’ve been the straw that broke the camel’s back. I should’ve just made the definitive decision to stop watching.
And then the second episode aired, and it was pretty good. The new character of Ezekiel (Khary Payton, “General Hospital”) instantly established himself as the most interesting one on the show — at this point, most of the main cast has far outstayed their welcome — and the episode had a surprisingly hopeful message, with a healthy dose of levity and a refreshing element of surreality. (Ezekiel leads a community called the Kingdom, reigning as a “king” with a CGI tiger at his side).
To be clear, I don’t think this means the show’s going to actually continue on its upward trajectory. “The Walking Dead” has done this countless times, and I have no faith that it’ll suddenly improve and stay good for more than a couple episodes at a time. There’ll be some decent episodes, then one that comes close to breaking me. As Zack Handlen from The AV Club said, the ideal way to watch the show is to “Enjoy the moments, but don’t necessarily expect them to add up to anything more than themselves.”
Part of me knows, though, that even if the show gets to a point where I don’t enjoy any of the moments — even if every episode is dull, pseudo-philosophical, and unrelentingly, mundanely grim — I’ll probably still keep watching. That’s the burden of the hopeless completist.