By Mark Alpert
I know I’m coming late to this party, but I love The Walking Dead. A few weeks ago my teenage son and I started watching the show on Netflix as a sort of after-school treat. After a long hard day of Latin and algebra (for him) and manuscript revisions (for me) we sit down together on the couch to enjoy an hour of zombie mayhem. Of course, if you’re a fan of the program you know that the title characters are never called zombies; when the dead come on the scene, the living alert one another with the cry, “Walkers!” And that’s how I greet my son when he comes home from school and drops his incredibly heavy backpack on the floor. I yell, “Walkers! It’s time for Walkers!” and we race toward the living-room couch.
Why do we like it so much? Well, we’ve always had a thing for zombies. I still read to my son before he goes to bed (awww, isn’t that cute, I hear you say) but now I read World War Z instead of Doctor Seuss (yikes, what kind of father are you?) And we both loved 28 Days Later, the movie that originated the man-wakes-up-from-coma-to-find-world-overrun-by-zombies trope that was so shamelessly stolen by The Walking Dead. But there’s something special about the TV show. First, there’s the soap-opera appeal, the affection you develop for characters simply because you see them every day. Second, there’s the sheer bleakness of the characters’ situation, and the blind relentlessness of the enemy they face. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. You can’t turn away.
But the most interesting aspect of the show, at least from a novelist’s point of view, is its narrative format. A television series like The Walking Dead doesn’t have the conventional beginning-middle-end structure of most novels and movies. It’s episodic (naturally), and that makes the story feel more like early works of fiction such as Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travelsand The Pilgrim’s Progress. The characters travel from one adventure to the next, and though the details are a little different each time — in one episode, Don Quixote tilts at windmills, in the next he mistakes a pair of monks for enchanters — the basic setup of each scene is the same. (Or, to use another example, Gulliver has unusual adventures in a kingdom of tiny people, then in a kingdom of giants, then in a kingdom that floats among the clouds, and so on.) The danger with this kind of format is that it can get repetitious. And in fact, that’s a problem some viewers have with The Walking Dead. Many of the episodes seem to follow a standard, timeworn formula: start with a flashback from the good ol’ pre-zombie days, followed by thirty minutes of dread and sniping among the characters, then someone does something phenomenally stupid or brave and the dead arrive en masse. And every episode ends with a cliffhanger, of course.
On the other hand, the strength of this format is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As you watch episode after episode (my son and I have set a strict limit of no more than one per day) you get the feeling that you’re watching more than the struggles of a small band of survivors. You start to think, “If these people can’t make it, then no one can. If they die, the whole human race is doomed.” The perils and travails come so fast and furious that you can’t help but think of Job and how God killed his family and took away all his possessions just to make a point. The religious theme is made explicit in the first episode of Season 2 when Rick the sheriff’s deputy prays aloud in the country church (after killing the zombies who were sitting in the pews).
Although the show’s format may not resemble a novel’s, The Walking Dead offers lots of good lessons for thriller writers. In too many thrillers (including my own), the heroes are unrealistically resilient; in The Walking Dead, the constant fear and tension chew up the living characters almost as relentlessly as the zombies do. And nearly every character on the show has a mix of good and bad in his or her soul. Many of their actions are heroic and heinous at the same time. I don’t plan to write about zombies anytime soon (I’m too damn scientific — I just don’t understand how the dead can walk without a working circulatory system) but I’d like to write about the same kind of desperation, the furious battle between hope and despair. Something to think about for the next book!