After watching the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead's fourth season, I think it's safe to say that this isn't the same show that many of us fell in love with three years ago.
Considering that AMC (NASDAQ:AMCX) has already gone through three showrunners in four seasons, some creative inconsistencies were inevitable. The fourth season hasn't been terrible, but it also hasn't measured up to the brilliance of the first two, which were more tightly contained stories that moved the plot along much more quickly.
Therefore, let's take a look at three big mistakes that The Walking Dead should fix to get back on track. (Spoilers ahead if you're not up to date on your viewing.)
Mistake #1: A longer season isn't necessarily a better one
In my opinion, the show's new format of splitting a 16-episode season into two 8-episode half-seasons, which started in Season 3, is a problem.
It could work if the two half-seasons had tighter and distinct storylines, but showrunners Glen Mazzara (Season 3) and Scott Gimple (Season 4) stretched out dull storylines with filler to artificially lengthen the seasons.
In Season 3, most of these filler storylines centered around Andrea's alliance with the villainous Governor. Andrea gets stuck between her loyalty to Rick's group and her feelings for the Governor, which ultimately results in a filler episode dedicated to the Governor chasing Andrea down like a cliche B horror movie villain.
Misfires like that continued into Season 4. Two episodes featuring the Governor, during which the writers hinted that he could redeem himself, were particularly problematic. Along with his new story, viewers were introduced to a new supporting cast of characters who foolishly proclaimed the Governor as their new leader.
Unfortunately, all of that character development was wasted, since the Governor revealed that he hadn't changed at all during the mid-season finale, resulting in a firefight that killed off most of the newly introduced cast. So what was the point of the two Governor episodes anyway, other than an obvious attempt to stall the storyline?
Mistake #2: Not making every character count
The first two seasons of The Walking Dead worked like clockwork thanks to a limited cast and excellent character development.
We saw what Rick and Shane were like before the zombie apocalypse and the tragic toll it took on their friendship. We see how times of crisis reveals people's true natures, and even though Shane was clearly destined to be Rick's nemesis, it was easy to empathize with him and see him as a victim of circumstance.
When one of the group members died, it shocked audiences because these were characters that they had identified with. Unfortunately, since the show is about the zombie apocalypse, the group had to be culled as the series progressed.
The problem is that the writers have now killed off so many members of the original group that two things have happened -- viewers are numb to characters being killed off and they simply don't care anymore, because the newer characters simply aren't that interesting or fleshed out.
Season 4 kicks off with a bunch of new characters who are obviously introduced to be killed. Characters are also introduced as plot devices rather than people, such as Tyrese's girlfriend, Karen, and Beth's boyfriend, Zach, who simply get introduced and killed off to elicit emotional responses from their more important counterparts.
Piling on new characters not only steals screen time from the core cast that made the show great in the first place, but it also fragments the storyline so much that new characters are not adequately developed before meeting their grisly ends. It's a similar mistake that CBS (NYSE:CBS) Showtime's Dexter notably made and one that Breaking Bad deftly avoided by making every character count.
Mistake #3: Not enough quiet moments
Yet I think one of the biggest problems with The Walking Dead is that it's lost track of what made the show memorable in the first place -- its quiet moments, such as the conversation between Rick and Morgan during Season 3's critically acclaimed 12th episode, "Clear."
During that episode, Morgan sums up the theme of the comic and the show in one breath, stating, "See, 'cause people like you, the good people, they always die. And the bad people do, too. But the weak people, the people like me... we have inherited the earth."
In the world of The Walking Dead, the one constant is death. However, Rick is the protagonist because he wants his group to retain their humanity in an inhuman world. The greatest villain in post-apocalyptic Atlanta isn't a walker -- it's the base desire within humans that changes them into living monsters after society collapses.
Don't get me wrong -- this is a zombie show after all, but with more characters simply being introduced as fodder and elevated demand for more zombies and bigger battles, I feel that we'll see less of those quiet, character-defining moments in future episodes.
It's all about the money
Despite my creative criticisms of The Walking Dead, it all comes down to the money.
AMC is notorious for its penny-pinching ways, and has had plenty of widely publicized disputes with the showrunners of The Walking Dead, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad over budget and creative issues. However, these three top shows aren't cheap to make.
Estimated cost per episode
The Walking Dead
The popularity of these shows was the primary reason that AMC's revenue jumped 19% year-over-year to $395 million as its profit climbed 59% to $58 million last quarter. Since these three shows are AMC's primary pillars of revenue growth, the network is clearly worried about the eventual loss of these core franchises.
To deal with the end of Breaking Bad, AMC is launching a spin-off series called Better Call Saul. To keep Mad Men around for awhile longer, it is also splitting the final season into two parts in 2014 and 2015. Finally, to keep The Walking Dead undead magic alive for as long as possible, AMC is spinning off a new series that is rumored to be a prequel to the core franchise.
However, spinning off The Walking Dead could ultimately cheapen the original franchise, as CBS' CSI: NY and CSI: Miami did to the original CSI. I also think the new spinoff could ultimately suffer from unfavorable comparisons to the original show.
A final thought
More importantly, considering the three aforementioned mistakes that haven't been resolved with the original show, I don't believe that a new show, which is scheduled to debut in 2015, will fare any better.
What do you think, fellow Fools? Do you think that The Walking Dead needs to fix these problems to become a better show, or does its current formula work?
Fool contributor Leo Sun has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.