The Walking Dead, Season 4: Mid Term Review

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Back on The Warm Glow and back writing about The Walking Dead. Yay.

So, The Walking Dead has reached its midway point in what bizarrely is its fourth season. I say bizarre as I can scarcely believe that this undead melodrama has been going for four years. Often serialised dramas are hitting their stride; in many cases their zenith (The Wire, The Shield, The X Files as ones that strike immediately to mind) with the fourth series being the show’s high watermark, never to hit the same quality again. Yet with TWD I feel like nothing has really happened.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve long since accepted that TWD is a 6/10 show that occasionally conjures up 9/10 episodes. The warning signs were all there from the ropey ending of the first season and the boredom atrocity that was the second season. Finally the experiment with constant action and be damned be with plot, characterisation and continuity hit the mark more often than in the past, but only as long as you didn’t pay attention too hard

Then, the elephant in the room. The ending of season 3. Having finally managed to craft something resembling a season long arc, a Big Bad beyond the ever present but agenda-less zombies, it blew it in the dampest of squibs imaginable. It felt downright insulting to have a 15 episode build up (the equivalent of 2 days at work) result in The Governor suddenly killing all his own troops (for……some reason. Always best not to ask the awkward questions  when watching The Walking Dead) and all his gang upping sticks and suddenly hanging out with Rick and co. The final shot of a cheesy sunset the icing on the cake of crap.

So season 4. A fresh start with Scott Gimple, responsible for many of those high points mentioned above, and thus, some fresh hope.

Despite a strong opening with a hilariously inventive set piece with zombies dropping through a rotting ceiling (say what you want about TWD, they are always coming up with fresh ways to kill zombies) which circumvented the show’s often troubling racial undertones by having an under written white character act as the  sacrificial lamb for once, 4.1 (is this how we label it? I can’t get on board with this half season malarkey) was underwhelmingly solid.

Around episode 4 I even began properly questioning why I continue to watch. The plague story was frankly pretty drab and suffered from issues of timing (the”away team” led by Daryl seemed in their scenes to have been gone a day or so, but it felt like weeks back at the prison). An increased focus on  characterisation was welcome but often felt staid and forced. Though I will reserve praise for the scenes with Michonne and the baby – TWD is often guilty of just having characters say their emotions as the only route of conveying them, yet without saying a word they brought real depth to the show’s most criminally underused asset.

However, with the return of The Governor and the mid season finale, it all clicked. The episode “Live Bait” marking the flash back of the Gov was a definite season high point and actually allowed David Morrissey to do some acting, shaping Woodbury’s psycho in chief into something resembling a character with a partial redemption story. Sure enough next week it all fell off the rails, but it makes The Governor out as a decent man who broken by grief just can’t control his urge for power and violence; as much a casualty of this apocalypse as anyone else we’ve met.

With the finale, while some things didn’t really add up (why did everyone trust this crazy dude who’d rocked up and started murdering everyone) everything made broad sense. Clearly the show had been written into a hole by the previous show runner, and Gimple had his own Myreenese Knot to solve.

No spoilers for Game of Thrones here, but authour George RR Martin has blamed the bloated nature of the last couple of books on the need to get a whole host of characters all to the same place and time to allow the story to progress. In the comics, the events of season 3’s finale result in the rough outcomes of season 4’s mid point finish. Basically, Gimple had to clear out all the bumph (the Woodbury extras, hence the plague), get The Governor back to the prison but also have us care about the characters to make the brutal events of “Too Far Gone” really sink home.

The events of “Too Far Gone” are lifted from the comics, in a devastating bloodbath which caused me to temporarily stop reading such was the bleakness. The show doesn’t quite hit those horrifying lows, but it came mighty close. The Governor of the comics is torn to pieces by walkers having been turned on by his own side in the chaos of the prison attack, but with the character work of the preceding episodes I felt the TV Governor’s end, dying alone having failed in his aims of taking the prison and keeping his loved ones safe yet again was far more fitting.

A particularly dull episode in the season featuring Herschel trying to save the player victims reaped its reward, in that I actually have a shit when his head was lopped off, and brought some gravitas to what could have all to easily slipped into nonsense.

And Daryl blew up a tank. Bad. Ass.

As a spectacle of television it was gut wrenching, and gives me genuine optimism for the rest of the season. With the shackles of past mistakes thrown off, there’s a chance for The Walking Dead to fulfill its potential. The new “on the run” format the trails have hinted at shows plenty of potential, and the site has always been strongest with small self contained stories.

There plenty of space for intrigue too; for my money I reckon that sociopathic young girl with all the empathy of Hannibal Lector was the one leaving rats and killed Tyresse’s missus with Carol covering for her. Also the big reveal: is Lil Asskicker still alive or was showing a mutilated infant too much even for The Walking Dead?

Either way, I’m actually interested to find out when the show returns, rather than just having a gap in my Monday evenings. Just, please stop blowing the chances I give you. Please?

THE DEATH OF THE THEME TUNE

You know a television show has piqued your interest, when the idea of waiting a week to view the latest instalment leaves you feeling that near death is imminent, like Frankie Boyle at Harvey Price’s birthday party. Addictions to shows can take weeks, creeping up on you until you realise that you’re much more attuned to it than you initially thought, or it can be an instant craving, a gnawing that won’t go away until you’ve addressed the wound thoroughly. The excellent show Portlandia really defined this phenomenon with their very amusing sketch about a couple developing a full blown obsession to the behemoth that is Battlestar Galactica.

Now myself, I’m not really one for mammoth American TV shows. I like the concept of immersing myself in those hour long epics which go on for many seasons, but honestly, I haven’t got the patience – or the interest to dedicate myself to such shows. To me, these shows are like energy drinks – I understand the appeal, but too much of them and you tend to get really annoying.

My own TV addiction is comedies; particularly US based ones, just like everybody else. Parks and Recreation, Community, Arrested Development, Party Down – I’m like a living Tumblr blog. There is something about those slightly smug, surprisingly superficial shows that I really enjoy. Perhaps it’s because they remind me of myself – an attempt to do something different, but by doing so really just being the same as everybody else.

However, one thing you notice when watching any sort of show a lot of times in succession, is that the opening music is important. If it’s not memorable, catchy, or particularly interesting then it’s guaranteed that for at least the first twenty seconds of every episode, you are going to be disappointed. If there is nothing to hum, to tap, or to dance to, then you’ve wasted a significant period of your life. Twenty seconds at a time might not sound like much, but if you multiply those twenty seconds by the amount of episodes you watch, you’ll come to a figure that, if spent wisely, could get you to do something more meaningful than to bulk watch TV shows.

But we’ll never do that, because TV is both the beauty and the beast. Because of Arrested Development, and because I love Will Arnett’s character in the show, I recently decided to start watching his newish sitcom, entitled Up All Night. Now, this is where I stop talking about how good shows are, because I’m about as qualified to talk about the content of comedy shows as I am qualified to talk about making quality metaphors. Instead this is where I shall start examining the most important question in television today – what on earth happened to the memorable theme tune?

I’m going to share a video with you now. It is the opening eighteen seconds of Up All Night. You don’t have to actually watch the titles; it’s just a series of still photographs stuck together with a flash. Just listen to it, embrace it, and then listen to it again. Go on, it’ll only take thirty-six seconds if you do it quickly.

I bet you any money in the world that even if you’ve listened to it twice in a row, you won’t be able to remember it properly. And why would you? It’s eighteen seconds of the most nondescript ‘music’ you’ll ever come across.  It’s too jaunty to be hold music, too lifeless to be lift music. I’m getting a bit of brass instruments in there, but I can’t really make out exactly what it is making that dirge. There is a baby chuckling at the end, or perhaps being winded, and well… nothing much else really.

So when I started to get into the show, and watched a couple of episodes in succession, I found that the theme did begin to become memorable, not in a fun, special way, but in the same way that you can’t stop remembering when you made a really unfunny joke, or when you come back home, look in the mirror and realise that you forgot to take your Batman cape off when you went to the shops.

It’s not just Up All Night’s fault. All of the shows I have mentioned are completely dull theme-wise. Let’s go through them, starting with Parks And Recreation.

It’s alright. It’s memorable – if a little long, but it foretells nothing of the story about to be unfolded in front of our eyes. It’s just… there. It wouldn’t feel out of place if it was the soundtrack to an advert advertising butter, and that’s not what I really want to hear unless I am watching a show about butter, which as it goes, happens never.

Next up, let’s have a little listen at the theme from Community.

This is just horrible. It’s the sound of being pipped on the line for the bronze medal in a race, it’s the sound of over-cooking vegetables, and it’s the sound of the first person booted out of X-Factor. Yes, it’s the sound of failure. An uninspiring boring singing voice, backed up by a boring tune, with lyrics so mind-numbingly boring, they can only be described as boring. For a show that can have such creative ideas, it is, to quote Bernard Manning in a Chris Morris sketch, “a fucking disgrace”.

What of Arrested Development, a show lauded by many for its complex humour, for the jokes you have to watch five times to notice, for the warmly named George Michael?

Now this is a little better. Who doesn’t love the voice of Ron Howard? Nobody! But then try asking that question when you hear it not only as the narrator, but in the titles as well. This is not what you want to hear every twenty-five minutes or so when the next episode starts.

I’m not even going to waste more than one sentence on Party Down , considering all they bother to give us is THREE SECONDS of the most bullshit music you’ll hear this side of Mumford and Sons. [go to about 2.25below]

So what makes a good theme song? For me there are a number of key components, and they vary for certain types of shows. For example, if we look at sports based television, the iconic themes that people love and remember, especially over in the UK, are mostly instrumental. Match of the Day, Ski Sunday, Soul Limbo for the cricket, the almost prog like quality of the snooker theme. Of course the granddaddy of them all, the irresistible force and the immovable object, is the Grandstand theme.

The fact we live in a world without Grandstand is completely twisted and tortured, even dismissing the theme song. We’ve just spent the last month watching judo, archery, and shooting in our millions, yet the BBC can’t devote four hours every Saturday afternoon to crown green balls, regional athletics and Final Score? Sadly, the only memories I have left of Grandstand now is the theme, a peacock-like piece of music, as it struts and flaunts its worth, and so it bloody should. One of my ultimate (clean) fantasies is to conduct an orchestra to play this wonderful piece of music.

So that’s sport, but what of comedies? What do I want from a comedy show in my theme? I want craft, I want thought, and I want catchiness. Cagney and Lacey didn’t work just because of the hair; it also worked because of the irresistible theme, crafted from the very same brain that produced the theme from Rocky.

So I want craft, but I also want words, and not just hastily scribbled together words like the ones you’re reading now, I want words which have relevance to what I’m watching. I want craft, and I want words which are instantly memorable and lasting, which leads me to Happy Days.

There is not a soul out there who doesn’t feel like moving when they hear the Happy Days theme. But I want more, I want craft, I want words, but I also want musicianship – I want a hook that will drive me wild. I want Red Dwarf.

And then I’ve almost got it all. But there’s a couple of missing ingredients left to fill. I’ve got my craft, words, musicianship – but I haven’t got a sense of belonging. Cagney and Lacey is too jazzy, Happy Days too jolly, Red Dwarf too “out-there”. I want to feel like I belong, like I’m part of something. I want to feel like I’m about to buy a David Bowie LP.

It’s almost perfect. The theme song is almost complete, but even if you include the craft, words, musicianship and sense of belonging, there is still something missing. Amidst every great comedy, is the dark sheen of tragedy and melancholy lurking. It’s the reminder that laughter is one extreme, and the other is tears, sadness and regret. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves, that while comedy, TV or music might not save our souls, at least we’re all going down together. People are all the same…

Now, taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot, but not in the case of the current batch of TV theme makers. If this sermon has taught you anything, it’s that there is more to making a memorable theme than sticking a couple of instruments together and hoping nobody notices. Because that’s not how this game should work – we want to notice, we want the theme to become a part of the piece, the final puzzle that can turn a good TV show into a great one.

You wouldn’t have a baby and then not try to give it the very best start in life, so why not try and do the same for TV shows?

If you think I’m right, wrong, or have great hair, feel free to share your thoughts – and your favourite (and least favourite) themes in the comments below. Alternatively, you can catch me on twitter @martinhines or not watching The Wire

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