Note:This post contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Comic, Show and Game. I generally avoid specifics since I'm talking more about themes and general ideas but in a discussion like this, spoilers are impossible to completely avoid.
Let it be known that I am a fan of the Walking Dead franchise. I have been a huge fan of the comic books way before the TV show came out. I don't say that as a hipster "I like this before it became big" statement but as a way to establish where I'm coming from. I've read 90+ issues of the comics (I've fallen about 20 issues behind). I think, unequivocally, that the comic book series is one of the best stories of this decade, let alone a zombie story. And so I was super excited when the TV show was announced. Robert Kirkman had been widely quoted as saying that the comic series as "the zombie movie that never ends" and so a TV series seemed a perfect fit.
The first season was good. And despite some of the misgivings I had about how the show was deviating from the comics, it still worked. When season 2 came out, the wheels came off and the show has been going downhill ever since. Meanwhile, Telltale Games released The Walking Dead game in 2012 set in the same universe as the comics but with an entirely different cast of characters. The game was met with universal acclaim. The roughly 10-12 hours of The Walking Dead game is not only a better representation of the comic book series than the entire 3 seasons and the few episodes of season 4 of the show that I've seen, but also stands alone as flat out better in every aspect. So where did the show go so wrong where the game went so right?
The Walking Dead comic series is not just a series about zombies, but is about the monsters within all of us. While the zombies themselves are an ever present danger, it is a manageable danger that becomes the backdrop for much more interesting stories. It becomes evident very early on that the real monsters that Rick and company need to look out for aren't the zombies but other people. It's a story of loss of innocence and inhibition and how, when pushed to extreme circumstances, people can either be driven to unspeakable horrors but also display incredible compassion. It's a story of trying to hold on to your humanity while humanity falls apart all around you.
Similarly, the Walking Dead game which is split up into 5 episodes which make up Season 1 (which everybody needs to play, it's only $25 available on pretty much every platform imaginable) is also a story about how people are much more dangerous than the zombies. From the St. Johns Dairy farm, to bandits, to Crawford and the Walkie Talkie man, the true antagonists of the game is other people while the actual zombies themselves are more of a nuisance or an obstacle. Meanwhile the show has not had a decent antagonist other than the actual zombies themselves, in the 3 seasons and 5 episodes of Season 4 so far. Shane was somewhat of an antagonist but was an ineffective one and left no lasting impact.
The other antagonist, The Governor, could have been the great villain this show needed (and should have been) but was toned down and neutered to such a point that he just came off as sort of an ass, and not the ruthless and calculating madman that he was in the comics. In the comics, the Governor not only chops off Ricks' hand for no other reason than to show that he can, but he also kidnaps Glenn and Michonne and forces Glenn to listen as the repeatedly rapes and tortures Michonne, and ultimately is responsible for the deaths of the majority of Rick's group. Meanwhile, TV Show Governor sleeps with Andrea, lies, kills some people and makes some threats, while leaving most of the real messy work to Merle, who himself doesn't commit to real villainhood, eventually "redeeming" himself by joining up with Team Rick. (Sidenote: A side–effect of the changes to The Governor's character is that it also made Michonne a much less badass character, instead making her more paranoid and kind of crazy. Without the vengeance factor, Michonne's reasoning for her constant mistrust of the Governor and her vendetta against him is flimsy at its best moments.) Now, I'm not saying Michonne needed to be raped or RIck's hand needed to go (although it is kind of a defining moment for Rick and makes his attempted transition to Farmer Rick make a bit more sense) but ultimately by the time the season ended and the Governor was dealt with, the status quo hadn't changed and there had been no forward progress that whole season.
The season premiere of Season 4 actually gave me some hope that maybe the show was going to get back on the right track. The prison was now up and running securely and efficiently and they were on their way to self sufficiency. The zombies were no longer the big threat, and had become a manageable obstacle, and I was hoping that this would be the setup for some real meaningful conflict with other people, whether they were from a different group or maybe even within the prison walls. There were plenty of new people in the prison that they didn't necessarily know well and it made me hopeful for something along the lines of the "haircut" scene from the comics (which totally traumatized me in a way I had never experienced reading a comic book up until that point... and since then). But alas, the writers instead went a different direction, with an infection that spreads among the group. With the imminent return of the Governor, maybe the will finally live up to its potential but I'm not very hopeful.
One other defining characteristic of both the Walking Dead comics and game that has been absent in the show until recently, is the effects of the zombie apocalypse on children. One of my biggest problems and concerns with Sophia's death at the end of season 2 (besides the inordinate amount of episodes spent searching for her) , was that it left Carl as the only kid in the group. And while the show could (and sort of did) explore Carl's growth and how he coped, it couldn't contrast that with how the twins were coping or with how (comic book) Sophia coped. The show also does Carl a disservice by not letting him step up and grow, although they have been better about that recently. But Carl absolutely should have killed Shane like in the comics, and I was hoping it would have been Carl that had killed the two sick people. But this season, with the introduction of the new girl Lizzie and her sister, the show has been putting more of an effort into the kids, and I can see her and her sister being the show's equivalent of the twins, or even the character that Sophia should have been.
I do think the show can be salvaged into something worth watching, but it does concern me that the writers of the show seem to have completely missed what makes the comic book great. But now that Governor is back in play, maybe they can turn it around some. For as much buzz and talk that Game of Thrones' Red Wedding generated, the Walking Dead should be generating orders of magnitude more. The comic series is filled with Red Weddings after Red Weddings, and so far the show has completely missed out or squandered them all away. So many moments that should have been awesome earth shattering have gone by with no fanfare or thought behind it. So AMC, make this show good. Make the Governor ruthless and the audience hate him. He should be more hated than Joffrey. He should be a bigger scumbag than Todd was in Breaking Bad. You can do it. I want to believe.