So why do we watch serial television?
Or, more accurately, why do I watch serial television?
Because here’s the thing: I recognize the aesthetic quality of The Walking Dead. It’s really good at what it does, and even does that thing beautifully, but I hate watching it.
Case in point: the cold open was technically great—I loved the visual effect of Lori’s red bucket giving the hint of blood and sex, and the tracking shots and the low shots of Lori used the grammar of the slasher movie really effectively, reminding us of the illicit, dangerous nature of Lori and Shane’s affair while also demonstrating the show’s place in the horror pantheon. The sound cues were great, really building on the menace of the woods, and the moment of misdirection when Shane surprises Lori was straight out of an auteur version of Friday the 13th.
But the scene itself was painful to watch, not least for how it reinforces Shane’s scariness while essentially making Lori look like a cheating whore. That shot where they focus on the ring in the foreground while Lori and Shane are having fuzzy doggy-style sex in the background suggests to me that Lori’s not long for this world, certainly not if the show continues to follow in the footsteps of the slasher film. While watching the scene, I found myself tensing up physically—first preparing for Lori to meet a stray zombie, then gritting my teeth through the sex scene, knowing that only bad things can be on the way for these characters.
And this visceral discomfort is my general experience of The Walking Dead. I appreciate the 16mm film elements, and the power of particular shots, and the way it calls back to horror classics while suggesting the new possibilities that open up when you really occupy a world in the way that you have to when you’re following a show for months or years. But this isn’t a world I want to live in—and not just because it’s filled with zombies. The trajectories of these characters all head inexorably toward more violence and bleakness. The little I know of the comic tells me that the storyline mostly consists of things going from bad to worse. While I can see how that would be sustainable and even potentially awesome in a comic that takes ten minutes to read, I find myself dreading the 50 minutes I devote to The Walking Dead, maybe even more because I know I have to come back next week.
I love watching horror movies, but it’s because I find them invigorating in much the same way as a rollercoaster. It’s thrilling to experience that sensory overload, but part of the thrill is that it’s over so quickly. As I do on a rollercoaster, I spend most of my time in a horror movie laughing—it’s nervous laughter, driven by fear, but it still feels fun. But because serial television is by definition for the long haul (and I don’t even know how long), the terror doesn’t feel fun, it just feels scary.
So I think I might be breaking up with this show. If I am honest about why I watch serial television, it’s to spend time in a place I like, with characters I like and the possibility for the story to go in different directions, not just down.