What's wrong with "The Walking Dead"? That may be the most important question in television right now. Or the most irrelevant -- a knee-jerk reaction to a couple of ratings-challenged season six episodes, which led to a sell-off in AMC stock Monday and Tuesday, and now has people wondering aloud about...
What's wrong with "The Walking Dead"?
This question was inevitable, of course. After five seasons of torrid growth, five seasons of the Most Successful Show on Television declarations, and after a general impression left by AMC that "TWD" could go on forever, a backlash of some sort was inevitable, right?
Besides, the stock market does what the market does -- the sell-off in AMC stock this week may have simply represented one of those so-called "profit-taking" initiatives, or perhaps a "correction." Stocks rise. Stocks fall. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along...
But one fact can't be quite overlooked: Viewership for the second season episode, "JSS," was off 16 percent from the season opener, and down 17 percent in younger viewers. The sixth season premiere was down considerably from the same period a year earlier, too.
So what's wrong here? Let's sort through the obvious suspects...
1.) A blip. The "blip" theory is an obvious one, translated as: NOTHING is wrong. It was just a couple of weeks. No big deal. Besides, time-shifted viewing will make up for the shortfall anyway. Blips happen. Plus, "JSS" was socked by the Colts/Patriots game and the Mets/Cubs one. A blip dip was perhaps inevitable...
What's right with theory: They do happen. No doubt about that,and time-shifting has become the new norm for every show. Plus, Sunday was a huge sports night. Check back in a week to see what the real number is.
What's wrong: I still believe that true viewer passion is measured in the "live" number. If passion is diminished, viewers will stack the show up on their DVR alongside everything else. It then becomes a lunchtime diversion, not a Sunday night obsession. Time-shifting isn't fatal for a hit show, just a sign of problems.
2.) The "Fear the Walking Dead" theory. This one came up even before last week's numbers, and came up even before "Fear" launched in August. It's simple: Too much "Walking Dead." That's a subset of the glut theory, which says that spin offs tend to hurt the mother show while the mother show is still on the air.
What's wrong with this theory: The franchise was careful to make certain that these really were two different series -- "Fear," obviously, is a prequel, and an exploration of how it all began, in a different place and time. Walkers are less relevant to the overall story. The gathering plague was more the focus. "TWD" is the story of a fallen world. "FTWD" is the story of a falling world. Different casts. Different issues.
Besides, "FTWD" was only six episodes long. That barely qualifies as a "glut."
What's right with this theory: Six episodes or sixteen, there was still an impression among fans -- diehard and casual -- that there is not only a new series to absorb, but a new series to explore. New characters, new arcs, new threats, new information....
It all starts to feel like work after a while. Who has time, especially with everything else coming along?
In addition, "FTWD" ended on Oct. 4, and the 6th season premiere of "TWD" began one week later. For AMC, that presents a promotion challenge: It has to remind viewers that the finale of "FTWD" is coming up, just as it has to remind fans that the season premiere of "TWD" is also coming up.
No matter how clever a promotional campaign is, that's a lot of reminding. Did this noise-level dampen tune-in for the season premiere, "First Time Again"? Wouldn't seem illogical.
3.) Natural viewer fatigue theory. Good theory. Obvious theory. And the usual theory. It's always trotted out when hits start to tail. You read a million stories when "American Idol" started its long slow, decline.
Fatigue happens. That's a fact. There are all sorts of reasons why, but in a crowded TV world -- made more crowded by AMC with "FTWD" -- fatigue may be a real deal here.
What's wrong with this theory: "TWD" fans are not "American Idol" fans. Sorry -- obvious point, but probably worth raising anyway. They are a rabid crew -- a ravenous crew, a crew that must know everything about each beloved character and discuss what happens with each beloved character in a level of detail that would exhaust -- almost -- a "Game of Thrones" fan.
Deadheads don't get "fatigued." They get "pumped."
What's right with this theory: Is it possible that some Deadheads are getting tired? Tired of another stop (Alexandria), another new character or two -- Emmy winner Merritt Wever joined Sunday, although it's hard to imagine why anyone would not welcome her....
Fatigued with more flashbacks -- the death of Enid's parents, for example.
Fatigued with more evidence that the heart of darkness beats in breasts of living humans -- the "wolves" --as much as in the dead?
Pay close enough attention to the tougher elements of fan criticism out there and you will also begin to notice a theme -- and the word "repetition" is a word these critics tend to rely upon. It's not good enough to kill "walkers" any longer -- as a plot device, that was exhausted after the second, or at most, third season. Walkers are easily dispensed, and creatively dispensed. But they are dispensable.
"TWD" is a character drama, even a family drama. To succeed, characters must grow, thrive, develop, change, and -- most of all -- surprise. (By that standard, Melissa McBride's Carol may be the most successful character of them all...) But are they repeating themselves? Or are the situations they find themselves variations on old themes?
My feeling is that "TWD" is still hitting its mark. The season opener was excellent, and fans know repetition (to a certain degree) is going to be part of this journey. This remains a superior horror series.
So, maybe time to take a deep breath, and wait until Monday morning. That's when the numbers for the third episode of the season, "Thank You," will come out. Either up...or down again...they will tell a story.
An interesting one.