Much like the lumbering zombies at the center of the series, The Walking Dead once seemed to be pretty unstoppable. Season after season, ratings continued to rise, cementing the AMC thriller's position as TV's number one show. But as fans of the show know all too well, nothing good lasts in this world.
Despite a series second-best total audience of 17.03 million people tuning in for the epic (and epically polarizing) premiere that saw Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) bash the head in of not one, but two beloved characters, season seven has been on a rating landslide. Over the course of just seven weeks, The Walking Dead has watched its audience erode to numbers not seen since season three, with the latest episode pulling in a modest 10.48 million. While those numbers are nothing to sniff at (most broadcast shows would kill for them, in fact) and the bonkers numbers pulled in for the premiere—due in large part to curiosity over one of TV's most egregious cliffhangers ever—were never expected to be the new normal, there's no doubt that the folks at AMC are watching their cash cow's diminishing returns with sweat on their brow.
But all hope is not lost. There's still plenty of opportunity to get this runaway train back on track. Here's how.
Keep Moving Forward
One of the most egregious sins committed by the writers in season seven has been a near-total abandonment of forward momentum. After the premiere firmly thrust us into Negan's world, there's been an overwhelming feeling that the show is merely spinning its wheels, biding time until the next big death comes around at the midseason mark. Part of this is owed to the show's increasing insistence of focusing entire episodes on only one or two characters, like the infamous Tara episode. Done right (and employed sparingly), these episodes can be fascinating character studies (see: anything involving Morgan or Carol), but more often than not, they simply tip the writers' hand, revealing that there isn't nearly enough overall story to fill up the amount of episodes ordered for the season. And that brings us to our next point.
Trim the Fat
This mantra could be applied to the show in a few ways. First, the amount of characters on this show is truly unruly. And as the show continues to expand its world, that number keeps going up. But here's the thing: Not all of these characters are deserving of equal screen time. Spencer and Dwight are no Rick and Daryl, and as such, they don't deserve to pull focus from the characters we actually care about. Not to belabor the point, but when we consider the failings of this season, we keep returning to that Tara episode. It was five minutes of propulsive story (Tara fell into the river, Tara woke up in a new community full of women and guns, Tara kept it a secret when she got back home) stretched across an unnecessarily 71-minute (with commercials) long episode. What's next? A full hour of Olivia counting the cans in Alexandria's pantry?
Just a tip: It is completely possible to spotlight individual characters and tell your overall story within the same episode. Lost made an art form out of it.
Secondly, it's time to back away from the increasingly bloated extended episodes. More often than not, these 90-minute episodes do very little to justify their existence, beyond the naked grab for more ad dollars. If AMC is unwilling to scale back the amount of episodes per season (which is a desperately needed change that would help tighten the story, but will most certainly never happen), then they've got to at least limit each episode to its standard hour-long timeslot. Used sparingly, the extended episode feels like a treat. But when it happens every damn week, we begin to wonder if we really have the time in our busy lives for this show.
Ditch the Script
While it's true that not everyone who watches the show is an avid reader of the Robert Kirkman comic book series that the show is based on, this is 2016 and we have the internet. One doesn't need to have ever picked up a single solitary issue of the source material to have learned all about Negan before Jeffrey Dean Morgan was even a twinkle in the casting director's eye. Despite a few welcome curveballs here and there, The Walking Dead has unfurled on television as a pretty faithful adaptation—to its increasing detriment. Considering that some of the series' brightest spots have been those that the writers have created wholesale (Norman Reedus' Daryl Dixon isn't the ultimate fan-fave for nothing), it would do the show well to chart its own course. If the source material was considered a mere guideline and not gospel, there would be more opportunity for surprise. What's the incentive to tune in if we know exactly where this thing is going?
Find the Focus
With that in mind, it's time for the writers to figure out exactly where this thing is going. As much as AMC might want to see The Walking Dead live forever, this is a veteran series midway through its seventh season that we're talking about here. It's time to start thinking endgame. We're not advocating they wrap it up immediately, but if the writers were afforded the opportunity to work towards a fixed conclusion, they might be able to start telling the right story and get away from the increasing aimlessness that's threatening to consume the series.
Respect Your Audience
There's no denying that The Walking Dead lost a lot of audience goodwill after a handful of season six shenanigans. First, the show played with our emotions during what will forever be known as Dumpstergate by leaving Glenn in a remarkably dire situation that seemed impossible to survive, taking Steven Yeun's name out of the credits in the ensuing weeks while his particular storyline was cruelly ignored, only for him to inexplicably survive—just to die later. Then, after promising that someone would definitely be dying in the season finale once Negan arrived on the scene, they pulled the shadiest fake-out in recent TV history by showing the death from the POV of the slain, forcing us to wait six long months to learn the identity of the deceased. These are not the moves of a creative team that values their audience. These aren't even the moves of writers skilled at creating dramatic tension. These were cheap moves, plain and simple.
And to follow them up with a handful of unfocused, unnecessarily long and—worst of all—boring episodes? It's no wonder the audience is fleeing en masse like there's a horde of walkers on their tail.
What do you think The Walking Dead needs to do to turn its ratings woes around? Share your ideas with us in the comments below.
The Walking Dead midseason finale airs Sunday, Dec. 11 at 9 p.m. on AMC.