At least 17 million people watched the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead—massive numbers in today’s fragmented television landscape. More people watched the villain Negan beat two characters to death with his barbed bat Lucille than watched Sunday Night Football that evening.
I was one of them.
You can find our review of the Season 7 premiere in our TV section, but it wasn’t easy for me to give it to you. I’ve watched some terrible television shows in my time, but I’ve never seen anything quite this bad or, frankly, quite this gratuitous.
There are more details in my episode review, of course, but for our purposes here, let’s say that it was needlessly grotesque and purposefully terrible. The content went well past the needs of storytelling and sprinted into the realm of sadomasochism. It was appalling—shock for the sake of shock, gore for the sake of gore, blood for the sake of ratings.
But you’d expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?
Of course you would. Any self-respecting reviewer for Plugged In could hardly say less, right? A conservative, family-centric Christian outlet such as ours isn’t bound to have very many nice things to say about a bloody cable show about zombies. A ministry concerned with how children are impacted by entertainment would hardly be expected to suggest to our readers that The Walking Dead is a show for the whole family.
The same could be said of The Parents Television Council, longtime television scolds that they are. They watched the season premiere, too, and were also appalled.
“They’ve entered a whole new territory in terms of the violence,” Melissa Henson, program director for the PTC, told Fox News. “In the past we’ve seen zombie on human violence or human on zombie violence but this kind of violence to this extreme is … a whole new category.” Indeed, PTC President Tim Winter suggested that this episode emphasized the need for a ratings overhaul—and a need for an even stronger rating than the TV-MA label (the equivalent of an R-rating in the movies, and not suitable for those under age 17).
But this episode wasn’t just called out by the usual suspects (like yours truly).
From Slate’s Sam Adams:
… even for a show that takes pride in dreaming up new ways to dismantle the human body, last night’s killings were remarkably gory—the bloodiest deaths in the show’s history and perhaps television’s as well. … The killings were vicious and brutal, and, even for some fans of the show’s generally gory approach, more than they were willing to bear. To judge from social media, last night’s episode prompted an exodus of fans who’d given the show the benefit of the doubt and felt they’d not only been cheated but had their noses rubbed in it.
From Melissa Leon from The Daily Beast:
Torture porn is what most people call bloody, meaningless images of sadistic cruelty on a TV screen. The Walking Dead, unsurprisingly, calls it prime-time entertainment. Me, I call it exhausting. When real life already seems a few calamitous steps away from dystopia, surviving an hour of pure, relentless misery isn’t entertainment—it’s a chore.
Over at The Verge, writers there created something called The Walking Dead Quitter’s Club—a way to gauge and talk about the show’s levels of violence while holding out something of a tongue-in-cheek threat: “But throughout it all, there was an unstated rule in our thinking,” they wrote. “There could come an episode that would finally push too far, and mistreat its audience to such a degree that The Walking Dead Quitter’s Club would actually quit. Last night AMC aired that episode.”
From the Quitters’ Club‘s Bryan Bishop:
It was horrifically violent. It was cruel. And the show had the audacity to slap on some cello score and a “what could have been” fantasy sequence to make sure the audience was manipulated as much as possible. This wasn’t quality television, and it wasn’t suspenseful drama. It was torture-porn masquerading as storytelling, and AMC should be ashamed for airing it.
Bishop added, “Last night we watched a sociopathic exhibition of brutality, all in a blatant attempt to elicit cries of fealty and submission. But the perpetrator wasn’t Negan. It was The Walking Dead.”
Bishop’s Quitter’s Club compatriot Nick Statt said, “In the age of Game of Thrones and near-photorealistic video games, it can come off as old-fashioned to complain about violence on television. But TWD’s premiere last night pushed the limits of good taste and storytelling far beyond its capacity. … More than anything, this episode proves just how hollow the show has become.”
It’s my job to note and, sometimes, complain about violence on television. That makes me indeed old-fashioned.
But the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead didn’t just make me sick; it made me sad. For all of its often horrific excesses, the show at least occasionally tried to aspire to more. It has been a story about family, even faith at times. It has been a show that wondered with every episode whether it was possible to retain any semblance of humanity and decency in a world gone horribly, horribly wrong. The Walking Dead didn’t just refer to the decaying shamblers we saw, but in some respects to humanity in general. In a world full of death, is it possible to live? To be human?
It’s ironic that The Walking Dead seems to have succumbed to the same sort of living death that so many of its characters have. The AMC show staggers on, glassy-eyed and groaning. It’s abandoned its exploration of life and love for brains and blood. It’s animated for no purpose but to feed, it seems … on the millions and millions of people who shamble after it.