March 27, 2017
“I have a gun in my hand but all I really want to do is talk.”
Sometime during this season (7) of AMC’s hit series, The Walking Dead the show toppled over its own hubris and died. “Jumped the Shark” as it’s often called in popular culture. Though leaping over an apex predator would be more exciting than the demise of this once wonderful show.
Before getting into it, allow me to qualify. I loved The Walking Dead before it even came out. Devouring the source material comics and any and all related content. Without sounding like a preening fan boy, I was a zombie freak before the genre became a genre. The nihilism and terror of reanimated corpses feasting on a terrified and dwindling population spoke to me like no other type of story could, ever since I saw George Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead at a drive in movie theater(!) I was gutted. Something about people “turning” into their own worst enemy resonated, igniting my deepest fears: “They are us.” More than just ghoulish, the undead delivered the perfect allegory for our overpopulated, corrupt and polluted world.
Now zombies, like vampires before them, have become a tired trope, instead of rampaging into our nightmares they are lumbering on pub crawls and into low budget, straight-to-video oblivion. The “Dawn” has become a great yawn.
But because of its superior characters and production, The Walking Dead had largely avoided that fate. Until now.
The show has become a sequence of two-shots and medium close-ups comprising lesser characters talking endlessly to other lesser characters. In other words a soap opera. Might as well be called, “The Talking Head.” No doubt the producers feel that people are what drive the show, not zombies, that it is the living who are the real enemy -an understandable evolution but one that has, this season, gone too far. Look, we all know that in the last (or second-to-last) episode there will be a big battle with evil Negan and his Saviors. But must every episode prior be so damn talky? When I find myself trolling the Internet during the show, I know the magic is gone. Sadly, I went from riveted to mostly bored.
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Well, I made the mournful mistake of watching an episode of AMC’s The Pitch (my first one by the way). Unless I cannot resist another car wreck it will be my last.
The show I caught was cringe inducing and sad. Two Nashville agencies (DBD & Powell) compete for the Gibson account, which, to be fair, ‘sounds’ like a cherry piece of business. That is until you meet its creepy owner, Henry Juszkiewicz. I have a hunch this dude is probably pretty sharp but on the show he comes off as anything but. Donning black shirt and gaudy tie, he reminds me of Mr. Burns (from the Simpsons) trying to be “hip and with it.” I kept waiting for him to release the hounds on either of these two hapless agencies. Which, obviously, would have been AWESOME.
There are a million articles and reviews bemoaning this insipid series, dissecting each squirmy morsel. Here’s a good one. Suffice it to say, there is not one character (from either agency or the client), who comes across as savvy, let alone normal. Even the Gibson receptionist was tripping: “Mr. Juszkiewics has made his decision!” My God, you’d think it was Sophie’s Choice.
That’s the thing. By trying to cram all the machinations of a pitch into a handful of minutes the producers get it all wrong. For our viewing pleasure they cut out the boring process leaving only tantrums and tears. I’m not saying in real pitches there aren’t flare-ups but mostly it’s hard work, writing and rendering. Fascinating for those in the trenches not so much for outsiders.
And so to insure (dubious) entertainment value, AMC drills into these companies to find personal drama: the insecure son of the agency’s founder pleading for a chance to prove himself; the working mother of three, who, in all the late nights, forgets to pick up her kid at school. “I’m a good mother!” she bellows to the camera. Awkwardly, an account executive is introduced as the agency’s “brains and beauty,” a woman who is not afraid to use her looks for “five extra minutes” with a client. She’s a “4.” That shouldn’t matter but hey she brought it up.
Most galling to me was the show’s representation of the creative process, starting with an inane and perfunctory briefing: “Our mission is to get bigger. We want to be a lifestyle brand. You have a week.” Not surprisingly, the resulting campaigns reek of superficiality. Both agencies literally go with their first ideas. Really?
Speaking of the work: In the final presentation we see a couple embarrassing videos and a handful of silly posters. Somebody says “integration” and “consumer behavior” and that’s it.
Unbelievably, the client then makes everyone sit in the waiting room (never happen) while he ponders his decision. We see all the nervous glances heightened by baneful reality show music. Having thought all of ten minutes, the CEO comes out of his chambers, gives an awful speech, and chooses his agency.
Normally, I’d salute such a bold and decisive process. Two agencies. One client. The quick decision. Yet, it’s complete and utter bullshit. As critical as I am of the lengthy, messy process EVERY pitch is comprised of I’ll be damned if I can swallow this made-for-TV nonsense. In almost every way, The Pitch is disrespectful to what we do. It just is.
Next to gazing at Joan the thing I like most about Mad Men are the speeches, especially those given by Don Draper, and in particular when he’s in pitch mode. Observing Don orate in front of an expectant, hushed crowd, whether it’s Jaguar or some Podunk regional airline, is for me the zenith of this acclaimed show.
There, I wistfully think to myself, but for the Gods of Advertising go I. As a copywriter and creative director, I’ve long cherished the presentation spotlight and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Having a great idea and being its primary advocate is nothing short of a blessing. The trust. The power. The stakes. The so-damn-possible you-can-almost-taste-it glory. How can anyone resist? (Well, as it turns out many of you can. Public speaking ranks among the most feared of all human activities. Good. More opportunities for guys like me!)
Arguing for my agency and ideas is the closest I’ll ever come to a Braveheart moment. Think about it, for all the bloody mayhem in that awesome film, the only thing we really remember is Mel Gibson’s rousing speech to his troops. The same can be said for George C Scott as Patton. Or Jack: “You can’t handle the truth!” Well, hell, I want to stand for something. And I want to stand and deliver it. And so it is -kind of sort of- when I make a creative presentation. Emphasis on kind of sort of…
The adrenalin pumps. Time stops. Everything else fades from importance. In that moment, I am Atticus Finch, General Patton, Braveheart; or more likely, a poor man’s Don Draper, which, by the way, I will take any day of the week. Freedom!
Writer’s note: It is ironic AMC’s other advertising show (about this very topic: The Pitch!) has not shown us a single magnificent presentation. Frankly, far from it.
AdAge, Entertainment Weekly and countless other pubs are running stories on how surprised everyone is about the success of TV show, The Walking Dead. Even the reporters who wrote the stories are amazed.
Really? Hell, I saw this hit shambling up Broadway in spring, when it was first reported in production. With Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption) and AMC (Mad Men) behind it, how could The Walking Dead miss?
The surprised ones keep pointing to the show’s characters and their struggle to survive as the reason for TWD’s success. They want to make it clear it’s not the bloody disgusting zombies, God forbid, that are pulling viewers in. Stop it! Of course you need to care about the characters. Otherwise you wouldn’t be frightened by the thought of said characters getting eaten and, better yet, turning into bloody disgusting ghouls themselves.
Don’t kid yourselves. It’s not only the ‘living’ that are interesting. They’re just food. It’s the dead. Put zombies on Gilligan’s Island and it’s gonna fucking work.
Why the insecurity around horror’s popularity? The mainstream treats it like pornography, denying its presence during the day yet wallowing in it at night.
Horror rules. Look at the success of True Blood, already in its 4th season. Granted, the show has a sexy cast and vampires have always been a dark turn-on. But still, compared to sissy shit like Twilight, True Blood has some serious bight. If it didn’t deliver the gore I wouldn’t watch. Lots of people wouldn’t.
Forget bloodsuckers, anyway. Zombies are the new vampires. What took them so long to get on TV? If we had to endure another clique of brooding poseurs pining over unrequited love I’d impale a wooden stake in my heart.
There is ample precedent for TWD’s success everywhere in popular culture. Before he directed SlumDog Millionaire, Danny Boyle helmed 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. His hyper zombies killed at the box office. And deservedly so. Fact is ever since George Romero created the genre with his nightmare inducing Night of the Living Dead, the undead have been the gruesome princes of filmdom, helping to make horror the most consistently profitable genre in Hollywood. As for books, Oprah Winfrey chose Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel, The Road to be on her book club! (Okay, so the antagonists were cannibals not zombies. But it was Oprah Goddamn Winfrey!)
And yet we’re still surprised? Come on, people look alive. The Dead walk!
Thread for fans of The Walking Dead: Roamers and Lurkers
Site that broke news (for me) on The Walking Dead:28 Days Later Analysis
August 16, 2010
Great article in the September issue of Details magazine, by Simon Dumenco, on the evermore arty and erudite medium of television. That’s right, TV. Seems the boob tube has come of age and is no longer the “vast wasteland” as so many smarty-pants used to call it. No doubt there are plenty of shallow programs around the dial –the plethora of reality TV shows testifies to that. However, we elitist snobs now have an array of high-brow choices unlike the medium has ever seen: Mad Men, True Blood, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Glee, and many others coming and going.
When I was a tyke we basically got frivolous crap –though sometimes highly entertaining- like The Beverly Hillbillies and Love American Style. Basically, the only TV smart people owned up to watching were 60 minutes, PBS and the Olympics. But with the advent of cable, Internet platforms and DVDs the sheer volume of options has bred higher and higher quality shows, shows that people want to own and talk about. We are as likely to display a boxed set of Mad Men on the book shelf as, well, books.
Dumenco pokes fun at our newfound elitism, writing that so-called “must see TV” has become “home-workey.” Clearly appointment television has entered the highest tiers of society. We like to brag about being up-to-date on the greatest shows, and not just around the water cooler but via Twitter and Facebook. We are ever so slightly dismissive of those who aren’t. Ironically, it reminds me of those kids in college who pooh-poohed TV altogether, claiming it was junk food. Indeed, I remember feeling cool admitting I didn’t watch TV at all. Just football and the news, I used to say. Not anymore.
I adore Mad Men and True Blood. I am frothing at the mouth to catch AMC’s latest offering, The Walking Dead. And I still think the Simpson’s provides some of the finest social satire available.
In addition to regular folk developing meaningful, long-term relationships with TV, so are many big time creators of content. Dumenco points out Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Boardwalk Empire as a prime example. It is no longer considered “slumming” for a famous feature director to take on the medium. Quite the contrary.
Perhaps the most revelatory aspect of all this is TVs rekindled adoration by advertisers. While Mad Men may only garner a million or two viewers they are considered among the most important viewers in the universe. For BMW and other like-minded advertisers going on such programming is like shooting fish in a barrel. A long way from the barrel of monkeys TV viewers used to represent.
When there were only a few channels, networks dumbed everything down to the lowest common denominator. Quality shows like All in the Family and Mash were major exceptions. Now smart programming doesn’t just survive; it thrives.
Unlike Dumenco, who sarcastically wraps up his piece suggesting its time to “stop telling everybody just how much (we’re) gorging on TV,” I think this phenomenon is a remarkably good thing. And not just for the viewing public but for all of us in the advertising business as well.