Sunday's "Walking Dead" prompted a strong response in me. But it might not be the one you're expecting.
Well, I had a few reactions, some of which might be quite predictable. But I'll get to that in below -- in a section that you'll want to read after you've seen the episode, "Killer Within."
You don't need to have seen the episode -- and you don't even need to have seen "The Walking Dead" -- to read this part, which more or less consists of the following question: Why don't the broadcast networks learn from shows like "The Walking Dead"?
There are occasional outliers and exceptions, but the rules for most hourlong broadcast network dramas generally go like this: They're supposed to tell stories that mostly wrap up within the hour. They're not supposed to be too gory, too bloody or too deeply disturbing. They're supposed to leave viewers feeling relatively satisfied and optimistic, not like someone took their heart and put it in a blender and then stomped on the blender for good measure.
And yet, unless my prediction skills are hopelessly shot, "The Walking Dead" will yet again post awe-inspiring ratings for an hour of television that didn't do any of those things. In fact, "Killer Within" seemed to go out of its way to violate every single one of those "rules."
Of course, cable dramas and broadcast-network dramas were grown in different labs under different conditions. But guess what? Viewers don't care. They don't care that broadcast networks are trying to not alienate folks while cable networks are trying to actively draw in an array of targeted niche audiences. Viewers just want to be entertained, and they'll go where the good stuff is.
But it's hard not to look at the current seasons of "Homeland," "The Walking Dead" (which I previously reviewed here), as well as the most recent seasons of "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones," and conclude that many of the drama offerings on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are weak sauce. (I exclude The CW from this formulation because "Hart of Dixie" is getting into some seriously pitch-black insanity these days.)
As I said, there are outliers: As Tom and Lorenzo pointed out in their most recent review, "Fringe" is as dark as dark can be in its final season. (The Fox drama seems to have borrowed "The Walking Dead's" "people love kittens and rainbows" aesthetic for its final run of episodes.) And Fox must be overjoyed about having "The Following" ready to launch early next year: Nothing says "heartwarming drama for the whole family" like the serialized saga of a serial killer.
At least the broadcast networks have learned from the rotting dino corpose of "Terra Nova" to make their apocalypses a little more apocalypt-y. "Revolution" may be a pretty sanitized take on the post-electricity scenario, but that show has at least shown a willingness to kill off characters (though not the most annoying one, sigh).
But I fear that network executives will take the wrong lesson from the success of "Revolution" and the even greater success of "The Walking Dead": They'll glom on to the idea that people like post-civilization narratives with lots of bowhunting. (This fall on ABC: Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," starring Carmen Electra!)
That may indeed be part of the appeal -- a life without Twitter and Facebook and pesky things like college funds and mortgage payments seems pretty appealing at times.
But what "The Walking Dead" is doing right -- this season especially -- is staying true to a very bleak premise, while providing a lot of suspense and shocks along the way. Nietzsche's famous formulation was, "When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
If you do it right, so does a very large television audience.
Now, here are a few specific thoughts on "Killer Within" for those who watched the episode (and if you have, here's the key moment you're probably recollecting right now).
Well, I didn't see that coming, and it's not often I can say that. I didn't think "The Walking Dead" would have the guts to kill off Lori, but it did so, and it did so in a taut, terrifically paced hour that had an incredibly powerful ending.
It makes me sad that the writers didn't do a better job with Lori all three seasons, because Sarah Wayne Callies is a fine actress and she was extraordinarily moving in her death scene. I spent a lot of Season 2 rolling my eyes at things that Lori and Carl did, but their final scene together was crushing in all the right ways.
Then, when Rick saw his new child and realized what had happened -- and when he saw poor Carl's face -- his reaction was painfully moving. That was a moment that could have been histrionic or melodramatic, but it was directed and acted with great skill. Andrew Lincoln conveyed Rick's pain in a multitude of ways that were absolutely believable.
All in all, the events at the prison were so suspenseful, exciting and ultimately heartbreaking that I didn't mind that Andrea spent the episode mooning around Woodbury and more or less playing "The Dating Game" with Merle and the Governor (or Philip, to his chums).
I would say R.I.P. T-Dog, but as Alan Sepinwall pointed out, the writers never had much interest in the character so it's hard to know what to mourn with his passing. But it's definitely a credit to "The Walking Dead" that it could make the passing of Lori -- and Carl's horrifyingly brave act -- so moving and powerful.
Sunday night television, stop crushing my brain. Actually, don't.
"The Walking Dead" airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.
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