5 Problems All Horror TV Shows Eventually Have
Ranging from the fist-pumping nihilism of The Walking Dead to the gory art school theses of Hannibal, we have been bombarded with horror TV shows over the past few years. And that's mostly great. As a kid who was more interested in AMC's Monsterfest than dealing with what my classmates were doing on Halloween, it's everything that I thought I wanted. But like trying to gorge yourself on your trick-or-treating haul in one night, too much of this good thing has left me feeling upset, underwhelmed, and with a bad case of acid farts. And I've come to discover that it's not because of the amount of shows, but the amount of seasons in those shows. We all wept heartily when Hannibal was cut short after three years, but maybe that was the right idea, because any more might have left us with problems like ...
Subplots That Are Not Interesting To Anyone, Ever
Bates Motel just ended after five seasons, and if you'd told me a few years ago that I'd be legitimately interested in a prequel to Psycho that covers Norman Bates as a teenager, I would have told you to shut up, Back Cover of the Season 1 DVD of Bates Motel. "Psycho prequel" sounds like something I'd say to Alfred Hitchcock on his death bed after I discovered that it was him all along. But despite it being an idea that you mostly describe in groans, it won me over. It was like a romantic comedy, where Bates Motel was Bates Motel, and I was Drew Barrymore.
Fine. We can both be Drew Barrymore.
However, from the beginning, the biggest question that loomed over it was "OK, Norman offs his mother as a young adult, but he's 17 now. How do we kill time?" And the show, pounding its chest, yelled "SMALL-TOWN DRUG AND PROSTITUTION SUBPLOTS." It's hard to comprehend misjudging your audience so badly that you make the opening episodes of your Psycho prequel about Norman Bates discovering pot plants in his neighborhood. It's like being unable to enjoy Star Wars because you're too busy wondering where Obi-Wan gets his groceries.
Five seasons isn't that bad, but this is the kind of stuff that happens when you're not exactly sure how you're supposed to fill your time. It happens with The Walking Dead every season. I don't think I'm being hyperbolic when I say that The Walking Dead is probably going to outlast us all. Whole societies will crumble and fall, and the only thing to remain untouched by time will be "PREVIOUSLY ON THE WALKING DEAD ..." This means that The Walking Dead has way more time than it knows what to do with. In any other show, important storylines would be handled promptly, because they worry about money and time and viewership. But The Walking Dead swaggers around like a college kid that doesn't care about when he gets to class. "Why rush, motherfuckers? We're already getting a Season 12."
"Extended gardening montage? Why not? We're on the air until 2025."
Characters repeatedly go through the same revelations they went through a few episodes before. Every character has learned that they "have to be tough in this new world" multiple times a year, but every other episode includes at least one moment when someone just can't pull the trigger. The zombie virus has left them in a Groundhog Day state of repeating their emotional breakthroughs. It's why they have to kill off people all the time -- if they didn't, someone would eventually come up to Rick Grimes and tell him that this speech is nice and all, but we heard it yesterday.
The Bad Guys All Inevitably Look Foolish
In a horror TV show, the bad guys are usually there because they want to kill people. It's their main purpose, and they usually want to do it all the time. They refuse to shut up about it. And they're forced to keep referring to it, because horror TV shows usually include the good guys massacring boatloads of people too, so who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist basically comes down to who monologues about murder and who quietly enjoys their dinner.
But if your main goal is ceaseless carnage and you don't accomplish that as many times as you'd like to, you end up looking pretty useless. In The Walking Dead, Negan is supposed to be the ultimate villain. He doesn't have the pesky personal ties that the Governor had, and he rocks better post-apocalyptic facial hair than any of the Hunters, so he kicks more ass than any of them. His first act upon entering the series is beating two of the most beloved male characters in the show to death with a baseball bat. If he doesn't spend the rest of his tenure on the show curb-stomping the remaining cast, it will be a letdown.
This is the end of the show, right? He just murders the cast and then credits? Because that's where this seems to be going.
And oh, it is. Over the course of a long, laborious season, Negan is basically reduced to a cursing Scooby-Doo villain, almost getting away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids. American Horror Story, an anthology show that does a new plot in every season, fills its narrative with villains that it only planned a few solid episodes' worth of anything for. After a few scary introductory scenes, they mostly float around like ice cubes in a punch bowl of haphazard storytelling.
The villains in Penny Dreadful, aka Frankenstein vs. Dracula vs. My Feelings, were a little more capable than the ones seen in most horror shows, but also a little more lazy. As it turns out, there's a very fine line between "This villain is a slow, methodical mastermind" and "This villain is going to wait around until the heroes literally knock on his goddamn door," and Penny Dreadful tripped headfirst over it, convulsing in the middle until the season was over.
Hi. I'm Dracula, the lord of all evil. And it'll be eight-and-a-half episodes before I do literally anything.
It's Hard To Care About A Protagonist When They Serve No Purpose
A great thing about characters in horror movies is that they're usually there to serve a very specific purpose, even if that purpose is "show off what a machete can do." Horror movies rarely give them any downtime for you to get bored of them. Look at The Thing. Every character in that film is there to do something at all times, whether it's progressing the plot or just providing more atmosphere for key scenes. You're never given a chance to wonder why someone is still around, because everybody is a gear in the machine. Even the dogs. Those poor, poor dogs.
And the Academy Award For Best Good Boy goes to you, 'cause you're a good boy, yes you are.
Daryl Dixon would be a great character in a movie like The Thing because he's at his best when he's good for something. When you force him to be a leader, which he's very uncomfortable being, it's unshowered redneck magic. But because The Walking Dead can't always have him as the lead, there are a lot of moments when he's just waiting around. And since he's one of the most likable characters on modern television, you can't kill him off easily for fear of some kind of backlash. A great horror character, but a really mediocre TV character.
The same thing happened with Glenn. People were furious when he got brained, but what had that dude done for about the last two years? Yeah, he's nice and he doesn't want his wife to get eaten, but why keep him around? "Glenn looks generally concerned for an entire season" isn't exactly a treat for an actor.
"Remember when I was the comic relief? God, we were optimistic back then."
It's irrational to expect every cast member to have a substantial part in every scene of a multi-season TV show. But one of the reasons horror shows get criticized for being less scary over time is that as they raise the stakes for the grand scheme of things, the lack of any function has lowered the stakes for the characters. Even useless characters are fine in a horror film, because they'll be gone in about ten minutes. But I'm not going to get teary over someone's TV death scene because they were in the background a lot, no matter how tender the accompanying music is.
The "Sudden" Horror Is Diluted Over Time
In wrestling, in memes, and in wrestling memes, the "RKO outta nowhere" is pretty popular. Made famous by the fact that you could be miles away from Randy Orton and he'd still find a way to execute his finishing move on you in the next second, the "RKO outta nowhere" became something to look forward to. It actually made people watch Randy Orton matches -- something that humanity had seemingly abandoned around 2007.
Pictured: a literal decade of the WWE.
Over time, though, the allure of the "RKO outta nowhere" lessened. Since you now waited for it, the surprise was gone. And that's what happened with The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Penny Dreadful over time. Now, it goes against my personal truths to complain about any TV show that gives you copious werewolf attacks, vampire tussles, and gunfight bonanzas ...
Frankenstein's monster entered the series by literally tearing another Frankenstein's monster in half. It was a show made just for me.
... but if someone gets shot or bitten or suddenly werewolf'd "outta nowhere," and you latch onto that as your primary way of getting rid of side characters, then pretty soon, those side characters go from being potentially meaningful parts of the story to "outta nowhere" fodder. Penny Dreadful had a few main characters and a bunch of death scene prequels.
I hate to rag on The Walking Dead so much, because deep down, there are aspects of the show that I really enjoy. Usually those parts involve crossbows and arms getting torn off, and luckily, The Walking Dead is fully stocked with them. And I know that real-life deaths are frequently sudden, despite the fact that we all dream about giving a 30-minute address about the state of good and evil to a room full of everyone we've ever loved before we kick it. But while someone suddenly getting hit in the face by a bullet was a great "OH SHIT" moment in Season 3, doing it four years later and expecting our oh-shittedness to remain at full capacity is only tedious.
Five dudes. Combined amount of time taken to kill each of them off: about four seconds.
I'd honestly give more of them a pass if they were jump scares, as jump scares done right are thrilling. But "outta nowhere" deaths lack the framing and build-up of a jump scare. You get no jolt out of it. It's just hasty dying, and the vast number of these in a relatively short amount of time has made it impossible to connect with any characters. And why would you want to? They're just going to be in the middle of a sentence, get bitten, and then never mentioned again. It's like asking someone to enjoy a sandwich, but as soon as they get a taste of it, you pull it out of their hands and then insult them for trying to enjoy a sandwich. The Walking Dead is a bunch of stolen sandwiches. Five stolen sandwiches out of ten.
It Inevitably Becomes A Different Genre
The best part about the first few episodes of any horror series is the immediate brutality of them. I'd seen a ton of zombie movies before The Walking Dead premiered. The idea of a bunch of people being slowly surrounded by graveyard citizens was not a revolutionary idea. But when Rick Grimes was shuffling through the aftermath of Zombiepalooza 2011, and he started encountering all the weird stuff that people had done when faced with an undead crisis, well Jeeeeeesus. I felt like I did when I was eight years old and I'd plopped down in front of this thing called Dawn Of The Dead, because it wouldn't be that bad, right? I mean, it's the "dawn" of something, and that sounds hopeful.
nope nope nope nope nope nope nope
The same thing happened with the vampire hordes in Penny Dreadful. Eventually, knifing your way through a crowd of dead flesh monsters transitioned from a struggle to survive to John Wick minus John Wick. It's a conveyor belt of repeatedly stabbing zombies in the head. Rick Grimes has moved from being the beleaguered dad in a confusing, terrifying world to Steven Seagal In Dead On Arrival.
And while we never got a scene where Jessica Lange obliterated a hallway of mutants, American Horror Story had something similar, only with weirdness. About halfway through each American Horror Story season, the self-awareness full-body tackles the plot, leaving it unsure about whether it's a horror series featuring comedy, or a comedy series featuring insufferable plot twists. When Tales From The Crypt ended, it was no longer a fucking madhouse of irony and gore; it was an anthology about not-very-nice people doing not-very-nice things to other people that were secretly not very nice. And The X-Files became about David Duchovny's boyish grin.
The Twist: It was always about his boyish grin.
Even shows like Attack On Titan aren't immune to this process. The first few episodes of Attack are mostly concerned with giant naked people and their attempts to eat regular-sized clothed people. Maybe I'm a very specific demographic, but it's going to take way more than an hour to get me used to the sight of a tremendous baby man chomping down on screaming innocents. No matter how many times I see it, my reaction is still "Ah. This is odd."
"This is really becoming quite the interesting Wednesday."
But Attack On Titan slowly delved more into epic throwdowns than the intense panic of "THAT LARGE DUDE IS EATING ME. I CAN SEE HIS HUGE ASS." And while I'm always down for monster punches, I do miss the worldwide phenomenon of a bunch of people gathering around Netflix to watch the dietary habits of the big and shirtless. I miss it every day.
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