At the risk of coming off like we’re piling on “The Walking Dead” (personally speaking, I’ve been a huge fan and defender of the show since the very beginning), we do think it’s important to talk about what’s happening with the show right now.
What’s happening, you ask? Well, viewers are continuing to tune out in droves this season, with the latest ratings report showing some serious cause for concern: the most recent episode, titled “The Big Scary U,” brought the hit AMC series to a six-year ratings low, pulling in just 7.85 million viewers this past Sunday night.
That’s the lowest number of viewers “The Walking Dead” has had since way back in 2011, when 6.89 million people tuned in for Season 2’s second to last episode.
Mind you, as it’s always important to point out, “The Walking Dead” continues to be a ratings juggernaut despite its recent ratings troubles; most shows would sacrifice goats and cut off hands to grab as many viewers as the series continues to. But it’s at least worth discussing what’s going on, if only to try and figure out WHY it’s going on.
With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 83%, “The Big Scary U” is one of the best reviewed episodes of Season 8, mostly serving to humanize Negan in a way that has altogether made him a more interesting, realistic villain. Of course, the issue isn’t so much with Sunday night’s episode, but rather that many just plain didn’t watch it.
Oddly enough, the previous week’s episode, “Some Guy,” was critically acclaimed across the board – yours truly, in a piece here on Bloody Disgusting last week, dubbed it Season 8’s best episode – so it’s certainly interesting to see the ratings dip in the wake of such a solid hour of television. “Some Guy” actually brought an uptick to the show’s ratings, besting the previous week’s 8.52 million viewers by pulling in 8.69 million viewers. So why then did nearly one million people tune out this past Sunday?
If you look back at the numbers, you’ll see that the ratings slide began back in Season 7, which kicked off with one of the most watched episodes in the series’ history (it promised, after all, a bombshell resolution to the show’s biggest cliffhanger) but then started pulling in weekly numbers considerably lower than it had been enjoying at that time. Of course, Season 7 is when Negan came onto the scene as the show’s new villain, suggesting that viewers, well, they’re just not all that into the Negan vs. Rick feud; interesting, given it was the show’s most anticipated storyline for many years.
The war between Rick and Negan was kicked into high gear right out of the gate in Season 8, and yet, many of the show’s faithful viewers just haven’t been sticking around to see how it all plays out. Of course, it’s only natural for the episodes sandwiched in-between premieres and finales to pull in numbers much lower than those premieres and finales, but even Season 8’s premiere drew in numbers that paled in comparison to those of other season premieres. And again, subsequent numbers have only continued to experience drops that are way more concerning than the show’s have ever been.
The easy explanation for this dilemma? “The Walking Dead” hasn’t exactly been must-watch television since its shocking Season 7 premiere, and the week-to-week numbers have been a reflection of that simple fact. Despite being one of the most fan-favorite storylines from Robert Kirkman’s comic books, the show’s version of the so-called “all-out war” has been decidedly lackluster, and it seems to me that viewers have caught on to the fact that they won’t be missing much as long as they tune in for the mid-season finale on December 10. You can expect the numbers to jump significantly on that date, but until then, what are the stakes of this war if we know all of the main characters are immune to its horrors? And with no real stakes, why should anyone care?
“The Walking Dead” has for years been sticking to a pretty clear formula, one that ensures that major happenings are for the most part entirely exclusive to season/mid-season premieres and finales. And I think that formula is hurting Season 8 more than any other season because we’re in the midst of a war that *needs* casualties in order to be compelling; alas, we’ve all caught on to the fact that substantial casualties very likely won’t be sustained until the night of December 10. If nothing much is going to be happening between now and then, can you really blame viewers for spending their Sunday nights doing something else?
And if Rick, Daryl and all of our favorite characters continue to be almost supernaturally bulletproof, is it even worth being invested in their plights anymore?
For a show like “The Walking Dead,” there are of course stakes and storytelling techniques beyond character deaths – simple things like a change of scenery and some fresh storylines would go a long way to keep things interesting. But Season 8, in particular, needs to start spilling some blood (the blood of important characters, that is) if it hopes to keep viewers interested. After all, the only real water cooler conversation we’ve gotten out of the season so far was the death of a computer-generated tiger, which one could argue just isn’t compelling enough.
Here’s hoping the “all-out war” starts feeling like one real soon.