Fiction on Television

[...] Clarity is an overrated component of storytelling. James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy-Seven are three of my favorite crime novels, and I don’t think I could explain their plots with a gun to my head.

What matters in crime fiction is feeling. It’s attitude, atmosphere, dialogue, mood. It’s the idea of one or more individuals going up against institutions of great power. It’s the idea that the underworld exists, right in front of you, all the time, and you just have to look.

For all the smoky bars, midcentury modern houses, poker rooms, and trips up north, True Detective’s second season had no sense of place. Somehow they set a crime show in Los Angeles and made Los Angeles seem boring. This was a failure of writing, which relied too often on telling and not showing, and it was a failure of the revolving door of directors behind the camera.

You know what show does have a sense of place? The Walking Dead. That's a show that puts you in a place where you have to know the characters and know where they are living before you can fully comprehend the horror of what they face on a day to day basis. This is as much about good storytelling as it is about something more basic--the budget for a season of scripted television.

On TWD, we've seen the following seasons and the following places: the gravel quarry and the horrors of urban Atlanta. Herschel's farm. The prison and Woodbury. Terminus and the road. Alexandria. Think about those settings--they're all firmly embedded into the psyche of the viewer because they are heavy with meaning.

You will never forget that quarry and the hasty camp where everyone gathers around their tents and Dale's Winnebago. The forays into Atlanta and the final attack on the camp, which forces them to abandon the people buried there and take to the road demonstrate a command of place that you just can't expect out of a six episode first season. This use of rural settings would really come to fruition when they discovered Herschel's farm in Season Two.

What I remember about the farm is that it was a set that featured an amazing house and sweeping fields and vistas. The survivors had normalcy there, even though they camped a ways away from the house and went on a series of dangerous forays into the communities around it. There were so many indelible scenes, especially with the well and the barn that took the familiar and made them horrifying. This is what would have been of great benefit to True Detective Season 2--an established sense of place that would combine familiarity and depravity.

Seasons three and four of The Walking Dead used the prison setting as an anchor and that made budgetary sense. They could film outdoors and indoors and use sets that were spare and full of recurring themes. The tombs within the prison were full of caged walkers and could be opened up when needed. When Rick Grimes spends an episode or two at the end of his wits, the black rotary phone becomes a finale callback for Merle, who grabs the unhooked, dead phone and takes it with him, tormented by the same demons. These simple elements could have been used in other forms when telling a crime drama about Southern California.

Now we've seen Terminus, the church, the road, the barn, and Alexandria. These are all elements which inform the storytelling and have become vastly more complex due to the fact that the show is more successful. The simple outdoor setting has morphed into an actual walled development of high-end energy sustainable homes. Virtually every show on television could benefit from understanding the importance of place, setting, and physical location as it relates to how the stories are being told on The Walking Dead.

Everything I've discussed would be a boring, no-frills set anywhere else. These sets provided a place where clarity could happen in the story while leaving a great deal of ambiguity about what lay ahead. These sets were all of the basic elements found in suburban Atlanta and rural Georgia--hardly the kind of thing you'd see on network television, if at all. And yet there have only been a few "boring" detours during the long history of The Walking Dead. Sometimes, the boring places work better than expected in terms of telling the story and keeping the viewers interested.

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