Roll with me on this for a second, because I promise everything will connect back to last night’s slam-bang-holy-geez-boom-boom-KAPOW episode of Walking Dead. In the last decade, we lucky TV viewers have witnessed the evolution of two distinctive strains of great television drama. On one hand, you have the Realistics. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men take place in a world that is recognizably similar to our own. The characters’ problems are pointedly banal; people worry about money constantly. Even though all of these shows are set in sensational environments – even though they feature gangsters or politicians or demonic cartel assassins or existential Jet Age super-salesmen – they all share a basic propensity for shrinking the sensational down to the everyday. (Just compare the treatment of the Mafia in The Godfather with its portrayal in The Sopranos: In Godfather, organized crime is a godlike/satanic ritual; in Sopranos, it’s just another upper-middle class occupation.) These shows tend to build their pace leisurely over the course of a season, or several seasons. Characters almost never experience an epiphany at the end of the episode. There are no slow-mo music montages, unless they are ironic.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Fantastics, and it’s in this much larger group that you find serialized thrillers like Lost and 24 and Fringe and (when it was good) Heroes; soapy melodramas like Gossip Girl and Grey’s Anatomy and (assuming it stays good) Revenge; and any detective show that manages to create a couple of good seasons before settling into procedural bloat. These shows don’t bother attempting to conjure up a world that resembles our own. Instead, they create their own distinctive TV universes, all of them operating according to their own rules. And the most important rule is speed: These shows might tell long-form stories, but each episode is fundamentally a complete story: Inciting incident, building action, climax, denouement. (On thrillers and soaps, the denouement usually segues into a cliff-hanger.)
Because speed is a necessity, there are basic logical leaps that you have to accept. On Grey’s Anatomy, we have to accept that all of the doctors and their various family members inevitably wind up becoming patients at their own hospital. On Lost, we have to accept that every male character was utterly dominated by their daddy issues. On every cop show, we have to accept that the main characters can solve complicated mysteries in a couple days, and also accept that they’ve probably killed dozens of bad guys. (The simplest way to understand the difference between a Realistic and a Fantastic is to ask yourself one question: Do the characters ever go to the bathroom?)
The biggest difference, though, is in character. People on Realistic shows tend to be confusingly difficult to pin down. (Consider Tony Soprano, who spent six and a half seasons in a shrink’s office trying to figure out just what kind of person he was.) People on Fantastic shows are easier to define; they have a few key personality traits, and if the show is good, those traits become iconic. Jack Bauer wasn’t as complicated as Jimmy McNulty, but the two characters share a basic personality trait: a willingness to do absolutely anything to beat the bad guy, no matter what the consequences. On The Wire, that trait made Jimmy McNulty a fascinating character; on 24, that trait made Jack Bauer a kind of morally ambiguous patron saint for post-9/11 America.
(Aside: There is nothing fundamentally better or worse about either of these modes of dramatic storytelling. There are horrible Realistics: Think of The Killing, which copped the slow pace of the latter seasons of Sopranos without any of that show’s energy. And there are plenty of great shows that mix the two tones: I’m thinking especially of Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, and Deadwood, which each used a confined setting – a small Texas town, a cramped spaceship, and a frontier village – to create an environment that was simultaneously brutally realistic and symbolically fantastical. Funnily enough, most of the best reality shows – like Survivor or Top Chef or the earlier iterations of The Real Housewives or I swear to god Jersey Shore – also fit into the Fantastic category, since the entire reality TV genre is predicated on reducing actual three-dimensional human beings down to their most interesting traits. End of Aside.)
The most defining Fantastic show of recent years – indeed, maybe the best non-cable serialized show ever – was Lost. You would never say that the characters on Lost were “realistic,” but they weren’t supposed to be: The interesting thing about them was watching them play off of each other. At the center of the show was the great Jack/Locke debate: Man of Science vs. Man of Faith. But the other characters in the series complicated that binary equation, and at its best, the show suggested a universe where everyone was a specific type in direct opposition to each other. Hurley represented an all-encompassing liberal humanism. Sawyer was agnostic about everything. In Juliet’s first incarnation, she just wanted to leave the damn island, mysteries be damned. Ana Lucia was a more militant Jack, and Mr. Eko was a more suspicious Locke. Ben Linus was a kind of narcissistic zealot: A man who supports a higher power, but only because he secretly believes that higher power is himself. (Following this logic, I think a big reason why a lot of people never liked Kate is that her basic personality DNA regularly shifted season to season: She was a savvy criminal, a plucky adventurer, a fragile abused patricidal daughter, a vengeful mother, Jack’s lover, Sawyer’s lover…)
I bring all this up because The Walking Dead is a show that could be an incredible Realistic drama or an incredible Fantastic drama. It could be a show about vividly drawn characters struggling to stay alive in a primordial, chaotic world. In that version of the show, tiny problems would occupy several episodes, and every subplot would somehow be related to food or shelter. (Actually, that’s pretty much what the original The Walking Dead feels like. Much like a season of Breaking Bad, the comic book Dead is constructed in long narratives that slowly build up small problems into huge flourish-y showdowns) You could say that the seven-episode Search for Sophia is The Walking Dead at its most Realistic.
NEXT: A culture of victimhood.