The Walking Dead kicked off it’s fourth season this Sunday with a perfectly watchable episode – there was some light thematic work, a little character movement and a lot of zombies getting their heads caved in. Overall, it had a back-to-school feel to it: say hello to all your old friends, and hey, look, here’s the new class. This year we’ve got D’Angelo Barksdale, whose character has some type of an alcohol problem, I wonder how long he’ll stick around.
When The Walking Dead premiered, it was planned as part of AMC’s Emmy machine, but it went against the trend and somehow traded critical success for a wide viewership; Sunday’s premiere was seen by approximately three times as many people who saw the Breaking Bad finale. The show’s success is based on the fairly obvious appeal of an already popular genre in a medium that had never figured out a way to broadcast it properly. Zombie movies had been insanely popular and successful for decades, but any concept involving multiple murders per episode was never going to make a network television. Enter AMC.
Still, I think there’s a certain shelf life for any story that relies on the deaths of its principal characters as plot delivery system. If the rate of attrition is too high, there’s no continuity, too low and it gets dull. You can bring in new characters to replace the old ones, but it’s never quite the same. Popular characters and children usually survive, and so on. And no matter how dark the series’ premise may be, it wears thin after a while. The best example is probably Oz, HBO’s prison show; by the eighth season, the show’s depiction of male-on-male rape was no longer horrifying or even thought-provoking, it was laughable.
I have absolutely no complaints about a show that delivers exactly everything it promises, but I can’t say that The Walking Dead is really appointment television anymore. It is, however, still the only place on network television where you can find zombies, samurai swords, crossbows, motorcycles – fanboy marks of authenticity – in one place on a reliable basis. In the first season, I was invested in sheriff Rick, deputy Shane, the wife and the son who were caught between them. The show, drawing on already successful source material, offered a type of novelistic story-telling that I had not seen on television before: Rick wakes up from a coma to discover a broken world and tries to find his family. He encounters a chained door with an ominous message scrawled on it. The gripping last half of the pilot had Rick struggling against an insurmountable number of zombies, escape into a tank, and left him surrounded, helpless with no conceivable way out. The second season was still fun: Rick vs. Shane ran out of string and it met its inevitable conclusion, which was fun, but not quite as novel. The third season introduced new conflicts and characters, but a post-apocalyptic landscape is somewhat necessarily averse to world-building. And slowly, all those cynical, back-of-the-movie-theater observations started to intrude. The survivors’ light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson, still clean, reliable, and otherwise completely untouched by chaos and horror around it, became a regular part of the viewing experience. The fact that it was clearly a paid promotional consideration on the part of Hyundai just enhanced the viewing experience. At first, it was just a funny observation, like the extraneous red-shirted crew member from the original Star Trek; if you want to survive the zombie apocalypse, take the Hyundai. By the end of the third season, I was looking for it in every scene. At the start of the fourth, I am now more invested in the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson than any of the characters. I was worried that Hyundai might have pulled their support, but there it was in this week’s episode, an emerald in a sea of lesser stones, still pristine under a light, non-disfiguring layer of dust.
I’ve never completely bought into the fear of advertising. I understand that advertising preys on people’s insecurities, it convinces people that they need things that they don’t and that it has had horrible consequences on female or underage viewers. Advertising did play a pivotal role in conveying cigarette smoke to the lungs of young people. But the pervasive fear, the idea that advertising is a form of brain-washing, still feels very 1990s to me: Generation X, David Foster Wallace, Pearl Jam protesting Ticketmaster. In a late stage capitalist economic system, is anyone over the age of fourteen really fooled by corporate advertising anymore? I expect corporations to do everything short of murder to get my money, and I suspect lots of people feel the same way. To me, the Hyundai-AMC relationship seems a like a workable Faustian contract. Hyundai can buy promotional consideration in The Walking Dead – money that fills AMC’s coffers, sure, but also pays the cast and crew so that I can continue to watch it for free. In exchange, Hyundai can either broadcast commercials, which I can skip or otherwise ignore, or go for broke, and try for some hilariously inept stealth marketing strategy. Sure, there’s some brand recognition and awareness gains here, and ironic purchases are made with very unironic dollars, but some essential facts remain: I have no desire to ever buy or own a light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson, or any type of Hyundai. I would not accept one as a gift. I will never visit the Hyundai website to learn more about the available models or accessories. And what’s more, I don’t know anyone who disagrees with me here. I don’t have a degree in marketing, but I have to wonder if Hyundai is really spending their promotional dollars effectively here.
If I was in charge of marketing at Hyundai or even just a writer for The Walking Dead, I would demand more scenes with or about the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson. There has never been a more organic opportunity to deliver the creepiest part of every car dealership’s sales pitch – how easy it is to get blood, brains and fecal matter out of the upholstery. Characters could explain the safety features as they flee for their lives from swarms of zombies. But why stop there? It could be a central part of the plot. Sheriff Rick, still grieving for his wife, could have hallucinations of an eerily luminescent light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson. Daryl, the reformed redneck, could credit Hyundai’s impeccable Korean engineering for his change of heart.
Who am I kidding? Even as just a fan of the show, I would like to see more of the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson. I’m not sure if I want cast members to ever explain why it’s always clean or not. Part of me wants to see the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson to get torn apart by zombies so that new members of the Hyundai family can be introduced. Another part of me wants the car to just flat out start talking, I’m sorry to say. I think the Hyundai Tucson should be a credited part of the cast with its own backstory, flashback episode and emotional arc. I want it featured in all of AMC’s promos. I want the Hyundai Tucson interviewed at Comic-Con and on the red carpet for the premiere. I want it to resurface on another show in a couple of years when the spin-off doesn’t work out. Hyundai in the morning. Hyundai at night. As long as it doesn’t touch my wallet, it’s fine with me. Have you seen the new Honda CR-V? They make some pretty good cars, don’t they?