TV review: “Walking Dead” starts feeling exploitative

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From the February 6, 2014 edition

“The Walking Dead” will never become a series worthy of its massive ratings. I’d keep falling for moments of improvement, new showrunners (three and counting) or game-changing machinations that could set the narrative down a new path. No more.

Sunday’s premiere opens with an overhead shot of a tank that’s a clear parallel of the shot from the pilot. It’s also a perfect metaphor for “The Walking Dead,” a series that hasn’t moved forward much narratively. We might as well still be watching Rick in that tank.

I’m all-in for zombie decapitations, exploding heads and general massacre of the stumbling ghouls, but a TV series (a long-form narrative) needs to have something else. Unfortunately, “The Walking Dead” is merely a perpetually bleak and circling story serving solely as a delivery machine for zombie destruction and violence.

Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the prison group’s final battle with The Governor resulted in a nice action set-piece, but the way the entire episode attempted to create tension by using children was manipulative.

Sure, children being in danger is nothing new, but how “The Walking Dead” does it is mostly deplorable. There were a number of these moments in the finale, but the worst scenario was the cliffhanger with Rick’s daughter, Judith, and the shot of her empty baby carrier slathered in blood.

Rick and his son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), break down thinking Judith is dead, but it felt emotionally exploitative. And if Judith is actually dead — which I doubt — wow that’s dark. But these writers aren’t going to wring anything interesting out of it. Rick (and Carl) will just become more depressed and retreat into nihilism.

Sunday’s premiere should’ve actually been a good episode. The story is focused solely on Rick, Carl and Michonne (Danai Gurira), delving deeper into these characters and how they’ve changed.

But again, “The Walking Dead” uses the vulnerable to create tension, this time with Carl. It’s an exploitive, hackneyed approach that only works on a surface level of anxiety. And if you think about the tricks like this the series has pulled repeatedly over the seasons, it’s hard not to think that’s all “The Walking Dead” is — superficial.