Don’t Touch that Dial

'Walking Dead' brings back mystery, patience

What AMC’s “The Walking Dead” does better than any other show on television is keep audiences in the dark.

When you see a new episode each Sunday night, it’s never clear which character will make it to the show’s closing credits. Even then, it’s not certain if said character has seen his or her last “walker.”

Only “TWD” would leave two main characters, Rick and Glenn, in situations where their continued existence is in doubt, as was the case in recent weeks. To rub salt in viewers’ emotional wounds, the show followed up that uncertainty with a 90-minute flashback episode last Sunday 1 that left fans wondering an extra week. Or maybe more.

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To its base, it’s cruel and unusual punishment. Yet, week after week, audiences return, hoping to learn the truth about characters they’ve followed all year, or even through the show’s six-season run. That’s a testament to the show’s cast and a writing team that makes our heroes achingly human.

The Internet offers us nearly everything whenever we want it. Anticipation isn’t even a Carly Simon song anymore. It’s just an old ketchup jingle. But what AMC has done is bring back old-school viewing habits.

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With “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” AMC was deft at keeping plot lines secret. Yet aside from whether Don Draper would land the big account or the hot waitress, there wasn’t much on the line emotionally from an audience perspective.

With “TWD” everything is flipped. No one is safe at any time. Main characters, beloved characters even, can be zombie fodder at any time. What TV producers once reserved for season finale cliffhangers happen throughout any given “TWD” season. And audiences never find out until they tune in.

You’d have a better chance of getting your hands on a prototype iPhone 7 than you would the plotline of “TWD.”

Main characters, beloved characters even, can be zombie fodder at any time.

In many ways an episode of “TWD” is like a live sporting event. Everyone has an expectation of how it might go, but once the game begins none of that matters. It sets “TWD” apart from everything else on television.

Today, binge-watching is how many people consume TV shows. A new season of “Orange Is The New Black” or “House Of Cards” is consumed in a weekend, talked about for a couple of days with fans, and flushed down the memory hole until the next helping. Like so much of what the culture obsesses about until the next shiny object appears, binge-watching is empty calories.

This is not a condemnation of binge-watching. Were it not for Netflix, “Breaking Bad” would not have been the phenomenon it was. The first few seasons were not smash hits, but audiences started gravitating to the show via Netflix, which released its earlier seasons. The show become part of the nation’s zeitgeist mostly at the end of its run.

What TV producers once reserved for season finale cliffhangers happen throughout any given “TWD” season.

When it did become a phenomenon, AMC stuck to its model of making viewers wait, teasing them with previews that confused even the most loyal viewers. In an immediate culture, anticipation and mystery worked … like it always had.

“TWD” takes that model to a new level.

The show’s beauty is how it casts aside TV conventions. Any character can be killed off at any moment. Peace or levity can be interrupted by their harsh reality at the drop of a dime. The show is always in the reality of its “now.”

“TWD” has accomplished something nearly impossible in the time of Twitter, selfies and instant gratification. It has reintroduced the excitement of patience to a culture obsessed with the immediate.

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