Call this an editorial if you will. It’s one of 2 that I’ll be attempting.
Back in October of 2017, having seen the movie Blade Runner 2049, I felt the need to share my view of how important it is to build character when telling a story. I thought I’d share my thoughts and be done with it, but I’ve been eaten up with the idea again after watching a recent series. When I’d reviewed Blade Runner, I had neglected to point out that it was in the end, just a movie. You get a couple of hours to get the characters on screen, tell a story, and hopefully make the audience care. It’s harder to do because you have so little time to make that impact. But when you get a series, you should be able to make more of a dent in it, because you get more hours to craft the writing around those people. Told well, you can slowly flesh out a character or group of characters to keep the audience caring, connecting one episode to the next.
I say all of this to complain about the recent Hulu series Y: The Last Man. I had read the graphic novels many years ago and found them a work of art; I couldn’t wait for the series. Like a drug dealer, I pushed it on my friends, sight unseen, so convinced was I that the story would be worth it, that I didn’t even wait to view an episode to get them invested with me. Upon watching it, I was depressed by it and kept comparing it to another graphic novel series, The Walking Dead. Both put the cast into really depressingly dire circumstances over and over again. But something still didn’t click… until it did.
The Walking Dead
This is a prime example of how to succeed in telling bleak stories. So much so, that I mentioned it in my 2017 article as well. Season 1 of The Walking Dead only consisted of 6 episodes when it premiered in October of 2010. It introduced us to father and son, Rick and Carl. Rick was cut off from his family having been in a coma when the zombie apocalypse started. He befriends Morgan, a man trying to protect his own family. Add to that Glenn Rhee, a geeky everyman or Dale, the elder member of the group or Carol, trying to keep her own daughter safe… Even the roguishly charming Daryl is, in fact, charming. The only person who we dislike right away is the guy who is used as the main baddie of the season, played to perfection by Michael Rooker. Each of the ensemble cast were to some extent relatable, but none more so than Rick, the moral core of the show. Rick even has a best friend, Shane, something we can relate to as well, as many of us have actual friends.
The idea that week after week we see the horrors of an end-of-the-world scenario might wear us down, but we care about these characters. Whether it’s the horrible body gore of the undead attacking the living, or the even more gruesome horror of what people do to other people just to stay alive, we tune in because we want to see the characters survive. We want to know how they will cope. The show is largely about holding onto humanity, not the zombie attacks. As the seasons pressed on, some people left or were killed off, but new characters arrived and in no time at all, we started to care about them. Herschel and Maggie come to mind and I haven’t watched the show in some time. Even the dreadful Negan is one of the most charismatic villains in TV history. In some ways it’s like watching a chemical reaction to see how the new elements will react with the old, but we are interested because we care about those we’ve known and grown to care about the new ones that were introduced later. Unlike…
Y: The Last Man
Season 1 of Y started off with introductions to some very difficult characters to bond with. In this story, all the men on the planet have died of some strange disease, barring our lead, Yorick. He is a man who makes very poor choices nearly flattening himself while leaping to save his monkey from a falling helicopter, then diving into corpse-filled, diseased waters thinking his monkey is dumb enough to have taken a dip. No sir, only you were that dumb, not the monkey! He’s a man with no ambition, wanting only to be an escape artist, even teaching a local kid how to do it, but making no money nor having the wherewithal to actually do something with his life. His girlfriend doesn’t even want to accept his engagement proposal because she actually has aspirations in life. This warms us to precisely neither of them. We are also introduced to his sister, Hero who sleeps with a married man while on EMS duty in an ambulance only to then accidentally murder him with a fire extinguisher when she finds out he hasn’t told his wife that he’s leaving her like he said he had. It seems these audience identification characters are horribly flawed and we haven’t even gotten to the horror of what is yet to come.
Unlike The Walking Dead, we are then introduced to the supporting cast, none of whom are particularly appealing to spend time with. The ruthless new President, played by Diane Lane, who is cold and ambitious. Regina, a Trump-like bully of a president, believed dead, turns up later and she’s even more ruthless than Lane. Allison is a grumpy, moody geneticist who pouts more than she helps, believing herself superior to everyone but proving to be able to solve actually nothing. Amber Tamblyn plays Kimber, a religious crackpot whose own mother flings herself to her death rather than have to spend any more time with her daughter thus again proving that neither character was actually likable. Kim fluctuates between manipulative and genuine, to the point where we don’t have any idea where the writers are taking her. Frankly, with a Pentagon as a last bastion of safety, I struggled to understand why she was allowed to remain with the leaders of the nation, short of to become a fly in the ointment and turn people against one another; the very thing no one would want! And all of this says nothing of the “Amazons” that former White House aide Nora befriends, who spout rhetoric about how bad men are and why they all deserved to have died. Real likable cast of characters. The idea that a disease wiped out all men is pretty rough, but when our identification comes from people who believe we deserved it, do we really care to find out what happened?
Where Y was not a complete failure is that it gave us occasionally interesting characters like 355 or Nora, but in the case of the latter, we waited until episode 8 to actually start to develop her; not nearly enough time to flesh it out in 2 more episodes. 355 is the only one who was interesting right from the word “go” but her motivations are never clear and we can’t help but wonder if we’re following a good guy or a bad guy. She has her moments, but she’s so single-minded that we don’t see her let down her guard until episode 9 (of 10), at which point no network in their right mind would bring the show back for another season because by then, who was still interested? I was only sticking around out of loyalty to the graphic novel at that point. I asked myself over and over: where was our moral compass in this show? Where was the character that held us to the mark and kept us watching? Who was the “me” character that I could relate to?
Both series come from graphic novels/comic books. Both feature global destruction on an unprecedented scale. Both have an ensemble cast. Only one has kept going for 140+ episodes and spawned at least 1 spin-off already with another coming, plus a number of video games. As far as I can tell, that’s because it gave us characters to care about and brought us from one chapter to the next with those people. I may have gotten away from The Walking Dead at this point, but that took over 150 episodes and two series to make me put it on hiatus. I was done with Y before it even left the station; I just stayed on that train in the hopes it would get better. What’s going to happen to Yorick and Hero? Frankly… who cares? ML