SPOILERS FOR THE WALKING DEAD BELOW
Believe it or not, there once was a time when the critics loved The Walking Dead. Granted, even in the shows deepest nadir (mainly season 7) the critics didn't hate the show. However, there was a time when the critics were genuinely enamored with it.
This has dwindled over time. The show, now on its eighth season, has seen its viewership, and its critical scores, dwindle. Despite attempting to change things up in season 7, with the introduction of Negan, the show has felt stale for quite some time; viewers and critics alike have noticed it.
So what happened to the show? Why has it dipped in popularity and quality over the years?
Metacritic Scores for The Walking Dead (Season 1-8)
Part of the show's decline can be attributed to age. The show has been on the air since 2010, and has gone through seven seasons of essentially the same storyline (survivors find a place, place gets destroyed, they go on the road, find a new place, and repeat) and essentially the same villains (The Governor and Negan have slight personality differences, but their characters, and their motivations aren't all that dissimilar).
First and Last Episode Viewership (Seasons 1 - 7, in Millions)
Age can also explain some of the viewership descent the show has seen. Besides the huge drop off between season 7's premiere and finale, the show remained relatively constant throughout its earlier seasons -- it would have lower premiere viewership, and higher finale viewership. In other words, viewership would grow every season.
Things changed during season four. After a tumultuous three seasons where showrunners Frank Darabont (who created the show) and Glen Mazzara were fired, Scott M. Gimple -- one of the fan favorite writers, who penned critically acclaimed episodes like "Pretty Much Dead Already", "18 Miles Out", "Clear", and "This Sorrowful Life" -- came onboard as the showrunner. He has stayed on in that role since. However, his focus on character development, and in particular individual bottle episodes, has left some viewers frustrated. This can also explain some of the drop off.
Furthermore, the show itself has increasingly become reliant on poor dialogue, an inflated amount of "filler" episodes (episodes largely devoted to character development, and not plot), and convenient plot devices to tell its story. Additionally, the previous two finales saw higher amounts of poor reviews, leaving people with a bad taste in their mouth for the end of the season they just watched, and leaving them less likely to return for the next season. This can also explain the descent in viewership.
So what is the solution? Is there any?
Ultimately, the issues with The Walking Dead are inherent to its storytelling devices, and its length. While we cannot judge season eight in its entirety yet, last night's episode showed many of the flaws that I have mentioned above -- poor dialogue, bad pacing, and an over reliance on clichés.
Ultimately, if the show is going to inject new life into its tired veins it's going to need to think about its ending. The main problem many have with the show, beyond its writing, beyond its dwindling quality, is that it doesn't have an endgame. It follows a perpetual cycle, and in doing so feels tired. Every episode feels as though we've seen it before.
So, ironically enough, the best thing The Walking Dead can do to enhance its quality is to pick an ending point. Maybe it's season nine. Maybe it's season twelve. But there needs to be some sort of end point the show is leading to. This can make the show feel more final and more tense. There will actually be stakes, which there currently are not.
I still enjoy the show for what it is, and many others do to. But even the show's most ardent fans and defenders have come to realize that this is a show that has wrung every drop of originality from its premise, and is now rehashing old ideas, themes, and stories. Sadly enough, it's time that the show figured out how it wants to wrap up its story. If it continues to churn out what it's currently producing, we will see lower critical scores, lower viewership, and lower quality.