It's easy to watch The Walking Dead and think of it as television's biggest serialized drama, an ongoing adventure story about survival in the zombie apocalypse. For many, it's right up there next to Game of Thrones, Westworld and other series that require weekly investment to unpack all their secrets and clues.
But there's something that The Walking Dead fans probably aren't ready to admit. The Walking Dead, especially in its current seventh season, is making a strong case that it's becoming more of a procedural than a serialized drama. Wait! Before you write angry things on Twitter, hear me out.
First thing we have to do is note that the term procedural shouldn't have negative connotations, so please put down the flaming pitchfork. True, television elitists typically dismiss procedurals as being beneath heavily serialized dramas ever since the dawn of the Golden Age of TV, which gave us The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and others that spent seasons (or even longer) on continuing stories and specific arcs. But to heck with television elitists! Procedurals remain huge by any standard — NCIS is still the most-watched scripted program on television, for example — and TV is such a vast landscape now that there's always room for the "comfort TV" that procedurals provide, particularly after the waves of mediocre dramas that tried to emulate Breaking Bad and others.
We also need to define procedural television, or at least attempt to define it as it's a tricky thing to do. For most, the term "procedural" conjures up visions of acronym-titled shows (CSI, NCIS, etc.) about crime solvers catching crime doers in self-contained episodes, and that's not incorrect. But the idea of the procedural has changed in recent years. We can't forget about shows like Fringe and Person of Interest, which redefined what a network procedural could be by using longer mythology arcs as well as traditional standalone episodes, or cable programs like Monk or Psych, which mixed detective work with character stories and humor. Even The Mentalist — a classic CBS procedural — had the Red John endgame.
Procedurals may have started as serious crime capers that could be watched in any order, but as is the case with the rest of television, its defining formula — frequently derided by critics as simplistic — has evolved, and now we're seeing more and more dramas that use procedural elements along with serialized arcs. That's essentially what The Walking Dead has become, for better or worse. And while most will shudder to hear The Walking Dead and "procedural" in the same sentence, I've got evidence that makes it hard to deny.
Like most standard procedurals, The Walking Dead doesn't really have an overall plot, and this may be the best argument in favor of the show leaning procedural. One main trait associated with serialized dramas is a sense of direction or an end goal — they're serialized because they're telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. Lost had the mystery of the island. Breaking Bad had its ascent to drug kingpin. Battlestar Galactica had an Earth to get to. The scenery may change throughout the seasons, but the endpoint was always on the horizon and clearly defined in the storytelling. The Walking Dead has nothing for its characters to do but survive (though that's divided into chapters of big bads), and creator Robert Kirkman always imagined the property as a never-ending zombie adventure where its characters — you guessed it — do whatever they can to survive.
Theoretically, The Walking Dead could go on forever, whereas Game of Thrones was always destined to end with a massive battle for the Iron Throne between Dany and whoever stands in her way. You know what else can and will go on forever because there's no end in sight? NCIS. Procedurals are specifically designed to last long and never show a sign of urgency to end. That's exactly the mood of The Walking Dead and is a factor in its success.
Procedurals are also typically occupation-related. In CSI, we watch a group of crime scene investigators doing their jobs week in and week out. In Law & Order, we see law and order dispensed by lawyers, cops and judges. Procedural characters are largely defined by their jobs and procedurals are largely comprised of us watching those characters do their jobs, and though The Walking Dead's roster all had pre-apocalypse occupations, their current job is to not get eaten. More specifically, they're all zombie apocalypse survivors and that's what they do. That's all they've ever done in the show. That's all we expect them to do. If they did anything else, it wouldn't be The Walking Dead. It's progress from the typical cops, doctors and lawyers of traditional procedurals, but make no mistake, The Walking Dead is about people doing their jobs and because of its setting, it doesn't have room for side stories that don't involve survival. You know what to expect with The Walking Dead, and there's comfort in not straying far from the formula.
In Season 7, The Walking Dead has done something fascinating that serialized dramas would never do. After the Season 7 premiere, each episode that followed can be watched in any order you want. None of the five episodes that have aired since Negan smashed in Glenn's face have any major chronological ties to each other. They're each self-contained episodes that can be watched whenever you want and have no cause-effect relationship from one hour to the next, largely because they've all taken place in new locations with different characters. Did you miss Carol and Morgan in The Kingdom in the second episode? No worries! Watch it after Maggie's adventures in the Hilltop community in Episode 5! Or after Tara solo adventure to the women's camp in Episode 6! Put your DVR on shuffle, and you won't miss a thing. I'll admit that this is more in line with an episode-by-episode anthology (another topic for another day), but it's closer to what procedurals do and further from what we're used to from a serialized drama.
This formula that The Walking Dead has created also echoes one of the classic financial objectives of a procedural: the spin-off! The Walking Dead: Westside (better known as Fear the Walking Dead) isn't much different than NCIS spawning NCIS: Los Angeles, which tells similar stories in a new setting. And so far, there's isn't much difference between The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead except for characters and time zones. That's not a mistake, either. Fear the Walking Dead was made to fulfill the demand for more Walking Dead, not give viewers different Walking Dead. And that's easy to pull off when there's a set procedural-esque formula in place. AMC has also admitted interest in a third Walking Dead show, though nothing has been put in development, but it's easy to imagine the franchise moving abroad with its characters doing what it takes to survive the zombie apocalypse. Yeah, that sounds familiar.
Look, The Walking Dead isn't entirely a procedural, but it has more in common with the CSIs of the world than you'd initially think. And that's not a bad thing. In fact, I'd argue that The Walking Dead has improved on the traditional procedural formula with its unique angle and introduced the horror and supernatural genres to an audience that otherwise wouldn't watch it. There's clearly something to it, too, as The Walking Dead and AMC have rode that to one of the biggest television phenomena in recent history.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on AMC.