“The Walking Dead” and “The Leftovers” both deal with how humanity copes with the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. Yet this season they share another trait defined more by storytelling approach than by their bleak visions of society.
Where most serialized dramas juggle multiple plots within episodes, each of these series has focused for extended stretches — and in the case of “The Walking Dead,” entire hours — on one or two key players. The result has been, by turns, ambitious, interesting and frustrating, testing the reservoirs of built-up goodwill in both programs.
By that measure, AMC’s smash drama seems far more suited to rely on its audience’s patience, though even with that series, there’s been griping about the herky-jerky nature of this sixth season. The complaints no doubt have something to do with dropping a major plot bomb — the apparent death of one of the few first-season survivors — only to abandon it in subsequent weeks, spending entire episodes with Morgan (Lennie James) and, in the most recent hour (with MILD SPOILERS ahead), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) as they struck up the band to lead a zombie parade away from town, and ran into a new threat.
“Leftovers,” meanwhile, despite hitting the reset button after its first season, has worked in much the same focused manner, if slightly less aggressively. The season premiere introduced new characters, only bringing back Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Nora (Carrie Coon) near episode’s end.
The second hour shifted to them, but the third dealt with Laurie (Amy Brenneman), Kevin’s ex-wife. Another chapter focused almost exclusively on Matt (Christopher Eccleston), the reverend tending to his vegetative spouse, and Sunday’s hour detoured back to Kevin, exploring his strange visions of Patti (Ann Dowd), the leader of the cult known as the Guilty Remnant, in whose death he played a part.
Damon Lindelof, who adapted “Leftovers” for HBO with the novel’s author, Tom Perrotta, obviously has experience in this regard. “Lost,” after all, devoted its extended flashback sequences to single characters, although there was usually enough business happening on the island each week to marginally advance the plot.
While there’s certainly precedence for this — and “Dead” has been breaking up characters into smaller, scattered groups for a while — the dramatic efficacy of the strategy, almost anthological in nature, remains a work in progress. Clearly, not every show can do it, since it requires a deep bench of strong characters to focus so steadfastly on any one of them. (For example, it’s hard to imagine wanting to spend an entire hour with anybody on “Fear the Walking Dead” at this juncture.)
Still, watching these series week to week on linear television, there’s a sense of deferred gratification that runs counter to this age of binge viewing. That’s especially true with a program that inspires the kind of fanatical devotion engendered by “Walking Dead,” where people have no doubt been tuning in the last several weeks hoping for some additional morsel, some definitive crumb, regarding the fate of Glenn (Steven Yeun).
Critically speaking, this fragmented style makes it more difficult to fully evaluate a season until it’s over, when one can assess how it all added up. The constituencies that really matter, however, are these programs’ loyal viewers. And unlike that cult in “The Leftovers,” if they’re not satisfied, they won’t remain silent for long.