Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead has a “Nikki and Paulo” problem.
Google “Nikki and Paulo” and you will see the disappointment, bewilderment and occasional rage of TV fandom. Ten years ago this week and midway through its third season, ABC’s Lost benched the main cast for a week to air its now infamous “Exposé” episode, which focuses on a pair of vanishingly minor survivors of Oceanic Flight 815.
Lost, which I consider the bridge show from the era of appointment-viewing network dramas to today’s binge-release popcorn TV, evolved from one to the other during its first three seasons. “By focusing on a different character each week, Lost was essentially an anthology show with forward momentum,” EW’s Darren Franich has noted of the early episodes. “But as the show went on, it also became more hermetically sealed, narrowing its focus to just a few characters.”
The “Exposé” episode is to Lost what Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is to Hamlet—a parallel story that recasts the original as background noise and a precursor to the shared-universe model that franchise like Marvel, DC and The Walking Dead follow today. But here’s the thing: Fans hated Nikki and Paulo. The episode didn’t expand the Lost universe; it stopped the show’s forward momentum dead in its tracks. It may as well have come with a content warning: “No series regulars will appear in this week’s episode.”
Lost began as a character-driven anthology series, but by “Exposé” it had evolved into a highly serialized mystery box with a deep mythology and a beloved core group fighting for survival. Nikki and Paulo had never been established as part of that. “People hated them before they even opened their mouths to say anything significant because it felt like they were crashing the party,” co-creator Damon Lindelof told TV Guide. The issue was less that Nikki and Paulo were there—Lost would continue to add new characters without incident—as the fact that the regulars were not there.
That was my general sentiment as The Walking Dead spent the day at Hilltop in Sunday night’s “The Other Side.” Writer Angela Kang structured the episode around great one-on-one dialogue—Jesus (Tom Payne) having a quiet, connected moment with Maggie (Lauren Kohan); scenery-chewers Simon (Steven Ogg) and Gregory (Xander Berkeley) taking it down a notch to talk about perception and power; and scenes throughout the episode between Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Rosita (Christian Serratos) as they left the Hilltop and moved in on Negan’s compound at the Sanctuary. The episode works beautifully on its own terms.
The problem, though, lies in what the episode is not. In Season 7, The Walking Dead has sprawled from a series about a core group that has assimilated and cohered over time to one about four distinct communities—Alexandria, the Kingdom, the Sanctuary and the Hilltop—and scattered onesies and twosies from the core Alexandria group to the other three in effort to ground those other groups in the main narrative of the series.
This season has been one of my favorite taken episode by episode, but the cumulative effect of the story sprawl has been like a tasting menu with too many entrees and too little of each. Series stars Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michone (Danai Gurira) have appeared in only one of the last four episodes. Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)—a big casting coup and the major villain for this season—disappears for long stretches. Carol (Melissa McBride) has barely come out of her cabin in the woods. Daryl (Norman Reedus) has not had one damn thing to do. Those are the leads.
I’ve enjoyed seeing minor characters come to the fore this season, but there’s only so much bandwidth for that on a popular show with a large cast. With only two episodes left this season, plenty of pre-finale fireworks coming in this week’s penultimate episode, and a Season 8 that will almost certainly be dominated by the war between Team Rick and Team Negan, The Walking Dead will have an opportunity for some much-needed narrative narrowing.
The segmented approach will play differently on Netflix a year from now: Nobody disappears for a month when you watch the whole season in the span of a week. As a weekly TV series, though, put me down for more Rick and Negan, less Nikki and Paulo.