AMC's "The Walking Dead" is not only the biggest hit on cable, it's also delivering the kinds of numbers the broadcast networks have all but given up on. However, it's usually overlooked in conversations about the best work on television, especially when overshadowed by "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" on the same network. But Emmy voters, you should approach it with fresh eyes this year.
Except the obvious makeup and effects nominations at the Emmys, stunt bids at the SAG Awards, and a sole Drama Series nod at the Golden Globes, "Walking Dead" hasn't been a factor at awards, probably because of its subject matter: aesthetes and TV industry pros don't take a show about zombies seriously as art. Just a lot of violence and viscera – of which there are plenty.
But making a zombie story in a series format instead of a standalone feature film gives the show the opportunity to dig deeper. This has never been simply a show about the undead feasting on brains. It's about moral choices and psychological consequences; how do human beings reconcile their once civilized nature with a newly uncivilized world. "The Walking Dead" more closely resembles Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" than most zombie movies.
Its fourth season ended Sunday night on an uneasy note at a stronghold called Terminus that was supposed to be a new sanctuary. The episode wasn't perfect, and neither was the season, but the show is gratifying in the way that, despite its massive success, it has avoided the kind of formula storytelling that normally handcuffs broad-appeal hits. It goes on interesting tangents, shuffles its characters around in new and interesting ways, and has the confidence to slow its pace when needed. An episode full of action mayhem may be followed by a two-hander devoted entirely to character development. The cast is so deep that lead actor Andrew Lincoln was absent from several episodes before the season's home stretch. No network show would do that.
The best episode of the season was one such Lincoln-free hour: "The Grove," which featured the deaths of two young girls. Children are usually untouchable in popular entertainment, even the most grisly horror stories. But the show didn't off a couple of kids just for shock value; instead it paid off a long-building story and further examined the morality and psychic damage of the world our characters now live in.
If submitted for Emmy consideration, "The Grove" deserves nominations for writing and directing, and the MVP of that episode, Melissa McBride, deserves a nomination for Drama Supporting Actress. Over the course of the series, McBride's Carol has evolved from a victim of abuse to a hardened decision-maker, and the actress has taken some of this year's toughest character turns – the virtuous Carol has killed in cold blood – and turned it into a remarkable study of moral compromise: in the zombie apocalypse, the old standards of right and wrong no longer apply.
People rarely consider zombie horror stories for the acting, but in this case they should, because McBride gave one of the best performances on any TV show this season. And there were other standouts, like Scott Wilson as doomed voice of reason Hershel, Norman Reedus as renegade in search of purpose Daryl, and Danai Gurira as sword-wielding Michonne, who became a warmer and fully developed character this year.
I suspect "The Walking Dead" would have had more success at the Emmys if it weren't coinciding with HBO's "Game of Thrones." Sometimes the TV academy will embrace one genre show, but there's rarely room for two. It was "Quantum Leap" for a while, then "The X-Files," then "Lost." Afterwards, "True Blood" got one year in the spotlight before "Game of Thrones" became the show that stands for all fantasy on the awards circuit.
In that case, Emmy voters, maybe you should stop looking at it like a fantasy show. Consider it the character study it really is.