The Walking Dead: Death in Primetime - How a Show About Zombies Has Conquered Television
On October 30, 2010—the day before AMC aired the first episode of The Walking Dead—RobertKirkman had no idea what to expect. He knew he had a strong story—the success of his Walking Dead comic book series had proven that—and he knew there was nothing remotely like that story on TV. Like the graphic novels, the TV version would not be a story about zombies, but about how humans respond to a world where they face nothing but threats—from roaming hordes of the undead, from malevolent psychopaths, from the hunger in their stomachs and the voices in their heads. Primarily, it would be a human drama, and he would need space to allow that story to unfold. If everything broke right, maybe he'd get two or three seasons to tell it. He was cautiously optimistic.
Four years later, on October 12, 2014, the season five premiere of The Walking Dead set a record for the most watched drama in cable television history, pulling in 17.3 million viewers. No cable show—not Breaking Bad, notMad Men, not The Sopranos—has ever had more viewers. In fact, the show has even started beating NBC Sunday Night Football, a ratings gold standard for years. Far from dying a quiet death after one season, The Walking Dead turned into a franchise, with action figures, video games, and an upcoming spinoff series in the works.
"I never anticipated it being the success that it is, and I can't imagine anyone in the industry did," Kirkman says. "I know people at AMC thought it was something special and had potential to be a hit, but it has no business being as popular as it is. It's a horror show. It should be turning people away—the majority of people shouldn't want to see zombies eating people. It's not the kind of thing that you look at and go, 'Oh, that's a mass market thing that will appeal to dozens of different demographics.' But for some reason, it does. It's certainly a strange anomaly. I think there are a lot of people in the business scratching their heads going, 'Well, that's certainly defying conventional wisdom.'"
As a fan of the show, it's easy to understand why it would find a devoted audience. The characters are richly drawn, the acting is impeccable, and every week the stakes are nothing less than life and death. Unlike, say, Mad Men, it's a show where you never know week-to-week whether your favorite character is going to survive for the next episode, and you watch the show with an attendant anxiety. But plenty of shows have great writers, great actors, and the looming specter of death. Those shows don't set ratings records. Why is The Walking Dead the one that is connecting with audiences on a deeper level?
"I could spin you a yarn, but I really don't know," says Andrew Lincoln, the actor who plays the show's central character, former sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes. "I think that sometimes something captures people's imaginations, and the fan mail I get is astonishing. Maybe it's the fact that it is a kind of dysfunctional family trying to pull each other through this hell. And it's a lot of different types of people, where race has no meaning anymore. Class has no import. They're just people, and you're judged wholly by your actions. Maybe that's a breath of fresh air."
Theories abound as to just why The Walking Dead has captured the cultural zeitgeist at this moment, and the topic has become a popular theme for academic dissertations and scholarly analysis. Perhaps, some argue, given the rise of zombie-themed writing in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our fixation on the undead represents our fears of being invaded by "the other," of being caught unprepared to fight an incomprehensible foe. Or, as others have argued, maybe the idea of a zombie apocalypse exposes our anxieties regarding a struggling economy, bringing to the surface our dread at having all of our specialized knowledge and training rendered irrelevant in an instant. Maybe we watch The Walking Dead to project our anxieties onto the characters on the screen.
"With everything that people see in the 24-hour news cycle, there is an underlying subtext of doomsday in the media," says Michael Cudlitz, the former Southland star who plays burly G.I. Joe-come-to-life Sgt. Abraham Ford on The Walking Dead. "Your pension won't be there by the time you need it! Your job won't be there when you need it! The earth won't be there when you need it! Everything is like, 'Holy crap!' Everything is not going to turn to shit, but we are fed that every day about everything. Congress is never going to get it together. We're never going to have a budget. We're going to be at war forever. The world is going to end. Taxes are rising. The earth is going to blow up. And you go, 'Okay. Yeah, it's probably going to happen. Zombie apocalypse? Sure, why not?'"
While science has ruled that the dead could never reanimate, story arcs on The Walking Dead have eerily paralleled recent world events. Six months before an Ebola outbreak ravaged Africa, The Walking Dead featured a mystery virus that swept through their prison community, killing dozens with a hemorrhagic fever and resulting dehydration. Then, just as the survivors began to recover from the illness, their patriarch, Hershel Greene, was captured and publically beheaded by a rival group. In 20 years, how many viewers will re-watch these scenes and mistakenly assume the show's writers were referencing ISIS' brutal campaign of murder, when, in fact, the episodes predate them by half a year? No, we're not stalked by roaming hordes of the dead, but many of the calamities captured on The Walking Dead aren't just hypothetical scenarios for viewers in other parts of the world—they're a daily reality.
"I think we live in perilous times," says executive producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens). "I think with the Internet and social media, the world feels much smaller, and we connect immediately with things that are going on in other parts of the world. So there's that immediacy. If there's an Ebola outbreak in Africa or there's a terrible earthquake in Haiti or war breaks out or global financial problems—it all feels very close. And I think we feel as if we're dancing on the edge of the abyss all the time. This show is able to connect with people, because it's really unlikely the zombie apocalypse is about to happen, but at the same time there is lawlessness and a breakdown in civil authority. And people can connect with characters who are experiencing something that is never likely to happen, but live vicariously through a situation that mirrors something that could happen."
As horrible as the scenarios presented on the show are, there's also an escapist element at play. Though none of us would want to live in a world where childbirth is again a life-threatening ordeal, let alone one where people might see their fellow humans as sources of food, the end of society would have its benefits. The flipside of living in a world where your job skills are no longer valuable is the fact that you no longer have to spend 40 hours a week at a job you hate. No student debt hanging over you, no monthly rent payments to make, no traffic jams to test your patience—the world of The Walking Dead is one where its characters have no choice but to live for the moment.
"The immediacy is what draws me to it as a viewer," says Melissa McBride, who plays abused wife turned fearless warrior Carol Peletier. "Especially lately, seeing how these characters that I've come to love are continuing to adapt and evolve in that world, just having nothing all of a sudden. What motivates them to keep going forward as this little band of people? They're all they have. They have no diversions anymore. They have to just get through that moment. They're completely unplugged, and I think that's fascinating. They're completely present."
When people have nothing but each other, those relationships assume paramount importance. And as dysfunctional as the group of survivors on The Walking Dead can be, they've grown into relationships that force them to genuinely care for each other's emotional and physical well-being. Perhaps, in the real world, where many of our most meaningful relationships occur at a distance over electronic devices, we watch The Walking Dead and subconsciously long to matter to other people in the same way those characters matter to each other.
"I think that, at its core, The Walking Dead is about caring for your loved ones and trying to survive and make it in the world," Kirkman explains. "These are all things that everyone has done or has dealt with. Everyone has been lost, to a certain extent, and everyone has dealt with the struggle to achieve something that is difficult to achieve. These are very fundamental parts of life that are being boiled down to a very digestible form in The Walking Dead. But it's not just a story about survival or a story about what you would do for the ones you love. It's also set against this insane backdrop that is absolutely unreal—that could never really happen—that is possibly infinitely entertaining. There are any number of stories and any number of directions we could go in this crazy apocalyptic world. I have to think it gives the audience opportunities to think about very heavy issues that you don't really like to think about or consider, but it's set against this fantastical backdrop, so that you don't really register that you're experiencing this kind of stuff. It's easier to deal with these very hard subjects that we're dealing with," he says, trailing off with a laugh. "But it's also possible that it's only popular because people like to watch zombies eat people."
No doubt, such viewers exist. Read any Walking Dead message board, and you'll find no shortage of viewers who tune in week after week to see zombie heads explode and humans torn apart. Like no show since The Sopranos,The Walking Dead represents the convergence of low-brow thrills and high-brow existentialism, and it's only natural that the show would draw from both camps of viewers. Those two groups shouldn't have much overlap, but the show's success seems uniquely dependent on creating a balancing act that keeps both happy.
"I'm not a huge fan of the horror genre, because I get scared, man," says Josh McDermitt, the actor who, appropriately enough, plays the show's resident coward, Eugene Porter. "But the reason I was drawn to The Walking Dead as a viewer was that it isn't a show about zombies. It's a show about survival and the human condition, in the way that Lost was the same thing. That show was about these people surviving. If that show was about a bunch of people living on an island eating coconuts, no one would care. It's the same with The Walking Dead. Sure, we have these zombies and this element of danger, but the biggest threat is from other humans and from within yourself. Are you able to adapt to change? I also think, at least with this show, it seems so real. It just seems like it could happen, way more than Vampire Diaries or something like that. I do believe that zombies could happen, like those guys who were doing bath salts. I'm like, 'Oh, boy. Here we go.' There are a few moments like that throughout the year where I'm like, 'This is not good.'"
Because the show retains an element of realism, it lends itself to daydreaming of zombies bursting through the front door at midnight and of lingering a little too long in the crossbow section at Walmart. Perhaps the success of The Walking Dead speaks to our desires to remake ourselves as Daryl Dixon, the crossbow-toting badass who has become the show's most invulnerable character. We want to imagine that we would have the wide-ranging competence to hotwire a car, track an animal, or cauterize a wound—whatever the situation requires. Like all great adventure stories, The Walking Dead has no shortage of heroes. But in this case, the heroes look just like us.
"I think, in a very weird way, people can hook into the show and see parallels to their own lives right now," Cudlitz suggests. "Aside from that, Kirkman has created these fantastic, iconic characters that people either identify with or want to identify with. They can say, 'That's who I would be.' They aren't superheroes. No one has superhero powers. They're all normal people in extraordinary circumstances doing extraordinary things. There are a lot of underdogs running around, and everyone likes to root for the underdog. I think they identify with that."
Add it all up—all the theories and conjecture and speculation—and you still don't really come to a satisfying answer for why The Walking Dead is connecting with audiences in a way very few shows ever have before. And as overwhelming as the success of the show must be for its stars—many of whom were more or less unknown when they joined the cast—it's even stranger for Kirkman. Even someone with his imagination couldn't have dreamed up the reality of the show's success.
"People ask me to describe it sometimes," Kirkman says, "and I say, 'I did a comic book, and the comic book turned into a show, and the show ended up being one of the biggest things ever.' It's indescribable, and it's not like there's anyone I can call who can relate to that. [Game of Thrones creator] George R. R. Martin and I should probably hang out sometime—I'm sure we'd have a lot to talk about. But it's not the kind of thing that normally happens to people. My father can't sit me down, like, 'Well, son. This is how this goes and this is how you handle it.' It has been a completely and utterly unreal experience from top to bottom, so it's hard to sit down and recognize the things that are happening to me sometimes, because it seems imaginary to a certain extent."
The reality, of course, is that no one has more responsibility for the future success of the show than he does. The direction of the plot, not to mention the weight of deciding when and how to kill off beloved characters, rests solely upon him. And as even the most iconic TV shows start to recycle plot points and lose momentum as they reach their sixth and seventh seasons, Kirkman faces the challenge of finding ways to make sure our collective zombie fever doesn't break. (Luckily for him, the show has only progressed about halfway through the comic book source material, and much of remaining plot is considered by fans to be the best in the series.) Perhaps the most important question isn't how The Walking Dead has managed to captivate a nation of viewers, but how it will continue to keep us coming back.
"It's certainly possible it will continue to grow—that's something AMC thinks is a possibility—but you don't really know," he says. "I'm certainly enjoying what we're doing, and I'll enjoy this ride for as long as it lasts, but I can't guess how long it will go. I hope to see a 70-year-old Andrew Lincoln killing zombies in 30 years."