The mysterious appeal of "The Walking Dead"

I see that Christian Toto offers a well-deserved salute to Daryl, the redneck messiah of The Walking Dead, on the Big Hollywood front page.  The runaway success of this show will give culture critics plenty to chew on for another few seasons.  (How successful is it?  The Walking Dead is so huge that it’s followed by a talk show designed to discuss the episode aired moments ago… and that show is beating network offerings in the ratings.)

The interesting thing about The Walking Dead is that many of its fans also hate it.  It’s picked apart mercilessly on forums, especially when the characters behave incomprehensibly, which occurs at least once per episode.  But maybe that’s also part of the appeal – the fascination of the flawed gem.  Fans of a few top-shelf programs like The Wire or Breaking Bad are known to claim those shows are nearly perfect in every respect, but most of recent television’s monster hits and cult obsessions have included comical absurdities or predictable repetition, all the way back to the cult show that flopped, rose from the dead, and became a billion-dollar empire, Star Trek.  We rib these shows even though we love them, but maybe we also love them because they’re so ribbable, and that make them entertaining.

Daryl’s a fan-favorite character on The Walking Dead who does not come from the original source material.  He didn’t seem to be intended as a fixture when he first appears; he was meant to be a surprising and unpleasant encounter after the main characters dealt harshly with his brother, Merle.  I think he stuck around partially because Norman Reedus plays him so well… and partly because he just plain makes sense.  

In a show filled with dingbats who express reservations about packing heat during a freaking zombie apocalypse, and are prone to doing things like leaping into vehicles and getting into zombie-related car crashes for extremely dubious reasons, Daryl seems like the kind of guy who would survive.  He can hunt, he’s ready to do whatever it takes to stay alive, he has a finely-tuned B.S. detector, and he acts without hesitation or remorse when things get ugly.  All of the other characters are gradually evolving into Daryl, a point driven home by several characters’ blase dismissal of a hitchhiker during the latest episode.  Carl, the pistol-packing child on the show, seems particularly advanced on the road to Daryldom.

This is supposed to be a horror show, as that latest episode emphasized.  Some people can’t hack it, and they crack.  The Daryls and Michonnes of the world were ready to survive before the first zombie clawed his way out of the grave.  Everyone else is learning that various obsessions of the modern world become unaffordable luxuries in extreme circumstances.