I see Kurt Schlicter has made a fine effort to comprehend the popularity of The Walking Dead, which is perhaps an even more remarkable pop-culture phenomenon than the amazing show we just said goodbye to, Breaking Bad. Let me put it this way: the Walking Dead season premiere last week drew about 6 million more viewers than the Breaking Bad finale, which was an all-consuming media obsession everywhere from the entertainment pages to political blogs. Everyone knew AMC’s zombie opus was popular, but… higher ratings by far than the most popular show on network television, The Big Bang Theory? Really?
Kurt’s definitely on to something with his comparison between The Walking Dead and the crucial frontier mythology of the American experience. The resemblance between Sheriff Rick and his motley crew of survivors, and the frontiersmen who set out into the American West, is only highlighted by the abandoned prison where the show has been set for the past season. It sure does look a lot like an old frontier fort, doesn’t it? It’s an interesting inversion of the old George Romero idea of using the living dead as props in a satire about paranoia, racism, consumerism, or the military-industrial complex.
It sure helps that The Walking Dead returns to our TV screens each year as a Halloween seasonal event – no other time of the year would feel right. And while it might seem odd that a show with so many passionate (and amusingly accurate) critics would reach the pinnacle of popularity, I suspect its flaws are part of its enduring charm.
Complaining about the fallacies and cliches of a show can be a fun part of fandom. Kurt celebrates the arrival of background characters to act as “red-shirted ensigns,” which is of course a beloved trope of that most beloved cult-classic TV show, Star Trek. The silly and repetitive parts of some shows can become comfort food for viewers. There are probably people who tune in to The Walking Dead just so they can complain about it on social media the next day. Well, they count as viewers, too, and advertisers are happy to have their eyeballs. (As the zombies would be, if given a chance to grab them.)
It’s more than just The Walking Dead, though. The zombie is the king of monsters right now. World War Z was huge over the summer, even though it also had groan-worthy flaws and a notoriously troubled production history. It also found something new to say about the zombie, as did 28 Days Later a few years before. For a bland and mindless menace, the zombie certainly is multi-faceted. He’s even starred in comedies like Zombieland and Warm Bodies, which also work surprisingly well as apocalyptic thrillers between the laughs. Surviving in a wasteland infected by the walking dead has become an immediately recognizable cultural motif. If you show a random audience a scene of someone walking through a deserted city, they’re going to assume zombies are on the way.
Maybe one reason Zed is on top of the movie monster heap is that he’ll settle for nothing less that global domination. Vampires have been known to attend high school, eat bunnies, and hope nobody catches them sparkling in the sunlight. Aliens are just all over the map – why, sometimes they’re even friendly. But for the zombie, it’s Armageddon or bust. Gone are the days of the lone voodoo victim clumsily performing sinister deeds at the behest of his cackling puppet master.
For that matter, the zombie has been just about completely disconnected from the supernatural – he’s always depicted as a quirk of science now, the product of a mysterious plague or a bio-weapons experiment gone wrong. There’s not much discussion of where the Z-plague originated in the original Walking Dead graphic novels, but in the TV series a couple of scientist types have tried to figure it out, to no avail. It might therefore be classified as “super nature,” an enigma beyond the ability of science to decipher, but it’s clearly not meant to be black magic. (I’m surprised nobody has tried jumping on the zombie bandwagon by crafting a clearly mystical undead story yet; I’ve heard rumors of efforts to adapt an older comic-book series called Deadworld, which would give us a zombie apocalpyse unleashed by Satanic bikers fooling around with black magic, eventually leading to even worse things than zombies stalking the survivors. Also: talking zombies. With guns.)
Why are people willing to spend so much daydream time in such a bleak setting? The Walking Dead TV show is considerably less of an existential bummer than the original comics were – they really soft-pedaled the Governor’s sadism, among other things – but it’s still fairly morose. My guess is that people are drawn to the idea of the “reset button,” a cataclysm that wipes away the clutter of a neurotic civilization that frets over silly things. After Zed runs riot, the ordinary people who survive become epic heroes – frontiersmen, yes, and even adventurers in the pulp-fantasy tradition. (Note that two of the most popular Walking Dead characters are armed with a crossbow and a sword, respectively.)
What the zombie apocalypse brings to its survivors is authenticity, the quest for which is an enduring part of our common fantasy lives. In the world of the dead, we’ll learn what we’re really made of.
The breakout star of The Walking Dead is a character who didn’t even exist in the comics, Darryl Dixon, played with gusto by Norman Reedus. He’s the hardcore survivor with useful skills, an unassuming fellow who might not have counted for much in the old world, but is an indispensable hero in the new. The season premiere lampshaded his cult popularity by giving him swooning fanboys within the story, one of whom kept trying to guess what Darryl did for a living before the zombies rose. Maybe he was a regional distributor for Duck Commander. Like the “Duck Dynasty” crew, and the heroes of various blue-collar reality shows, Darryl is a gruff can-do guy in a whiny can’t-do era, who thrives when the undead shamble forth to tear all the B.S. away. Hopefully they don’t soften him up too much. It’s surprising to revisit his early appearances and recall how much less agreeable he was originally intended to be.
I don’t recall if the TV show has mentioned it yet, but the comics, sword-wielding Michonne was a lawyer before the apocalypse. She awoke from a dreamy life of a world with too many lawyers, into the savage reality of a wasteland that doesn’t have enough samurai. Maybe she’ll live long enough to play some role in rebuilding civilization, once the zombies are defeated. (The TV show has begun dropping hints that humanity might win by outlasting them, because they’re starting to decompose.) Isn’t it captivating to wonder what sort of a world you would build, if you made it through the horrifying deletion of the old society? No surprise that a dissatisfied culture that thinks everything is going in the wrong direction might enjoy spending Sunday nights watching a colorful cast of characters take their best shot at it.