When The Walking Dead premiered on AMC a couple of years ago I did not give it a moment’s thought. Initially advertised as a six week show about some kind of a Zombie apocalypse I cannot imagine anyone would have thought this show would have the legs it has grown. Yet, here we are a couple of years later, and there is no doubt that The Walking Dead is the most talked about show on television. While it is true that a series on cable, be it on HBO, FX, or AMC, will be called a hit with ratings that do not come close to a mediocre network series what this series has done is unprecedented. Not only is it the most popular series ever on cable, it is, in the coveted 18-49 demographic, the most popular show on television, period. This is where we are in 2013, a show about zombies on a cable channel called American Movie Classics is the most popular show on television.
How did we get here? What has AMC done right? For one, it must be understood that this show is about much more than zombies. It is about telling a story. A story with characters that we, over the course of years, have grown to care about. Also, like successful series before it, the writers of the show are not averse to breaking our hearts by killing off popular characters. The show is not perfect, woe unto any character that is taken into the group, their life expectancy immediately drops precipitously. The former prisoner Axel has been the latest victim to fall to this device but, because of this, overall the show is about as unpredictable a show as you will find on television. AMC has smartly also not missed any opportunity to find ways to promote the series. Once the show became the Monday morning water-cooler series, the network attempted to bond fans of the show by airing Talking Dead. Airing Sunday nights after each new episode this is a commentary program that allows viewers to call in and discuss the show as well as hear from actors from the show. Recently we have seen an advertisement from Time Warner Cable that features Norman Reedus, Daryl on the series, in character with his bow and arrow shooting things in a typical suburban living room, only to be scolded by the Mom for making a mess. In short anything the network can do to find subtle, and not so subtle, ways of keeping the series in the public eye has been done.
Incidentally on the subject of Daryl, my favorite character, the next time you see Norman Reedus on the show think about this, he was in a long term relationship with, and has a child with, Danish Supermodel Helena Christensen. What a seemingly strange match. And, this was pre zombie fame. Clearly this fellow has more going for him than appears in his redneck character on this show.
As the show finishes it’s third season one wonders if new viewers are possible, can the ratings keep rising, what is the saturation point? The joy of Netflix and On Demand programming however, along with the fact that AMC follows the practice of shortened seasons with no repeats, is that viewers who want to catch up can do so. I started watching the series about four episodes into Season Two, that is watching the older episodes and then joining the current ones. My middle son had watched from the beginning, but my oldest actually watched Seasons 1 and 2 this past fall, finally catching up with the current episodes when the show emerged from it’s mid-season break earlier this month. As long as the series can keep it’s cultural buzz there is no end to the people that will make the effort to catch up and see what all the fuss is about
The show is gory, my wife cannot watch it, but the gore is more campy than scary. In some ways the show could remind you of the Saturday afternoon scarefests one would find at the theater for kids in the fifties. Perhaps to capitalize on this, AMC, starting this Thursday, will begin airing the complete series, starting with Episode One, in black and white. For older viewers who might have those fifties memories perhaps this will entice them too to join the zombie party.
Zombies permeate our culture right now. I certainly do not know why. The Canadian government recently had a discussion in the legislature about how to deal with a Zombie apocalypse and a local newscast out west was recently hacked so that somebody could broadcast an Emergency Bulletin proclaiming that the dead are rising from their graves. It might well be that as fast as the zombie fad started it will end in the same way.
Until that time however, The Walking Dead shows every sign of living long and shining brightly as an example of how a small show on a small network can catch lightning in a bottle. If I, who my wife calls, a bit of a television snob, embrace this show, and I do, my guess is that any of you who have not yet watched this show will enjoy it once you do.
As the snow melts and the spring is on the horizon this then is your first assignment for this summer. If you have not yet watched The Walking Dead do so and join us all at the beginning of Season Four.