Oct 9 2013 11:00am

It’s Not About the Zombies: How The Walking Dead Became the Most-Watched Show on TV

The Walking Dead

Thirty years ago, Michael Jackson rocked the music world with a 13-minute music video for his hit song, Thriller. The video was a love letter to zombie horror—zombies crawled out of the ground, zombies sang, zombies danced—and Michael was their flesh-eating leader. The story was bolstered by creepy make-up, ragged costumes, and chilling narration by Vincent Price, securing Thriller’s place as one of the most influential music videos of all time.

Oddly enough, Thriller debuted before a crowd of kids who had gone to see the Disney movie, Fantasia. The producers were trying to send a message: these zombies aren’t scary, they’re fun. At some level, this must have been true, because I watched that music video over and over again (I was six) and never once feeling a twinge of fear—Michael Jackson’s music video taught kids everywhere that zombies were just a bunch of song and dance.

In the decades that followed, I never once went to see a zombie film. I won’t blame Michael entirely: horror never held much sway over me. Zombies in particular struck me as a disgusting cliché, and if you’d asked me in 2011, I would have said there was no chance I’d ever become a fan of a show that revolved around living corpses.

Enter The Walking Dead. When I first began hearing about AMC’s new show, I was skeptical. True, AMC had shown their druthers in the hour-long drama department with the double header of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But… zombies? Really? Out of respect for the network, I decided to give the pilot a spin. The show seemed pretty solid… until the zombies appeared. I turned it off. Zombies and me just didn’t mix.

Still, there’s no hiding from a global epidemic, and this show just wouldn’t go away. Friends were rabid about it. Critics raved about it. By 2012, everyone was watching it. The Walking Dead soon became the #1 most watched show amongst males aged 18-35, which in Hollywood is the holiest of holy demographics. Could it be that everyone but me had grown up adoring the undead? This seemed unlikely: horror is considered niche for a reason. Something else was keeping people coming back for more. But what?

In the end, it was Telltale that got me hooked. Telltale Games makes story-based adventure titles based on Hollywood franchises: they’ve adapted Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and The Walking Dead, the last of which won over eighty “Game of the Year” awards in 2012. Being a lifelong fan of adventure games, I decided last year to play the first episode of The Walking Dead and see what all the fuss was about. Two days after I downloaded it, I’d barely left the couch; by the next week, I’d torn through the entire TV show. It had happened: I’d been turned. Finally, I got it.

If you’ve seen The Walking Dead, you know the show is awesome. And the reason is simple. AMC’s #1 ranked zombie show isn’t about zombies at all.

Let’s talk LOST for a second. I won’t explore the world’s love affair with “the island” just now, but I will mention LOST’s ensemble cast. Ensembles work well in TV, allowing for a wide range of stories and relationships that can last five seasons or more. What LOST was particularly good at, was killing off its ensemble. Boone fell. Shannon got shot. Michael disappeared. Charlie drowned. Death was a constant threat on LOST, and that made the stakes consistently high, right up through the series finale.

The Walking Dead cast

I’ve often felt The Walking Dead is a kind of spiritual successor to LOST. The shows follow the same initial trajectory: massive calamity strands a group of survivors in remote location where, to use the refrain, they must live together or die alone. After their seemingly-safe camp is attacked, the survivors are forced to flee from relative safety into the dangerous world beyond, where characters promptly begin to die.

But whereas LOST becomes a blend of sci-fi, suspense, and mysticism, The Walking Dead becomes a whole different beast. In LOST, death was tragic; in The Walking Dead, death is dangerous. Characters who die in The Walking Dead wake up and kill their loved ones if they’re not quickly dispatched. Rick and company can’t just survive; they must be willing to kill friends, family, or even themselves, if there’s a chance they’re about to turn.

And turn they do. In The Walking Dead, no character is beyond death’s reach. (Well, maybe one or two characters; this remains to be seen.) If you recall the original opening credits, you’ll realize the writers were very clever with how they handled the core characters. True to life, anyone on this show can die. New characters constantly replace them, and we don’t question it, because in a world this intense, every survivor makes a difference. This was illustrated again in 400 Days (Telltale’s first DLC for The Walking Dead): it didn’t matter that we’d never met any of the five protagonists. In a world stripped to its bones, every character becomes an archetype.

These simple changes to the rules of life and death make for an extremely intense story engine. The genius of The Walking Dead is that the intensity is balanced with authentic human emotion. Never do these characters stray from the true and believable: their situation is extreme, but their reactions are realistic. Human nature is never tampered with. The question is not just physical survival, but emotional survival. When characters begin to genuinely question whether death might not better than living in a doomed world... you’ve got some great drama on your hands.

So what about the zombies? Yes, there are corpses walking the streets, and yes the show pays homage to the gruesome tropes of the genre. But these zombies are ultimately just a device, a clever way to generate stories about fighting for survival in a world devoid of hope. The show is about courage, about family, about madness, and about love. It’s about choosing how to live, and knowing when to die. What The Walking Dead is not about, is flesh-eating corpses. For the #1 zombie show in history, that’s quite an achievement.

Season Four of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” premieres Sunday, October 13th

Brad Kane is a writer in the entertainment industry, focusing on storytelling in movies, TV, games, and more. If you enjoyed this article, take a second to like his page on Facebook and/or to check out his blog. He also has a new Twitter account that he is trying to remember to use.

1. Edgewalker
Respectfully disagree.

This is one of the worst-written shows with barely a single likable character, aside from Daryl.

No one ever talks about how much they love Rick or Andrea or anyone except Daryl. They talk about the zombies and the gore.

I stopped in season 3 and I consider this show to be Glee with zombies, a show that insults the intelligence of its viewers on a weekly basis.
John Thompson
2. Fuzzy_Dunlop
I had the same introduction to The Walking Dead as you did. Never having been much of a fan of zombie movies, and having become completely jaded in regards to zombie games a decade ago, I dismissed the show as soon as I heard about it. It even took some serious arm twisting by a couple of friends to get me to read World War Z. But I have always been a fan of old school point and click adventure games, and video games that put story first. I had to try out Telltale's game. I became seriously hooked, after cleaning up the puddle of my tears at the games end I went to Netflix and binged the first 2 seasons of the show and then went strait for the comics.

For me what sets the game, comics, and show apart from the standard zombie fare that I can't ever get into is the idea that it continues on. This makes The Walking Dead be about the human condition and not about cheap scares and gross out porn. While I do have some reservations about the shows direction, plot, and characterization, well to be honest I have lost complete faith in it. But I do like the comics and I absolutely love Telltale's game, for me what sets it apart is the idea of it not ending, it's not about zombies it's about how does one keep their humanity in a world that has lost its humanity.
3. lach7

I don't quite have the same lowly assessment that you do of the show, but I agree that, at best, it's really a struggling show, dramatically speaking.

Many of characters seem to have unrealistic or vague motivations. I'm just not as emotionally invested in the characters as I was in season 1 (which I believe WAS an excellent season of drama television).

The plotting has often been hit or miss. It hasn't helped that the show has gone through various showrunners. This has given WD a schizophrenic feel.

However, the occasional episode really hits on all pistons and when it does WD really shines for what it could be as a dramatic show. I keep watching and waiting for those episodes. Hopefully they will become more consistent.
Scott Silver
4. hihosilver28
I completely agree with you. I have loved the comics ever since I got introduced to them. This is because the characters are incredibly compelling and you feel for them.

The show...not so much. I loved the pilot, and then it went downhill faster than an olympic bobsled. Any zombie show (that people claim is about the characters) where I am rooting for the zombies to kill every damn character except Daryl has failed. I have rarely felt such loathing for characters as I did in the first season and a half of this show. I had to stop watching.

Anyways, to anyone who loves the show-I'm glad that you like it, I really am. But, please give the comics a try. They are so excellently written, I promise that you won't regret it.
5. Herb529
This is a good explanation of what the show could have been, but emphatically is not.
John Thompson
6. Fuzzy_Dunlop
@ all

To anyone who thinks the show does not live up to its potential. I agree, it could be a great show, but rarely is. Please try out Telltale's The Walking Dead anyways, it fulfills the promise of the show. Its not another cheap tie-in game trying to make a quick buck. Even if you do not like video games, try it out the first episode, its only 5 dollars. The game is structured episodically, and a good case can be made that it is not even a game at all. The characters are all fully realized (Clementine and Lee in particular), the voice acting is outstanding, the score is wonderful,the narrative is griping and fully capable of reducing jaded gamers into quivering emotional wrecks. It has been almost a year since I finished and I am still not fully recovered from it. It does not just fulfill the potential of the tv show, but shows that deep and emotionally complex stories can be told through an interactive medium, and in that sense it fulfills the potential of video game narratives, in a way very few video games have before.

Sorry for the rant, I can't help myself.
Dave Thompson
7. DKT
I enjoyed the first half of season 1. You mentioned that the show is a spiritual successor to LOST, and that couldn't have been clearer to me when they found Desmond in the Hatch at the CDC, I got pretty annoyed. And I never quite came back to it. And complaints like those listed by commenters above have kept me at bay. I may check it out again, but there are quite a few other shows I'll probably watch first.

I am amused that everyone's favorite character does seem to be Daryl, who was never in the comics.
8. Eric Saveau
I love Daryl on the show, like Carol, would love Michone if they ever gave her something to do besides scowl, and adore Glenn and Maggie who are the emotional core of the show for me.

The rest is dross; a show that, as others have said, simply does not live up to its potential.

And I'll throw in another shout along with Brad and Fuzzy_Dunlop for the episodic Walking Dead games from Telltale. They are absolutely magnificent... and, yes; you will need some time afterward.
9. StuartB
Strangely, when Desmond and the hatch showed up is when Lost got REALLY interesting for me...

Also, another really good reason for watching this show can be summed up in two words:

Lauren Cohan. Kill Maggie, Kill the Show, I'm Out.
Adam Whitehead
10. Werthead
The Walking Dead isn't the most-watched show on TV though. In terms of international sales, international viewership, DVD and Blu-Ray (as well as online) sales, and even piracy, Game of Thrones is significantly more popular, not to mention more critically-acclaimed.

I like The Walking Dead, but I always wait for the Blu-Ray to come out so I can enjoy each season in as short a space of time as possible. Even so, aspects of Season 2 and 3 dragged tremendously and the show is rarely far from cliche or repetition. I do like the emphasis on common sense details (driving into the prison and pointing the cars out of the gates so they can escape in a hurry), but in other areas there are huge logic failures. The problem is that, unlike Lost (getting off the island), The Walking Dead has no long-term plot goal to be reached and it often feels like it's thinking up new ways of keeping the wheels spinning until the next character dies or the next showrunner gets fired (which is almost as common).

Still, it's much better than the comic, but nowhere near as good as the Telltale game.
Brad Kane
11. bradkane
@10 - Nielsen ratings are complicated, but the first half of season three took the number one spot amongst the "young adult male" demographic, the first time a cable TV show had done so. Game of Thrones has higher overall viewership and most likely higher viewership internationally, but Nilsen doesn't cover pay channels or have meaningful numbers for overseas, thus their ability to make that claim.

@ 1 et al - I agree that season 3 suffered from showrunner schizophrenia. Hopefully season four will live up to the potential of those first two years.
Elizabeth Marling
12. E.L.M.
Everyone seems to be forgetting about the true smoking gun and hands-down best character in both the tv and comic series: Carl.

The complete lack of sentiment and objectivity surrounding Carl's actions is truly groundbreaking for a television show in any genre. Can anyone think of another example that even comes close? I don't love the tv series, but I respect it for having the balls to depict a child as not just his own person (as opposed to a composite of what is seen through the POVs of the "grown-ups"), but also a complete bad*ss.
Brian R
13. Mayhem
You know the first thing that comes into my head when someone says "its like the spiritual successor to Lost" is oh, another show where the writers have a funky idea, but no idea where to go with it so are simply making it up as they go along, but pretending its an arc.

Aka Heroes, Prison Break, or pretty much any other popular current series as far as I can see.

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