Story Worlds

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

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.


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