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What's Behind The Walking Dead's Popularity?

posted Nov 1, 2013, 3:37 PM by samantha@filmmusicmedia.com   [ updated Nov 1, 2013, 3:39 PM ]

As someone who has always put way too much emotional significance on fictional works, it always brings a smile to my face and a song to my heart when a work reaches that status where everybody is talking about it lovingly. I say lovingly, because I do not like it when things reach the status where most people are talking about it because it's stupid (Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, Miley Cyrus throughout 2013). I'm talking the Breaking Bad's and Game of Thrones' of the world, where they were well respected (most of the time) and anybody (aside from those "I don't own a TV" weirdos) watched or at least could name a character or two. 

I don't what it is about it; I just like joining the crowd when it comes to popular shows and books. If there's one thing I like more than books, movies and TV, it's discussing books, movie and TV with other people. Especially now that the internet exists because from costuming to cinematography to continuity if you want to discuss it, there will be somebody on the internet who wants to talk to you about it. It's great.

Right now it seems like you can't get away from zombies in media, particularly The Walking Dead. This show has become a powerhouse. Last week's episode got around 12.9 million viewers which is not only amazing for a cable show but it's great for network television these days. Actually the only thing that beat it in viewers last week was Sunday Night Football and the World Series. That's pretty damn impressive for a show about zombies. What makes it so popular? It doesn't really have the boob factor of Game of Thrones, and it doesn't have the strong writing Breaking Bad did. I know I started watching the show because I was a fan of the comics, but 12.9 million people sure as hell didn't read those. So what's the deal?

Well the premise, for a start. We're riding a high of the horror/supernatural genre that has also brought us American Horror Story, the Hannibal television series and World War Z, among many, many other things. The Walking Dead struck while the iron was hot and premiered right smack in the middle of the trend.  There's also the fact the show isn't just about zombies, and this holds true for most horror-related media. Most supernatural creatures have an allegory behind them, depending on who is writing at the time. For example vampires typically have ties to sex, werewolves to anger, ghosts to depression, etc. As an English minor I wasted a lot of money learning about that sort of stuff for no reason other than the fact that it interested me. But enough about my lack of foresight in college.


Zombies are usually symbols for mankind as a whole. One zombie's not so scary but in numbers they are downright terrifying. George Romero famously used his zombies in Dawn of the Dead to express his thoughts on commercialism (the zombies crowded around a mall...I shouldn't have to explain this to you). In other instances they're used to fantastically show the fear of a pandemic and, most recently, used to show the despair of the current economic environment. Our economy is in shambles, there's too little for too many people. What could fix this? Shaving off a few million people with a good ol' zombie apocalypse and getting back to basics when it comes to living. The Walking Dead, I think, speaks to the last one. We have a closed off cast roughing it in Georgia and everybody's previous problems from a pre-zombie world are gone, leaving just the need to find safety and keep a steady supply of ammo on hand. 


We watch movies and television shows to escape from the world we live in now and watching people who have a worse time than us helps things from time to time. There's the shock factor watching main cast members get killed off with no warning, which keeps people coming back week after week just to see who is going to die or get a limb hacked off next. There's also some hope there as we root for people to survive and get to safety. We've been with Rick, Carol, Daryl, Glenn and Carl since the show's beginning and it's fascinating watching their characters change as they do what they need to do to survive. I especially like watching Carl's development seeing as he's a child and his worldview and morals become twisted the longer he grows up in a zombie-filled environment.


There's also the fact that the show's conflicts come from the surviving humans as much as it does the undead. Humans being the real monsters is one of my favorite tropes and it's the central theme of the comics and the show. It's serves as a grim, pessimistic reminder that somewhere someday some jerk is gonna screw us over to put themselves ahead. On the flip side, there will be a time where we will have to make a difficult decision to do what's best for yourself, even if it might hurt somebody else. Harsh truths like that need to be soothed over with zombies biting people.

That's what I think what really solidifies The Walking Dead as a pop culture powerhouse. It has everything; characters we care about, family drama, clear villains, conflicted heroes, the occasional romance and ZOMBIES. Sure, we can watch unwanted pregnancy drama and leadership clashes between two leads on other network dramas but it's so much more fun when there's the danger of people getting their throats ripped out at any minute thrown into the loop. I hope that The Walking Dead keeps up it's success and when the time is right, I hope it'll go out gracefully. I don't want to be writing an article two years from now saying why somebody needs to take that show out back and shoot it. So help me, I'll do it.