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Why Is “The Walking Dead” So Popular?

I started watching AMC’s “The Walking Dead” for two reasons. One, my cyber writing friends talked a lot about it. Secondly, my daughter Melody raved about it. So I rented the first season on Netflix and liked it. Along the way, my wife Lisa started watching and liked it enough to go back and watch the first season from the beginning. We finished Season Two last week.

Frankly, during Season Two I started to lose interest. Too much forced relational drama. Not enough survival / zombie-related content. The last couple of episodes picked up. So while I’m not quite ready to bail on the series, I’m still allowing the jury time to deliberate. Either way, I’m not rabid for the show.

Then I learned that last weekend’s Season Three premier of The Walking Dead was the most watched cable drama in history. Wha– ? The Examiner reports:

Sunday night’s season three premiere of “The Walking Deadbroke the ratings record for basic cable with 10.9 million viewers. Adding in the 10 p.m. and midnight encores for the premiere episode, the little zombie drama raked in 15.2 million viewers. This makes it the most-watched basic cable drama telecast in the history of the known universe.

Another interesting twist to the stats were that 6.1 million of those who tuned in to Season Three of TWD were adults 25 to 54. This great overview means that the series is not just appealing to violence-craving, video-gaming, teen boys, although they also like to play games as League of Legend that are not so violent but take strategy and skill, which they can improve with services as elo boosting they can get at sites like Elitist Gaming.

I knew the series was popular but this puzzles me. Adding to the bluster, Lisa  rushes home Sunday night, bursts in and says, “You’re not watching The Walking Dead???”

“Nah,” I replied. “I’ll wait till it’s out on disc and rent it.”

Needless to say, I had to go watch football elsewhere so Lisa could get her Walking Dead fix.

Why is this happening? How has my daughter and wife come to be fixated upon this gruesome series? Why is The Walking Dead so popular? What are the elements that have made this zombie soap opera so popular?

One of the reasons I’ve heard floated was that there’s just no serious horror shows on TV. Old school horror, not pulpy, semi-comedic stuff like Buffy or Supernatural. But with programs like True Blood or American Horror Story, I’m not sure if that answer satisfies.

Of course, the horror IS one of the reasons I like the show. I mean, the zombie effects are fantastic! There’s a morbid fascination among fans of TWD concerning what new types of zombies will appear each episode and the exotic ways they will be slain. So the series is definitely reaching into the horror audience.

Which leads me to another  idea about how such gruesome fare has crossed over. Killing zombies is different than killing… humans. You can slaughter and decapitate zombies without having to worry over violent images involving people. So a normally conservative viewer (like Lisa or Melody) can justify watching the slaughter of zombies because they ARE zombies. It would be wildly different if genuine human beings were portrayed as being slaughtered in the same numbers, and as graphically, as the undead are in TWD. Not to mention, the slaughter of these zombies is actually considered… redemptive. The brainless walkers are finally freed from torment. So the gore is tolerable because it’s an act of compassion on the part of the executioners.

(Am I over-thinking this?)

Another possible reason for the show’s popularity is that it dovetails with our culture’s interest in survivalism. Shows like Survivor, Man Against Wild, Doomsday Preppers taps into our growing fears about a looming apocalypse. In fact, when I quizzed Melody about why she liked The Walking Dead so much, the first thing she mentioned was survivalism. (Note: Melody recently purchased a Survival Kit for her family.) So TWD may be tapping our fears about an inevitable doomsday.

However, the primary reason TWD seems so popular is because it appeals to audiences outside of the niche zombie/horror market. Like this writer in The New Yorker magazine who suggests that, unlike most zombie fare, The Walking Dead is “female friendly.” Hard to argue with that, seeing that my wife and daughter are now fixated. This also explains why I get bored with the program: lengthy chunks of (slow-moving) relational interaction between the survivors. The tagline for Season Three — “Fight the Dead. Fear the Living” — seems to suggest more slow-moving, dialog-heavy, whining and infighting from the ever-angsty cast.


Anyway, it seems like those elements are making The Walking Dead so popular: 1.) It gets the Mikes of the world who like zombie stuff, and 2.) It gets the Lisas and Melodys of the world who like relational dramas. And, oh, it gets the Daryls (redneck survivalists) of the world one more reason to keep their crossbows handy.

So what do you think? Why is The Walking Dead so popular?


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{ 31 comments… add one }
  • randy streu October 17, 2012, 5:43 AM

    I think your first point — which is fundamental, it seems, to your dislike of the show — is flawed. “Too much forced relational drama. ”

    The key to my disagreement is that I don’t think MOST of the relational drama is forced. Consider the situation, and consider that, in the context of the show, these are people thrown together who, generally speaking, would NOT be together otherwise. I’ve actually thought the relational drama to be overall organic and natural. The people who have problems with one another, in general, have pretty good reasons to HAVE problems with one another.

    This, to me, is actually a huge strength of the show. I’m a lover of things zombie, and have been forever, but the show has never really been ABOUT that. At its core, TWD is a human drama set against the backdrop of zombie apocalypse.

    • Mike Duran October 17, 2012, 11:00 AM

      Randy, I don’t disagree that the relational elements of the show are the real glue. However, these specific characters have not worked well for me. Heck, the only one I really like is Daryl. And he’s, like, the SOB of the group. TWD is a human drama. I’m just not sure these humans are that dramatic.

  • Ravven October 17, 2012, 6:27 AM

    Nicely put. I’ve never been a zombie fan (really? A slo-mo shambling revenant is going to eat my dust, not my brains) but I am a huge Walking Dead fan for many of the reasons that you list in your post. I am at the top end of your viewer demographic, not a kid by any means, and yet I adore it.

    I do agree with the first commenter, though, about the relational drama. A group of former strangers forced into a small survival band, trying to re-create a small society of their own, would be rather like a pressure cooker. People generally aren’t nicer or more selfless under stress.

    The survivalism point was interesting; I’d not thought about that. As a girl raised in ranch country I’ve always thought that I could survive quite well if the world fell apart. I could stitch wounds, birth babies, butcher and dress wild game, and so on. I think that’s part of why I respond to the show.

  • Julian Walker October 17, 2012, 6:51 AM

    Don’t worry to much about The Walking Dead, watching Breaking Bad instead 😀 !!!!!!!

  • Heather Day Gilbert October 17, 2012, 8:16 AM

    Sounds like when my hubby and I tried to understand the “24” phenomenon–first bunch of episodes rocked! Then the wife got AMNESIA. Looked like a cheap soap opera trick, when you don’t know where the plot needs to go next.

    And I love GRIMM. That puts a modern spin on fairy tales, while maintaining a dark factor (and incorporating German vocabulary–YES!).

    But I’d say lots more people are addicted to ONCE UPON A TIME than to THE WALKING DEAD, because it seems lighter things reach more people. I sense an analogy with Amish fiction coming on…but I’ll resist.

    • Becky Doughty October 17, 2012, 10:33 PM

      HA! Never read Amish fiction and The Walking Dead in the same paragraph before!!!! Only you, Heather Day Gilbert. Only you. (And I agree with you about it. Now. If they wrote about Amish zombies, well then, I might reconsider….)

      • Heather Day Gilbert October 18, 2012, 7:02 AM

        Becky, didn’t you know that Amish fiction ties in with all genres in some way? If not yet, it will someday…

  • Jason Brown October 17, 2012, 11:22 AM

    I wouldn’t be quick to jump the gun about the slow-moving parts, unless you’re strictly interested in the violent, bloody parts. Before I bought the first season, I was considering getting a collection of zombie-killing movies and thought about it- they were a bunch of movies dealing with people doing nothing but giving one word per 100-ish bullets/rockets/grenades/etc. and relied on heavy amounts of gore. Just aiming (no pun intended) for the bloodthirsty crowd. TWD relies on a balance between keeping human stability and surviving death abound. My brother, after he got done watching the second season, didn’t make a complaint of the season, and he has numerous zombie films (including the Nordic zombie indie flick Dead Snow) and told me I’d better watch it. Fight the dead and fear the living? I’d say that’s preparations for the irrationality within the living while fighting the mindlessness of the dead. A dreadful loss on both sides to be aware of, not an indication of s…l…o…w… moving dramatic pieces.
    But that’s just how I see it. Besides, if it did ever come to it, I doubt the zombie apocalypse would be just Romero/Snyder flicks reenactments.

  • Kevin Lucia October 17, 2012, 2:14 PM

    Meh on zombies. I’ll take my semi-comedic pulpy Buffy and Supernatural any day. And would love to a chance to write one of the tie-in novels….

    Which reminds me. Need to catch up on Season 7 later tonight…

    • Mike Duran October 18, 2012, 5:41 AM

      Kevin, I watched a couple seasons of Supernatural but felt like it was getting too over the top. I do like the chemistry with the brothers, however.

      • Greg Mitchell October 18, 2012, 1:36 PM

        Yeah, I totally dropped Supernatural. It was amazing in the beginning when it was a gritty drama. Now it’s just dopey like Buffy. I liked Buffy at the time–but that always intended to be dopey, with bouts of real human insight. Supernatural started as a serious modern “western” with complicated family dynamics and now it’s just silly and seems to be pandering to the crowd that squees “Oh, those boys are so CUTE!”. Sigh…so disappointed.

        I DO watch Walking Dead because it’s serious. There’s a healthy dose of eye-rolling at the fact that the plot is incapable of moving forward unless a character does something completely stupid. I would prefer more action (which we got in spades for the Season 3 premiere), but it is refreshing to see a horror drama. Really it’s just an excuse for me and my friends to gather at each other’s house and bemoan how we’d handle the various situations. It’s sort of like interactive TV by this point :p

        • Greg Mitchell October 18, 2012, 1:42 PM

          I should state, for the record, that, while I am amused by Walking Dead, I LOVE Falling Skies. That’s quality television–human drama AND crap gets blowed up in every ep. Plus it doesn’t leave me with the desire to slit my wrists, as Walking Dead so often does.

          • Tim George October 18, 2012, 1:47 PM

            Agreed on Falling Skies.

          • Mike Duran October 20, 2012, 5:13 AM

            Hey, I started watching the first season of Falling Skies on your recommendation. I’ll let you know what I think.

            • Tim George October 20, 2012, 6:29 AM

              Falling Skies only runs 10 episodes in the summer. It was just renewed for season 3. It’s the kind of story telling the major networks have no place for.

        • Kevin Lucia October 19, 2012, 3:20 PM

          “Now it’s just dopey like Buffy.”

          *Buffy fan here gearing up for war*

          • Greg Mitchell October 19, 2012, 3:37 PM


            Look, I’m not opposed to “dopey” things–especially in my horror. But when something starts off serious and turns silly, that’s a drop in quality. Buffy’s very nature was to be a dramedy, so I didn’t mind its comedic moments–in fact, I usually found them to be quite funny. I loved Buffy since the first movie and am probably the only person to openly admit to liking that flick :p

            But “Supernatural” didn’t used to be about being funny or cute. I can remember back to the first episode when they had the whole spooky disclaimer that you should watch this show with the lights out and beware. A telling sign was that my wife always left the room when Supernatural used to come on because it was too scary and upsetting. Then, about Season Three, she started watching a little bit of it with me and laughing through the whole thing. Something ain’t right there. Supernatural lost its guts.

            Let Buffy be Buffy. I want my Supernatural back.

            Supernatural always had moments of levity (which is something Walking Dead never has), but it was always in subtle stride with the overwhelming horror. Now we break out “the funny organ music” and the boys practically look at the camera the same way Mr. Roper did whenever he let a zinger fly on Three’s Company. They might as well put a laugh track.

            • Kevin Lucia October 19, 2012, 11:35 PM

              I disagree, but that’s okay. We’re allowed to do that. I suppose…

              • Kevin Lucia October 19, 2012, 11:46 PM

                And to be fair, I’m far less demanding of television and movies than I am of books. So I give things like that a lot of leeway. And so far, I wouldn’t call season 7 dopey…

                • Greg Mitchell October 20, 2012, 4:06 AM

                  I’ll grant you, I’m VERY demanding of my television, because I watch so little of it–and I’m a screenwriter first and novelist second. With everything so busy in life, if I’m going to sit down and devote an hour of my life to TV, I tend to get overly critical when I can start seeing the strings on the puppet. I want to be surprised every week and not be able to telegraph where the writers are going.

                  Oddly enough, I’m less picky about movies, which would explain why I’m able to sit down, kick back, and enjoy “Killer Klowns From Outer Space”.

                  Now THAT’S “dopey”. But okay 🙂

                  • Kevin Lucia October 20, 2012, 4:13 AM

                    Yeah, and see, for me, Supernatural is my “break” from writing. I also don’t watch a lot of television, because I’d rather read than watch TV, so when my brain is too tired to write or read, I “slack” and watch an episode of Supernatural.

      • Kevin Lucia October 18, 2012, 5:58 PM

        “I do like the chemistry with the brothers, however.”

        This, admittedly, is what makes the series what it is.

  • Jon Mast October 17, 2012, 3:07 PM

    I’ve still not seen the show, but as I read the first four volumes of the comic, I’d love to chime in!

    I’m not a zombie fan. I just never understood what the attraction was. Walking Dead was selling amazingly at the comic shop (where I worked when the comic series debuted), so I picked up a volume.

    I couldn’t put it down.

    For me, it came down to the continued survivalism as opposed to the action. How would a group of humans survive in a world like this? What would it take to not only survive, but live? The tag-line on the back of the volume is what snagged me: “In a world ruled by the dead, we are finally forced to start living.”

    Also, the actual threat of real and constant change grabbed me. Most serial entertainment thrives on “perceived change.” Every episode, something needs to feel like it moves forward… but not too much, or you risk changing the formula. Walking Dead didn’t rest on any kind of status quo.

  • Lyn Perry October 17, 2012, 3:30 PM

    Never heard of it. Seriously. Your post is the first that has made me aware of this show.

  • D.M. Dutcher October 17, 2012, 6:31 PM

    I asked Kev, who is my boss at work and a big TV geek, the appeal.”Parts of it do suck, but it does play out the way you’d really survive in a zombie apocalypse. Sometimes you have to be ruthless to survive. They do some stupid stuff though, because you know, TV series, drama. ” He also mentioned Daryl, who he described as both a jerk and the reason everyone else will live. Kev’s behind a season though.

    Myself, I’ve heard of it and know of the comic but there’s just so much to read and watch that I’ve not gotten around to it. Plus, my tastes are more towards anime than live action TV. I liked High School of the Dead, although the fan service was off the charts.

  • Tim George October 18, 2012, 4:47 AM

    Had this discussion with a woman at our church who fits that demographic of unlikely fans of poking zombies in the head with swords. She bailed on Steven James 20 pages into his first Patrick Bowers novel because it features serial killers unnaturally talented at what they do. She made it half way through your own Resurrection, Mike, because it was too “scary”.

    So why does she watch TWD every week? Because, in her words, I know that isn’t real and that other stuff could be. I guess I can see that. We had our own version of Criminal Minds play out in our city a while back and the woman in question lives just 2 miles from where it happened.

    For me the show is just too repetitious. Night of the Living Dead was cool when I was teenager, but multiple seasons of the living dead somehow just wears me out. Tried again with the first episode of seasons 3 but came away with the same feeling. To each his own.

  • Katherine Coble October 18, 2012, 12:11 PM

    Didn’t I tell ya??!! Season 2 was just dull. Also, did you figure out how they got fresh factory-sliced bread for sandwiches 6 months into the Zombie Apocalypse? I still don’t know.

    Tim likes the show. I’m meh on it. But as I said on FB I think the appeal is that it’s a channelling of violence that people need think they need right now.

  • Jenni Noordhoek October 18, 2012, 8:09 PM

    On the grand scale of things, Buffy is a ton more comedic than Supernatural… SPN tends to be very angsty. (Almost too angsty, I think… I’m starting season 8 as it airs and I think Dean needs to get over it [the angst] already… Sam seems to have. Interestingly, many fans I know think Sam’s stupid for actually moving on…)

    I haven’t seen Walking Dead but I can’t really stand zombies. SPN is more violent than I’m comfortable with anyway so I spend a lot of time in another tab. I just like the brother dynamic and how they try to get over their traumatic lives and integrate with society occasionally. LOL. I think I would’ve dropped it after season 5, though (3-5 were the best) if it weren’t for the character of Castiel, who gets far too much fangirl attention but has a fascinating character arc…

    I too dislike the attention the showrunners give to fangirls, though…

    (Yup. Post mostly made to defend SPN… XD)

  • Erica October 19, 2012, 8:26 AM

    I like this post! Perhaps I’m biased becuase I like TWD and found myself saying the same thing last year: that TWD has something for everyone. I remember telling my husband, “Wow, I like the relation content as well as all the shooting and gore!”

    It is by far a great show.

  • Mirtika October 19, 2012, 9:32 AM

    I read Walking Dead long before it hit the tv. I read all the way until…SPOILER…let your eyes glide over the next phrase unless you don’t mind being spoiled.

    The major huge big nasty massacre.

    Spoiler over.

    That made me go, “Oh, I’m too depressed to keep reading this.”

    Eh, I may go back to find out what happened after the (that thing), but that was, what, 40 issues? More? I forget. I read it for the human drama in the midst of zombie apocalypse. What people become/do/don’t do when this happens. I liked the “relational drama” as opposed to just being chased and killing stuff, like so many zombie flicks.

    I’m not a zombie enthusiast. I started reading the comic just cause I heard word of mouth–the buzz that it was good. The comic book store guy recommended it, and he knew what I liked comics wise.

    I watched some of the first season of WD…then gave up. I mean, I knew the big (that thing spoiler) was coming, and I didn’t wanna get all bummed out again.

  • Danna Aten July 11, 2013, 6:18 PM

    Good exchange of thoughts! took me time to read it all, very nice post!

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