A lot of intelligent — and sometimes, not so intelligent — people have tried to discern what it is that makes The Walking Dead the most popular show on television. It reaches upwards of 22 million viewers each week, and probably doubles that in streaming and downloads over the course of its life. Those are crazy numbers, and while you might not be surprised that shows with mainstream sensibilities like Big Bang Theory or Modern Family put up numbers that big, it’s not immediately apparent why a bloody, violent show about a zombie apocalypse might. After all, the zombie genre is not exactly hugely popular. Take World War Z (which had Brad Pitt, a huge marketing push, and a $190 million budget) out of the equation, and the most popular zombie movie of all-time is… Zombieland, with $75 million. In general, even the most successful zombie films have the most modest of returns.
What makes The Walking Dead different? It’s surprising how many people have weighed in on this. The Guardian suggests that the show resonates with women because — unlike other dramas — there are no rape scenes. I find this to be a dubious claim, not only because there have been a couple of near rapes, but because I doubt anyone — man or woman — got hooked on the series because it lacked sexual abuse.
The Huffington Post has posited that we are obsessed with it because we are obsessed with ourselves. In other words, the series “poses questions about the human race itself. It reanimates the fears we thought we buried long ago… what could be more frightening than to discover mankind’s worst nightmare turns out not to be aliens or giant insects — but our own flesh and blood; neighbors, moms, dads, sons and daughters? Our own flesh!”
But do we really consider the show that deeply? Maybe. As Robert Kirkman once said, the The Walking Dead really is “about us. It’s about how we respond to crisis.”
Glenn Beck has even weighed in with his brand of crazy on this question, and, to him, it boils down to… ISIS?
“We’re watching The Walking Dead because we know the zombies aren’t real. And so it allows us to connect with what we’re really feeling, but allows us to be in a safe zone because we know zombies aren’t real. Zombies are ISIS. Zombies is our economic peril. The rest of the show is what we say is coming.”
Uh, sure, Glenn Beck. Sure.
I like the theory of Dr. Travis Langley, a Henderson University professor, who suggests that The Walking Dead allows us to essentially deal with heavy, dark, and complicated issues, but remove ourselves from the equation.
“With us viewing these things, we can think about, ‘What would we do in these horrible situations? What would we do if we were dealing with cannibals?’… In ways that would be really hard if we were thinking, ‘What would we really do if we were having a horrible gang in our neighborhood?’”
Someone once penned a piece over on Slate suggesting that our obsession with zombies and The Walking Dead is predicated on the fact that we are a growing white-collar society afraid of being usurped by the very blue-collar types that survive and dominate on The Walking Dead. We are afraid of becoming irrelevant.
I believe that all of those are possibilities, and each — even the fear of ISIS — may factor into the immense popularity of the series. However, I think its true success is based on something much more fundamental: It’s a f*cking good show.
Granted, there are a lot of great shows on television, but what separates The Walking Dead from the rest? What makes it so much more popular than even Game of Thrones?
It’s the show’s sense of family. It’s a large, rotating ensemble cast, but, increasingly — as the show has risen in popularity — we have gotten to know these characters. There may only be 16 episodes a year, but they are spread over six months, and, during that time, we develop honest-to-God relationships with the characters (and we wonder and worry about them during the off-season). Like the Huffington Posts suggests, we see ourselves in these characters, as we see ourselves in our friends and family. There are characteristics in each of the characters with which we can relate or aspire to, be it Rick’s ruthlessness, Carol’s protection instincts, Michonne’s tender fierceness, Glenn and Maggie’s romance, Tyreese’s vulnerability, or the conflicted nature of Daryl’s personality: He wants to be a part of the family, but he also wants to be the loner who protects the family from the outside.
Over the course of the series, The Walking Dead has been able to cycle through most of the obvious character tropes, and drill down into those characters enough to hit upon a nerve. There’s something in someone in The Walking Dead that resonates for everyone.
But, more importantly, the way these characters gravitate toward one another, protect one another, and grieve for one another gives us a real sense that they are a family, and we — as viewers — often feel a part of it. We’ve never personally met the characters on The Walking Dead, but we feel a strong sense of kinship with them. They’ve gone through a lot, and we’ve gone through a lot with them, and there’s nothing like adversity to bond humans together. Whether it’s zombies, the Governor, cannibals, the death of a loved one, or even some of the behind-the-scenes dramas, we feel part of it. We feel invested. We care more about these characters than we do about Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family, or Sheldon and Penny on Big Bang Theory because we’ve gone through something with them.
What ultimately brings us back over and over again is not only the opportunity to experience adversity — and the hope that springs from survival — with these characters, but the real and honest fears that we have every single week that we could legitimately lose a loved one. We want to be standing bedside when they pass away; we want to witness their deaths; and we want to grieve together and console one another, even if that only takes form in a sobbing or irate Facebook or Twitter post. Death brings survivors together, and we are among those survivors.
The fact that it’s such a diverse cast also gives even more of us someone with whom we can identify. The Walking Dead has thrown these characters from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities together, people who probably would not otherwise be friends: Michonne the hippie artist; Rick the sheriff; Daryl the outlaw; Carol the housewife; Maggie the farmer’s daughter; and Glenn the pizza delivery guy. Likewise, by reaching across the vast spectrum of personalities, it has brought those of us of differing backgrounds watching at home together, too. People who watch The Vampire Diaries or Mad Men or Game of Thrones or Empire have all converged upon this one show, a show about the most unlikely family going through the most difficult ordeal imaginable. We are going through it with them. We worry, we fret, we cry, we celebrate, and we hope together. Like a family.
We are the Walking Dead, and when Fear the Walking Dead begins on Sunday, most of us will be watching. Why? Because it’s an opportunity to grow the family — albeit one across the country — to meet new characters we may grow to love, and with whom we may have the opportunity to experience suffering, heartache, sadness and joy, because it is that — and not the celebration of nerd culture through its ridicule — that ultimately brings more of us together.