The new season of The Walking Dead has, if possible, been overshadowed by its incredible surge in ratings. One reason for this trend is that the ratings truly are incredible. In terms of total viewers, the first two seasons were impressive for cable—averaging 5.24 and 6.90 million viewers, respectively. Despite off-screen production turmoil—news stories chronicled the battle for AMC’s funds among its various series, particularly with respect to the enormous cost of Mad Men in relation to its inferior ratings—ratings went up during and between seasons.
However, the beginning of the third season last month saw an incredible jump, with the premiere drawing 10.87 million viewers, including an unbelievable (it’s true, it’s on Wikipedia!) 5.4 million viewers in the coveted 18-49 demo, with the number growing even larger when factoring in re-airings, DVR viewership, etc. It’s amazing how impressive these numbers are, as these demo numbers (which it has basically maintained through the first half of the current half-season) are higher than any broadcast demo numbers, outside of football.
But why? Is The Walking Dead that good? Not necessarily; as we can see by looking at the cable ratings most nights, which are dominated by reality shows about pawn shops, tattoos, and horrible people doing horrible things, quality and ratings do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. So, as the series now has more than 20 hours on the books, let’s take a look at how it is faring in a number of categories:
It must be said that the actors here are not particularly accomplished. Like Lost, The Walking Dead contains a large, revolving cast of predominantly unknown actors. As the central Rick Grimes, Andrew Lincoln’s performance is… central, certainly. Setting aside Costner-ish accent issues, he carries a lot of weight on his shoulders and, particularly in the key scenes (like, you know the ones), succeeds more often than not.
As Shane, Jon Bernthal gave the most memorable performance, as he played his one-note very well and very loudly. The actresses are led by Sarah Wayne Callies, who I hope is intended to be deeply annoying, and Laurie Holden, whose Andrea is impressively multi-faceted. The minor characters run the gamut from engaging and enjoyable to wooden and when-will-this-person-die.
Relationship to Source Material: A
As a fan of The Walking Dead comic, I may be in the minority in that I’m wholly satisfied with the translation of the comic to the screen. The general thrust of the text remains the same - yes, they are “pretty much dead already”, and yes, anybody can die at pretty much anytime, and no, it would be really difficult for the lead character to lose his arm so they probably won’t do that for awhile. But overall, the showrunners have made smart, thoughtful decisions on how to reconfigure the events of the comic for a television audience.
I appreciate that they have made enough changes to the story arcs of the comic so that I don’t feel as if I already know everything that will happen. By shifting a chopped limb from Rick to Hershel, I get to experience something close enough to the same surprise that non-comic-viewers of the series do. An event like Dale’s death resonates all the more for me because it is so unexpected, and the Rick-Shane tension was handled brilliantly.
Furthermore, the story arcs that they have executed—Hershel’s farm, Sophia’s disappearance, and now Woodbury—simply work. The six-issue mini-arcs from the comic are translating brilliantly to the televisual medium.
Writing: A (plot), C (dialogue) - B average
As in the comic, the best thing about The Walking Dead’s writing is the boldness with which it carries out and executes (often literally) its plots. Literally no one is safe (seriously, read those comics). From a dialogue standpoint, both the comic and the series are less successful. Apart from a few memorable speeches by Rick, I cannot think of a single non-zombie-killing moment of the series.
Special Effects: A
These just work. There’s an “I-can’t-believe-this-is-airing-on-basic-cable” element to the gruesome death scenes, to be sure, but this is what puts the asses in the seats. For many, the ruthless, over-the-top violence is the reason for tuning in, and when it needs to, The Walking Dead delivers.
Outside of comic-readers taking issue with changes to the plot, the primary knock against the series has been its pacing. “We want dead zombies in every episode, we want them to find that missing kid already, we don’t actually remember who that missing kid even is, we are tired of them being on the farm,” etc. In truth, it’s hard to imagine the series being better paced, especially given the incredible amount of production turmoil that it has experienced. Given that, the series is remarkably well-structured and paced.
The Walking Dead clearly knows how and when to ratchet things up, and they know that if you kill 80 zombies in every episode, then no one is going to notice when you kill 81.
The Walking Dead is not, by a long shot, my favorite show on television right now. It’s easily my third-favorite series on AMC, so far behind Mad Men and Breaking Bad that this sentence can’t even express it. Furthermore, it might slip out of my top 10 when I factor in all the other exceptional television being made today.
Yet when we turn back to questions of ratings and viewership, it must be said that The Walking Dead is doing something right. And all the PopMatters and Entertainment Weekly stories about the ratings aren’t what is driving viewership. No, for that we can thank the zombies.