Why The Walking Dead Works

If you’re not watching AMC’s new zombie series The Walking Dead, based on the comic book of the same name, you are doing yourself a great disservice. The first season will wrap its ephemeral six-episode run this coming Sunday night, but a 13-episode second season has been ordered for 2011. Record-breaking ratings and an overwhelming positive audience response has turned it into the most talked about show of the year.

Considering the massive popularity of the living dead in this country and abroad, it’s amazing it took this long to bring the genre to the small screen. If any story was perfect for serialized television it would be a zombie apocalypse. The narrative possibilities are vast, so stretching out the action and horror for three or four seasons is more than doable, provided developer Frank Darabont remains heavily involved with the production.

There are several reasons why The Walking Dead deserves high praise: quality special effects, buckets of blood and gore, solid cast, excellent scripting and a terrific music score from composer Bear McCreary are just a few. While all these things make the series watchable, they aren’t what makes it work on a dramatic level. What makes it work is the impending sense of doom that envelops every episode.

All good post-apocalyptic stories, be it Battlestar Galactica or The Road Warrior, include the palpable risk of death at every turn. Creating a world consumed with fear and hopelessness maintains tension throughout. There is little room for the characters to breathe. The audience becomes heavily invested in anticipation of when the next attack will occur and which of the core principals will meet an untimely end.

Unlike the majority of television shows, day-to-day survival is the central theme. Basic needs like food, water and shelter are elevated in importance. And the struggle to hold onto the last vestiges of humanity and sanity becomes an even more difficult battle than the one waged against an army of killer zombies.

As a viewer, it’s natural to hypothetically insert ourselves into the proceedings and wonder how we would react in a similar situation. Would we pickup the nearest gun and start blasting brains or hide in a locked closet weeping like a toddler? Would we have the courage to lead others or would we go it alone? Would we fight until the bitter end or succumb to the paralyzing grip of despair?

The writers have already killed off two characters and more will most assuredly follow as the show progresses. Like The Sopranos, the sudden demise of a recurring face can be unsettling, but it grounds the series in its own fictional reality and reminds us (and them) that no one is safe from harm. Grisly violence is integral to The Walking Dead, however, some semblance of order must exist amid the chaos in order to prevent the humans from completely mirroring the mindless monsters roaming the streets and countryside.

Whatever direction the creators decide to take the plot, the specter of death will never be far behind. It’s rare to find television that’s willing to delve into uncomfortable subject matter. Horror, in particular, has always had trouble translating on the small screen. Vampires, werewolves and demons have made the jump with varying degrees of success, but none of those supernatural incarnations possess the allure of zombies. Needless to say, a series like The Walking Dead has been long overdue.