We’re five episodes in to the latest installment of the best television show ever made, and once the first half of the season wraps up on Nov. 30, it’ll be a long, cold couple of months until its return.
Anticipation, of course, is what keeps viewers coming back to “The Walking Dead.” That, and all of the zombies. But while fans of the program outnumber those who find it distasteful, there are some vociferous “Walking Dead” haters out there. I don’t understand them, and I don’t attempt to change their minds; most of them, it seems, are angry that what they view to be an inferior television program is so popular … or maybe it’s the whole “I used to love this show but now that everyone else does it must suck” mentality.
Russell Scott, a deejay with the program “West Coast Truth,” wrote an interesting article a few years ago that seemed to be an ode of both love and hate to the program. In it, he writes, “I say George A. Romero and John Russo got it right; zombies move at a relentless, yet dragging pace. No matter how many you kill, their numbers keep growing. This establishes a Hitchcock-style atmosphere and plays far more like a psychological terror than pure gore. Not that I’m saying ‘The Walking Dead’ is gory, it just simply isn’t a psychologically terrifying show. It’s essentially a soap opera that just so happens to have zombies.”
Another anti-“Walking Dead” page on Facebook — cleverly called “The Walking Dead Sucks” — isn’t nearly so cerebral in its loathing of the show, but it is entertaining. (Sample post from August: “I hope ‘Walking Dead’ fans are having a s----y summer.”) The administrators complain of CGI zombies, boring characters and boring dialog and seem to hold up George Romero’s classic zombie tales, which began with 1968’s classic “Night of the Living Dead,” as the pinnacle of zombie fiction.
Personally, I’ll take “The Walking Dead” any day. That’s probably considered blasphemy by true zombie aficionados, but here’s why: Zombie fiction has to be about more than just the creatures themselves. Yes, they exist to drive the story, and they must have a significant role in it — and to do that, writers have to get creative. Zombies don’t have individual personalities; you’re not gonna have a standout zombie because that’s not how the genre works. And while I’m sure there are fans who would tune in week after week to watch interchangeable characters roam the post-apocalyptic landscape killing zombies by any means necessary, such a pointless plot would lose most viewers quickly and be considered a failed television show.
“The Walking Dead” isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn brilliant, if you ask me, for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the source material. Robert Kirkman, who created “The Walking Dead” graphic novels, created some memorable characters, starting with Rick Grimes, a Georgia lawman who wakes up after being shot in the line of duty to discover the world has gone to hell. He makes his way back to his family and becomes the de-facto leader of a rag-tag group of survivors. Over the course of the first four seasons, we’ve seen many of them come and go — emphasis on the go, and most of the time, they meet their ends in shocking, brutal manners.
What I love about the show, aside from the merger of my two favorite science fiction genres (post-apocalyptic survival and the undead), is that it’s a stark and unflinching look at humanity at its most base and deprived. So far, we’ve met cruel tinpot dictators who have established their own personal fiefdoms in what’s left of the shattered American landscape … cannibals who lure in wayfarers with the promise of safety … bands of thugs who think nothing of attempting to sexually assault a teenage boy in front of his dad … the list goes on and on. One of the characters — the miscreant-turned-hero Daryl Dixon — made an astute observation on an episode earlier this season: “People are worse.”
To me, that’s what I find most horrifying about the show. Yes, the zombies (although they’re never called such) can be gruesome and grotesque. They hunger for human flesh and will tear a hapless victim apart in seconds. A blow to the head that destroys the brain is the only thing that can stop them. They can’t be reasoned with or bargained with, they don’t tire, they don’t run out of breath. They are killing machines.
But for all of their heinousness, they pale in comparison to the truly barbaric deeds of which the remaining human beings in this fictional world are very much capable. Civilization, it seems, is the leash that keeps this darkness at bay, and “The Walking Dead” begs the question: Once that leash is removed, what kind of dogs will we become?
For Rick Grimes and our protagonists, figuring out the answer is what makes this show so enthralling. They’re by no means perfect, but they’ve found family in one another, and they struggle every Sunday night to retain what little humanity they have left. It’s never easy, but then again, a show about survival in the aftermath of a virus that turns everyone who dies into a ravenous, ambulatory corpse shouldn’t be.
It is, however, good television — and for all of the darkness it explores, it never loses sight of that beacon of light somewhere up ahead, no matter how small and faint it might seem when the hordes close in and the clicking and clacking of teeth fills their ears.