“The Walking Dead” has enjoyed the kind of breakout success this fall to make the entire TV industry sit up and take notice, and AMC — the home of prestige dramas, but never one as successful as this — has pretty masterfully managed the asset. That includes its bifurcated seasons, which will spread the wealth from the fall into the next calendar year.
By that measure, Sunday’s cliffhanging “midseason finale” (a somewhat oxymoronic term, if you think about it) was a nifty bridge to keep the audience hooked until the show returns in February. And for those who might complain that the hour was insanely violent, unlike the torture porn of something like FX’s “American Horror Story,” “Walking Dead” is violent with a purpose, establishing a world without legitimate authority, where the “dead” really refers to the people as much as the zombies.
The series has also been pretty fearless when it comes to parting with and adding characters, which is essential to keep viewers (even those familiar with the comics, given the frequent departures from that source) off balance. With a few exceptions, this is a world where practically everyone is one of those guys wearing the red shirts on “Star Trek.”
In a sense, it’s useful to compare the current season of “Walking Dead” with “Homeland,” which is struggling to remain plausible as it lurches from one twist to the next. Somehow, the post-apocalyptic zombie show seems far more grounded, with innumerable possibilities, whereas the Showtime series appears to be writing itself into a dangerous corner.
Of course, the other brilliant part of AMC’s marketing is that even when it’s not on the schedule, “Walking Dead” never entirely goes away — including plans for a New Year’s Eve marathon that will repeat all the episodes, baiting the hook for new meat (heh heh). And let’s not forget the enormous roll of the dice the network undertook when it opted to replace Frank Darabont, who developed the series, after its first season. Not only did the the move trigger near-panic coming out of Comic-Con that the show was a “chaotic mess,” but it appeared to violate the rule about not tampering with a nascent hit at such a fragile moment.
Still, look at our little “Dead” now — 10.5 million viewers on Sunday for its main telecast, per Nielsen estimates, with nearly 5 million more taking in repeat airings. In addition, the network will shrewdly expand its inexpensive chat show devoted to the program, “Talking Dead,” to an hour come February, which in TV terms is a bit like using every part of the chicken.
While a phenomenon of this magnitude doesn’t come along every day — indeed, in basic-cable terms, it’s pretty fair to say nothing quite like it has ever come along before — the folks at AMC didn’t just catch lightning in a bottle, but carefully stoked and nurtured it.
I guess what I’m saying is kudos to the producers and AMC. Because whether you’re trying to survive a zombie apocalypse or just profit from one, the fates tend to help those who are smart about helping themselves.