‘The Walking Dead:’ 5 Reasons for Its Ravenous Ratings

The Walking Dead keys to success

The latest, season-best hour highlights central qualities that go well beyond flesh-munching

While “The Walking Dead’s” spectacular ratings success could hardly have been predicted, the latest episode of the AMC series — the best of its fourth season — niftily highlights some of the key ingredients. In fact, almost every beat of this splendid hour reinforced why this is more than just your run-of-the-mill splatter-fest, although there was certainly some of that as well. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Beyond the most obvious qualities — action, suspense, cool weapons (crossbows and samurai swords and knives, oh my) and mastering new and creative ways to crush and explode zombie heads — here are five attributes, in no particular order, that have distinguished the show and were particularly well represented in the Nov. 3 episode:

1. Moral ambiguity. The entire exchange between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carol (Melissa McBride, simply terrific in these last few episodes) highlights the fundamental question that echoes throughout the series — namely, how people can hang on to their humanity and sense of values amid an apocalyptic landscape where survival is constantly threatened and, in terms of civility, all bets appear to be off.

Carol’s willingness to commit murder for the collective good, revealed the previous week, forced Rick — who has also broken his initial vow about not killing the living — to contemplate what amounts to crossing the line, wherever the line might be.

When does pragmatism become ruthlessness? It’s not a simple answer, especially given the personal losses both characters have suffered over the course of the series, and their exchange beautifully zeroed in on that tension.

2. Effortless diversity. The second plot in Sunday’s episode featured four characters in search of medical supplies. As it happened, three of them (played by Danai Gurira and “The Wire” alums Chad L. Coleman and Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) happen to be black.

A lot of shows play at diversity, but “Walking Dead” has managed to present a broad spectrum of players in a way that feels completely organic — perhaps in part because once the zombie apocalypse hits, the only distinctions that matter are “living” and “flesh-munching.”

3. Shedding characters — and reloading. It’s unclear whether we’ve seen the last of Carol, but assuming she’s been driven off for good, it’s only the latest departure from a cast that has turned over almost entirely except for Rick, his son Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Glenn (Steve Yeun). And before someone yells “Daryl!,” Norman Reedus’ cross-bow-wielding hillbilly didn’t show up until partway through season one.

Obviously, there’s a blueprint for that in Robert Kirkman’s comics, but the notion of shedding key players as promiscuously as “Walking Dead” runs counter to virtually every notion of franchise maintenance in TV and has helped keep the program fresh and the audience off guard.

Former showrunner Glen Mazzara penned an interesting first-person column about this, concluding, “I tell stories. Not all of them have happy endings. Not everyone makes it home.” Simply put, no network suit needs to give “The Walking Dead” a note saying, “Raise the stakes.”

4. Terrific casting. Genre shows seldom get the credit they deserve in this regard, but “Walking Dead” has been especially adept at adding compelling players, including Scott Wilson as the grandfatherly Hershel. There’s also an element of good fortune in that one suspects even the producers didn’t realize what they had in Riggs, a child actor who has literally grown up in an especially resonant way.

5. An underlying humanity. Frankly, this is one area where “Walking Dead” occasionally stumbles, or at least neglects, when caught up in the process of feeding gore to the constituency that tends to gripe when an episode doesn’t feature enough zombie guts.

The latest hour, however, actually reminded viewers that those slavering corpses were in fact once people, sending Rick and Carol into a suburban neighborhood, where the camera drifted over family photos. Sure, they’re mindless monsters now, but they weren’t before the world went to hell — providing a mere taste of the sobering losses experienced before Rick ever woke from that coma.

Any show garnering the kind of ratings “Walking Dead” delivers is being watched for a whole lot of different reasons — including by folks with stocked bunkers waiting for some version of Armageddon to actually happen. Moreover, teams of network executives and sociologists will no doubt be analyzing such factors for years to come.

But for now, these five are as good as any — just as the fourth episode of season four was about as good as this show gets.

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  1. Man…you are right on. I can’t wait to watch each weeks episode. Only wish there were more of ’em!

  2. J says:

    The reason for its appeal is (I should think) obvious. It takes “class” and everything associated with it right out of the game. If this “fictional disease” were to strike, it would come down to your physical ability and your wits. Would I be a survivor or fodder? I’d like to think I’d be one of the former. As does EVERY other person watching the show.

  3. Neil says:

    Tv talk 1: You may now return to your daily dose of anti-gay, christian fundamentalist tv preaching. Could you be any more obvious in your hatred of and contempt for GLBT?

  4. Rick sucks4leavincatle says:

    I used to like Rick but now I don’t he left Carl :( SCREW HIM

  5. Ian Smyth says:

    I’m afraid I disagree with a lot of this. Most of my friends watch Walking Dead and the ultimate reason they like it and believe in its great ratings is a lot more simple I think: it’s simple entertainment.

    It has zombies. It has very “cool” male leads. It has exciting action. It has a comic book series (which opens the story to the audience of another medium). Simply put, it’s solid entertainment. Entertainment that’s universally likeable. From a critical standpoint, The Walking Dead is a very uneven show with (until recently) poor character development, uneven pacing, and a script that leaves more to be imagined.

    But, everyone loves zombies and everyone loves cool lead characters that they can deem “bad-ass” and “wicked”. People like seeing Michonne cut zombie heads off and Daryl shoot walkers in the head with a crossbow. Who doesn’t? It’s a solid 42 minutes of entertainment every week.

    • Carl says:

      I think some people do watch for entertainment, cool zombie kills, but I also think if that was the main reason, ratings would have dropped more by now. I think people care about the people involved and their dilemmas, often very human dilemmas.

  6. tv talk1 says:

    Those are all excellent points Mr. Lowry. These are also the same reasons why the major nets such as NBC, FOX, CBS, and ABC will never be able to produce a new show that is the same type of monster hit that The Walking Dead is for AMC. Like Breaking Bad, another ratings sensation for the network, both of these shows feature the same 5 key elements you cover so eloquently in your report. The big four networks are so heavily invested in pushing forth liberal ideologies of acceptance of every type of deviant behavior that they preach filth as a mainstream agenda to the detriment of society. You almost can’t find any show now on the big four networks that isn’t loaded with full on sexually perverted commentary and the most vile language.
    You would think someone in programming over at the other networks would have noticed the connection to AMC’s biggest hits as you have discovered, instead of just shaking their heads, shrugging their shoulders, and throwing their hands up into air in total frustration as to how to gain big audiences again, especially with the young people(18-49 yr. olds) who have practically abandoned the big four save for their coverage of sporting events. All of the biggest scripted hit shows on the big four networks are shows that are very old, established in their content and their quality. That young audience the big four networks are so desperate to bring in with their scripted programs are disillusioned, disgusted, and bored with a lot of the new programs on the big four networks, and I get the feeling that they never talk to real Americans in the target demo categories to find out how they feel about their programs. The only other thing I would add to your excellent list, and this is going from a person who actually talks tv to real young men and women in the target audience, they actually like straight male characters in quality roles every now and again, unlike the big four networks which seem to have an aversion to the straight male lead, save for a few CBS hits.

  7. E Cheung says:

    Mr. Lowry…do you have any idea what ‘ravenous’ means? In even the broadest interpretation of any of its possible meanings?

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