The dark, gory zombie drama The Walking Dead is one of the biggest television shows in modern history, but there are about a million reasons why it should’ve never succeeded. Luckily for all of us, that’s exactly why it became a monster hit.
Just look at the pitch: Aside from a few modest critical hits, AMC was still a pretty small operation when it pulled the trigger and ordered a truncated first season based on Robert Kirkman’s long-running and mildly successful indie comic book The Walking Dead. Given the network's track record of dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the zombie-infested post-apocalypse seemed a decidedly strange bedfellow with the rest of the schedule.
But AMC had caught some minor lightning in a bottle a few times before by letting creators have some leeway to lean into a concept, so they rolled the dice and hoped the time might be right for a genre-mashing survival series. Little did they know they were on the verge of a phenomenon.
Looking at what historically succeeds on television — we’re talking as a legit ratings smash, not just a critical hit — The Walking Dead misses just about every mark on the list. It’s dark as all get-out, depressing, over-the-top gory and sometimes maddeningly slow. Oh, it’s also built around one of the oldest horror/genre cliches (zombies), and it doesn't shy away from that in the slightest in some kind of effort to appeal to a broader audience. Despite all that, people turn out in droves, and the numbers continue to climb with each subsequent season.
Why? Because the show is good. Extremely good. Fantastically good. Regardless of genre and everything else, it's a character drama that keeps us all on the edge of our respective seats week after week. By not trying to appeal to every demo and water down the concept, they've made a show that's true to its singular vision and tone — which made the undiluted product so entertaining it appeals to fans of every genre.
They didn’t try to appeal to everyone, and went against the tried-and-true formula of making a show as broad as possible for mass exposure, and in doing so they made something stellar enough that it actually would appeal to millions (upon millions). They tossed the formula in the garbage, and against all odds, it worked. All you have to love is good television, and you’ll enjoy The Walking Dead.
It’s ironic to look back now and think that HBO and NBC both had dibs on the series before it landed at AMC, which was essentially a last-ditch effort for co-creators Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman to find a television home for the project. The reason it never made it to air at those first two networks? The pitch was way too gory for NBC, and even HBO thought it was too dark and violent. That’s saying something.
But AMC was willing to let Kirkman and company go nuts (or guts, as it were), and that freedom allowed them to stay true to Kirkman’s excellent comic-book series — and even let them expand on it. In an on-set interview with AMC when production was underway on the first season (long before anyone knew how big the show would be), Kirkman said he was confident in the project because the TV team was treating the source material with respect. There was already a great story, all they needed to do was tell it:
“Everyone is really trying to do good by the comic, and there are scenes that are straight out of it. I think that fans are just going to be thrilled. But at the same time, [Frank Darabont] is vastly improving the material. And there are things here and there that along the way I should have caught, but didn’t. There’s some amazing stuff he added for Morgan’s character in the Pilot episode that’s just not in the comic. It was back story, but he handles it in a way that just really brings it to the forefront. It’s like, Morgan, that guy is an awesome character!”
Many shows with cooler, more ambitious ideas have crashed and burned because they didn’t stay true to the characters and concept. Look at something like Steven Spielberg’s short-lived Fox series Terra Nova, which was basically a small-screen version of Jurassic Park with all kinds of cool time travel and conspiracies thrown in.
It’s an awesome pitch, but the show jumped from “shenanigan of the week” plots so much that it never took the time to dig into its own concept, and the characters remained caricatures for most of the series’ one and only season. These are some of the same problems that continue to plague CBS's Stephen King-inspired Under the Dome, which keeps introducing red herrings and left-field WTF twists so much that the dome mystery almost seems secondary at times.
Darabont and Kirkman figured out the magic ingredient with season one of The Walking Dead, and Kirkman and the subsequent Dead showrunners have carried the torch the past few years — it’s about characters, pure and simple. If they’re compelling enough, people will watch, regardless of whether they’re being hunted by gore-tastic zombies or hot pink unicorns.
What HBO and NBC seemed to miss is that it wasn’t about the violence and gore. All those things were really secondary to the story, but necessary to make that world and the characters believable and real. Kirkman said as much in a recent interview with Newsarama, after being asked about how they use the zombies as a part of the overall narrative. For Kirkman, it's all about how they affect and change the world for those still left alive:
“I don’t know. I think zombies are really cool. I think that zombies make us tell stories about human beings. You can’t really tell a story where the zombie is the central character – it’s all about how the zombie affects the humans. The way they affect the humans make us tell very intense, very personal, dramatic stories. I think that’s what resonates with the audience and what makes zombies so popular. It makes us think about ourselves and our lives, while we’re watching these fictional characters deal with these intense situations.”
Everyone involved with The Walking Dead took a big risk bringing the modestly successful comic to life, and they went against every obvious rule of television to create one of the biggest hits in decades. There’s no conceivable reason it should’ve worked, but we can be thankful it did.
As the box-office domination of Transformers: Age of Extinction and lingering TV hits based on spinoffs of spinoffs procedurals shake our faith in taste and quality, it's nice to know a good long shot can still break through with enough pure grit and faith that, with the right execution, there's no need to shy away from what makes your premise special, even if it's traditionally the domain of a niche audience. Awesomeness wins over all.