The Walking Dead March On

Monday, September 9 2013
The Walking Dead March On

Former UK video trade press editor Toby Weidmann, now at the helm of The Walking Dead: The Official Magazine, published quarterly in the US and UK by Titan Magazines, on why the series is going from strength to strength…

This autumn marks the return of AMC’s The Walking Dead to TV and with the series setting record viewing figures in the US last season, it’s a good time to reflect on how the post-zombie apocalypse drama has become so popular.

As risky as any new TV venture is, The Walking Dead was probably as close to a sure thing as you could get. For one, it was based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book, the bestselling indie comic currently on the market. It also had some key high profile names attached to it from the start: legendary producer Gale Anne Hurd; Frank Darabont as showrunner (although he has since been replaced first by Glen Mazzara and now by Scott M Gimple); and, on a geekier level, Greg Nicotero as the make-up effects wizard (if you don’t know the name, you will certainly know his work, from Day Of The Dead [1985] through Kill Bill to the forthcoming Sin City 2).

Having said that, its cast was a relatively unknown bunch, with Sarah Wayne Callies perhaps the exception, having had some genre awareness due to her title role in the Terminator prequel series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. But actors such as Andrew Lincoln (cast in the lead role of Sheriff Rick Grimes), although recognisable in the UK for This Life, Teachers (for which he earned a BAFTA) and Love Actually, was virtually an unknown in the US.

However, the show premiered well, pulling in 5.3 million viewers in the US and earning plenty of critical acclaim. It added to this tally in season two, with an average of 6.9 million viewers, although the press was less enthusiastic about the story arc’s potboiler pace. But it was with the third season, which comes to UK DVD and Blu-ray from eOne on September 30, that the show metamorphosed from popular genre show into modern TV phenomenon.
The season premiered in the US on October 14, 2012 to a whopping 10.9 million viewers. More importantly (certainly for the network), it was the most watched cable show among adults aged 18 to 49 years old in the key autumn schedule. The numbers held throughout the rest of the run, only for the season finale to break the record again. Its debut slot scored 12.4 million total viewers, with more than 7.7 million in the key 18 to 40 demographic. To put this in perspective, NCIS remains the US’ most popular drama on air, but of its 22 million viewers, fewer than 5 million are under 50. It also outperformed such hit shows as Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory.

So why the big upswing?

The realistic answer is probably due to a number of things. For starters, season three was adapted from the most popular storyline in the comic and, at the same time, introduced a fan favourite character, Michonne (played by Danai Gurira). The series’ first proper villain was also introduced – The Governor, played by Liverpudlian David Morrissey, giving a face to evil, rather than the homogenous zombie threat. And, although longer than its predecessor in terms of episode numbers, its story was much tighter and more focused, with better gory moments (or ‘gags’ as executive producer Nicotero calls them) to satisfy the horror hounds.

But perhaps more than anything, the third season’s storylines surprised its viewers, catching even long-term readers of the comic off-guard. AMC’s show has never been afraid to stray from the comic – indeed, ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘adapted from’ is a more appropriate description of the show. One such event in season three surrounded the death of a major character (no spoilers). Fans of the comic knew it was going to happen. Some of the TV viewers might even have guessed the person might die given what was going on with that character at the time. But when the moment came, it was done in such a way that no-one saw it coming. Jaw-dropping television at its finest.

And so to season four… This begins airing in the US on Sunday October 13, and probably the following Friday on Fox in the UK. With the comic also celebrating its 10th anniversary a week earlier and several special events planned to mark the occasion, October is all set to be Walking Dead month. The show hasn’t quite reached the same level of fandom here as it has in the US, but with the show continuing to be broadcast, first on Fox and then much later on Channel 5, and the number of licensed products increasing all the time – from video games and online study courses to clothing and action figures and, ahem, an official magazine – escaping The Walking Dead at the moment is nigh on impossible. With the fans as voracious as a zombie horde in a meat factory, the popularity of The Walking Dead shows no signs of dying any time soon.

• The Walking Dead – Season Three is released on DVD and Blu-ray by eOne on September 30

• You can follow The Walking Dead magazine on Twitter and on Facebook – ‘Walking Dead Magazine’…

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