What Makes The Walking Dead the Undead Ruler of TV?

AMC's zombie drama continues to build in popularity. What's behind the show's success — and why aren't other networks trying to reverse-engineer their own versions?

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Gene Page/AMC

Walkers and Michonne in 'After'

The Walking Dead is unstoppable. For those who watch the AMC series — or read the Image comic book that serves as its source material — this shouldn’t come as a surprise. No matter how many undead walkers you manage to take down, there is a seemingly endless supply of others waiting to take their place.

In this case, however, I’m not describing the fictional zombies inside the show, but the show itself.

In terms of ratings, The Walking Dead consistently wins the all-important 18-49 demographic, even outperforming the Olympics twice, with each new season premiere bucking trends by growing its audience as opposed to traditional standard attrition. By any objective measurement, the show is a success, if not an outright phenomenon. But why?

The most obvious answer to that question is that there isn’t anything else like The Walking Dead around right now. Not only does it go further than audiences expect from horror television (a genre that is, in and of itself, a rarity), but its ongoing serialized nature separates it from the finite horror movies to which it owes so much; by removing the need to wrap up storylines within two hours, the show allows audiences to develop emotional attachments to characters in a way that’s historically unavailable for this kind of story, even as the ongoing narrative pushes the idea of the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse into new, unexplored territory. As a result, even the monotony of some second season episodes felt “new” in some way. Fans actually care about the characters’ outcomes when their safety is jeopardized.

Beyond that, the show’s success also speaks to the versatility of the zombie genre — or, more precisely, the fact that there’s so much metaphorical potential to be found within it. Viewers can read a lot of subtext and hidden meaning into The Walking Dead (“What do the walkers represent?” “Is the Governor a commentary on a particular worldview?” “Is Rick a commentary on modern man?” and so on); more, perhaps, than is even actually present from the writers’ points of view. The show, to borrow a phrase, contains multitudes.

And yet, the show doesn’t consist of multitudes. The short run of each series likely contribute to the show’s continued success as well. With each season consisting of no more than sixteen episodes split into two blocks broadcast months apart, the show is never really on long enough for audiences to get bored of it. The limited scheduling leads to audience perception of scarcity — that it needs to be appreciated immediately on the rare occasions when it is available.

With all that in mind — especially the fact that these various tricks and gimmicks have led to what is one of the most popular shows on television right now, at least as far as advertisers are concerned — it’s worth wondering why nobody else is trying to create their own Walking Dead-style hit. Don’t other networks want a phenomenon of their own, after all?

This is a stickier question, because the obvious response is, “Well, of course everyone wants a Walking Dead of their own.” But making that happen is another thing entirely, particularly when the nature of the show’s success feels like the result of a Jenga tower of elements that’s difficult to pick apart.

Obviously, creating another show about a band of survivors of a zombie apocalypse would be too blunt in terms of replicating the Walking Dead DNA, but how far can you get from that without viewers deciding they’re not that interested after all? We’ve seen other series about disparate survivors of a particularly apocalyptic event before, and those shows haven’t found enough of an audience to survive, never mind thrive in the way that the AMC drama does. Was it a tonal issue, or does it have to be zombies? Could Jericho have survived if it had limited itself to sixteen episodes a year, spaced far enough apart?

(Okay, probably not on that last one. There are some things — such as Skeet Ulrich’s anti-charisma — of which even absence cannot make the heart grow fond.)

That AMC is developing a spin-off of The Walking Dead feels important to this discussion. Obviously, that show — to debut next year — will have to play with the formula of its parent to avoid being a pale imitation, and the success (or otherwise) of that show may offer pointers for how others could develop their own variations on the Walking Dead DNA. More importantly, it’ll also demonstrate how an increased supply impacts demand for the show. What if the new show’s arrival grows the audience for The Walking Dead — or pushes them away? How much undead zombie drama is too much?

For now, The Walking Dead reigns supreme, but there’s no doubt that someone is out there working on programming that’s even more virulent and addictive. Nothing on television lives forever, after all — not even the undead.