The viewer numbers are staggeringly high. And they just keep going higher.
The raw ratings numbers for the Oct. 12 season premiere of The Walking Dead suggested a whopping 17.29 million viewers watched it on the cable channel AMC in the U.S. That was impressive. Then, late last week, the "live +3" ratings were revealed (that is, viewership by people who PVRed it to watch later, within three days of a telecast), and added five million to that number – 22.37 million total viewers.
That puts the series up there with The Big Bang Theory (22.82 million) and even NFL football on Sundays (22.77 million). More than ever, The Walking Dead is a phenomenon. A must-see, mass-audience event.
But why? Why is drama about a postapocalyptic zombie world so compelling? Herewith, 10 theories. You choose.
1) The overall theme – that humanity is doomed unless people learn to get along. And if we don't get along, we're just zombies feeding on each other.
2) It's just cheesy fun – those ever-increasing armies of murderous zombies are the reason people watch.
3) Taciturn Georgia police deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and a ragtag group fighting for survival represent us, every family or group of friends, terrified that the rest of the world is out to get us.
4) The infectious zombie virus is a stand-in for our fear of disease, from AIDS to SARS to Ebola. We're essentially terrified of what can happen to our bodies when nature goes crazy on us.
5) The show is emphatically bleak, and many viewers like that. The survivors on the series merely go from one temporary refuge to another. The faint hope that elements of the old civilization can be rescued from the postapocalypse always evaporates. And faint hope only leads to heartache. Remember that period when the group lived at Hershel's farm – it turned out that Hershel secretly kept zombies in the barn, some of them friends and members of his family. He believed that some semblance of humanity remained in their horrific shells, and that one day there would be a cure. There is no cure, he learned. There is no hope.
6) The overriding political theme. Recall that two mini-societies existed for a long period on the series. First, the tiny, frail group led by Rick finding safety in a prison. And, in contrast, the bizarre, fake town of Woodbury, under the leadership of the crypto-fascist Governor (David Morrissey). The clash of the two communities raised a question: Is it better to live in a blissful, mundane – but artificial – world under a dictator or be nurtured by the communal strength formed by constant pressure and danger? Fascism or freewheeling democracy?
7) It's a revenge fantasy that speaks to some need in the viewer. People like nothing better on a Sunday night than watching other people stick a sharp object in a zombie's head. Exactly who they fantasize is getting a sharp object in the head is their own business, but that's what they're thinking about.
8) We are entranced by the dreadful possibility of a world without order, communication or modern technology. And we fantasize about the probability of helping recreate society and culture from the ruins of destruction.
9) The postapocalypse world is a stand-in for our fear of economic collapse. Many viewers have seen economic near-collapse in our lifetime and we all worry that everything that sustains our jobs and lifestyle can fail. Every time we read about the stock market wobbling, we see a cataclysm in front of us.
10) The Walking Dead has torn up the blueprint used for most TV storytelling. It has been relentless in killing off beloved characters. Its seasons end with a cliffhanger, but begin again with yet more mystery and the kind of action that usually concludes a season. There is no careful threading of themes at the start of a season, it just gets going, roaring on all cylinders. The show is huge hit because it doesn't play by the rules.
There are 10 theories and the number could go higher, like the viewing numbers. You decide if it is one of the 10, or all of the above.