Last month at the Television Critics Tour in Los Angeles, Fox network boss Kevin Reilly said, "I'm competing with every show on cable. And if you noticed, the top drama on television last year was The Walking Dead."
He was delivering two messages. First, the Nielsen ratings that determine the success of a TV show now reflect the solid popularity of cable-only, short-run series. Second (this, in the context of controversy about the blood and gore on Fox's The Following), The Walking Dead proves that popularity sometimes requires lots of blood and gore.
The Walking Dead (Sunday, AMC, 9 p.m.) returns for the second half of its third season. And it does so as an astonishing success. The show's most recent episode, in December, drew 10.5 million viewers in the United States. That is slightly higher than what The Following is getting on an easily accessible network. People sure love their zombies and the tension here surrounding the tiny band of non-ghouls who roam the U.S. in search of a safe haven.
The Walking Dead will clash with The 55th Annual Grammy Awards (Sunday, CBS, Global, 8 p.m.) and, really, it might have been a contest, predicting which show would garner the most "Ewww!" and "Yuck!" responses. On The Walking Dead: zombies sporting tattered clothes, matted hair and disgusting facial expressions. At the Grammys: music figures who could well be mistaken for zombies – weird clothes, weird hair, extra-weird facial expressions. Except for Taylor Swift, of course.
But now that CBS has decided to crack down on florid, flesh-baring attire and antics, the music-awards shindig could be a tame affair. Among other things, beseeches a leaked CBS memo, "Please be sure that buttocks and female breasts are adequately covered." Also, it notes, "thong-type costumes are problematic."
Well, in that case, expect a large army of young male viewers to abandon the Grammys. The heck with Rihanna, Sting, Kelly Clarkson, Fun, the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, Elton John, Swift and Frank Ocean. I mean, why watch the old-timers if Rihanna can't do the cleavage thing? What's the point? I'm just speculating.
But seriously, The Walking Dead is both vastly entertaining and serious TV. When we last met them, the survivors, led by a near-deranged Rick (Andrew Lincoln), had incurred the wrath of the fascist-type governor of an area intended to be zombie-free. The stage is now set for an epic battle between those who find succour in the dangerous freedom of a small, roving community and those who want the protection of walls and a charismatic leader.
While the show's exact direction is kept secret, one of the producers said recently, "There are a lot of humans in serious jeopardy. There's a lot of betrayal. There's a little love. There's a lot of zombie action. And then we get to say goodbye, sadly, to a few more people."
The Walking Dead has been relentless in killing off beloved characters, and its grimness is stark. Yet, it seems viewers are not put off by the unexpected departures. They want fear and loathing, and the series delivers. The Grammy Awards, hyped spectacle though it is, can only deliver the loathing.
Also airing this weekend
Mistrial (Saturday, HBO Canada, 8:15 p.m.) is an oddity from 1996. Made for HBO, it's an aggressive polemic about legal and civil liberties run amok. In part, it's a right-wing revenge fantasy. A jury acquits a dubious community activist who was charged with killing two cops. The detective who brought the case to trial (Bill Pullman) goes crazy. Pulling his gun, he forces the judge to retry the case, under his rules. This doesn't go over well with his bosses and the media. The movie's no masterpiece, but is outrageously provocative.
All times ET. Check local listings.