Tonight, for your delectation, there's an unusual TV event – a live musical production, all Broadway glitz and singalong songs.
The Sound of Music Live! (NBC, 8 p.m.) sure sounds neat. Carrie Underwood as Maria and Stephen Moyer (brooding vampire Bill Compton on True Blood) as Captain von Trapp. Cute kids, a lonely goatherd and such.
Great, yeah, whatever. What people are talking about, still in a stunned tone, is the midseason finale of The Walking Dead. (Details coming up, note, if you haven't watched it yet.) A child killed, a missing baby and the brutal, blood-spurting murder of a nice, elderly man, the show's moral compass.
Reading recaps and commentary has been a bracing, educational experience. In Entertainment Weekly's online video review, a young woman howled in disbelief: "I've never screamed so much at my TV in my life. They killed grandpa!"
That's shallow but points us to the secret of The Walking Dead's success. (And it is enormously successful, possibly the most important TV series in years.) It's brazenly both captivating and cantankerously anti-populist. It's serious and flaky. It delivers fear and loathing by the bucketful and tells us that fear and loathing is the new normal. This is what the triumph of short-run cable dramas has wrought.
It would be easy but wrong to assess The Walking Dead as a horror drama linked to a long line of horror movies that have entertained people while delivering gore. In horror films, the nice people are saved, the kids never die and nice old people aren't beheaded.
The Walking Dead and the comic book series from which it is drawn are deeply serious meditations on the politics of freedom and responsibility. In a world overrun by ghouls, where all authority and establishment institutions have collapsed, a tiny band of non-ghouls roam the U.S. in search of a safe haven. They found it in a prison. Better to be prisoners there, than live as lemmings following the fascist governor running a town that's safe but under the iron rule of a dictator.
The audience is asked which society is preferable – the one that's sharing, community-based and under threat, or the one that has an iron-fisted leader keeping threats from outside at bay?
The Walking Dead has relentlessly killed off beloved characters, and the audience stays with it, loyal. The unexpected departures, often brutally done, are not a taunt to the audience. The show itself is a taunt toward everything that TV dramas used to be – familiar, reliable, never unsettling. Everybody, it seems, was wrong about the rules of television.
Homeland progresses in an equally unsettling manner. The narrative turns out to be unreliable. Not so much unexpected twists and turns but as a true challenge to the viewer – what do you believe in this story about spies and terrorists, and why would you believe that? Think, question, and trust no one.
There have been milestones in the march toward this point in TV drama, all of them on cable. A key moment in defining The Sopranos was the episode called College, airing in 1999. Tony took daughter Meadow on a car trip to scout colleges for her. They bonded nicely. He was relatively open about his mob job. The tone was about openness. Dad showing some humanity and daughter being understanding. Then Tony spotted a snitch, an ex-mob guy now living in some small town. So he took a break from the pleasant trip with Meadow to strangle the guy to death. Just. Like. That. Mob values triumphed. The cynicism was, at the time, disconcerting.
A later episode of The Sopranos had Ralph (Joe Pantoliano), beat to death a young woman, a stripper, he had gotten pregnant. The casual violence of that, the utter lack of humanity, was sickening. And it illustrated an important point about how such men as Tony and Ralph view women.
The then-president of NBC circulated tapes of that murder scene to his staff and to other network executives in 2001, and asked them how "this impacts mainstream television." He missed the point – it wasn't the murder scene that mattered, it was the audience's acceptance of it as a means to an artistic statement on TV.
We accept the grim, the bleak, the gory in furthering important television storytelling. You can have your cute kids and songs about the lonely goatherd. A lot of people want the fear and loathing.