10 Reasons Why ‘The Walking Dead’ Is So Popular

The question of the popularity of 'The Walking Dead' hangs out there because a cultural phenomenon of this magnitude always says something about the zeitgeist.

The question of the popularity of ‘The Walking Dead’ hangs out there because a cultural phenomenon of this magnitude always says something about the zeitgeist.

Three years ago, typing the question, “Why is The Walking Dead So Popular?” into a search engine turned up responses posted on niche websites such as ZombieGuide.com. Last week, the web edition of as its lede. A week ago tonight, the 17.5 million people who watched the Season 5 premiere not only made the show the highest-rated show in the history of cable television, but they made sure that it won Twitter, with more than a million zombie-related tweets briefly taking up all 10 spots for #trending topics.

The question of “The Walking Dead’s” popularity hangs out there because a cultural phenomenon of this magnitude always says something about the zeitgeist. Is it because the bitter truth is more palatable than saccharine sweetness? Or because zombies have been understood as political allegories ever since George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968 brilliantly grafted horror to sociopolitical commentary?

James Poniewozik speculated that the popularity of “The Walking Dead” is due, among other things, to its bleak outlook. “It’s grim — unrelentingly, punishingly (which is not to say unentertainingly) grim,” he wrote in the aforementioned Time piece. “It kills beloved characters; it kills children; it gives very little reason to hope that, in the long run, any human will end up anything but a walker or meat for walkers.”

In other words, the show is popular because it’s honest about the terrifying realities of a world where Ebola, ISIS and Category 5 hurricanes are now the norm, and a good chunk of Americans are convinced that the CDC, the CIA, NOAA and CNN are lying to them. If “Game of Thrones” skewers the egomaniacal idiocy fueling this country’s political games, “The Walking Dead” is a full-throated indictment of Western civilization and its discontents. Freud would have a field day.

1. It rips away the bourgeois tea cozies and exposes the rotting meat underneath.

Every time the tribe encounters a community that looks safe — Herschel’s postcard-perfect farm, Woodbury prison, the Terminus — it turns out that the niceness is a sham. Our intrepid band of humans keep on making this mistake again and again, hoping that this time, it will be different! Eventually they will figure out that it’s society itself that’s the problem, and stop trying to make friends with the townies.

2. It’s diverse.

Other ensemble casts begrudgingly include one black/Asian/Hispanic actress with supermodel looks, make her play a hooker/KGB sleeper agent/nuclear physicist and call it “diversity.” Sorry, that’s bullshit tokenism. The humans of “The Walking Dead” range in age from childhood to menopause; some survivors are mean SOBs and others are gently confused. They’re fat, short, skinny, crude, sophisticated, urbane, hick, buff, beautiful, plain, wrinkly, etc. Several characters appear to be penning letters in their heads starting, “Dear White People …” as they try not to roll their eyes at the crazy things that Rick &  Lori &  Shane & Andrea & the Governor are doing. Which involves a lot of swinging, as if they’re trying to pretend that it’s the ’80s and they’re all back in the suburbs where their biggest problem is trying to decide between au pairs or threesomes.

3. Everybody’s favorite Southern redneck anti-hero, Daryl Dixon, carries a crossbow.

Subtext: He might be gay. Possibly bi. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

4. As the show churns on, the white people have broken down, fallen apart or gone totally evil.

Tyreese and Michonne, by contrast, are sort of blasé and often annoyed. Because for black people, the Zombie Apocalypse is normal life with a soundtrack.

5. Only one Asian in the entire U.S. has managed to evade the roaming undead hoards, and this is model-minority guy Glenn.

Is the rest of Asian-America holed up in Silicon Valley with Bill Gates, secretly working on an anti-viral vaccine that will also kill the bugs in Windows 8? At least Glenn isn’t a total cliché. He gets a storyline that makes emotional sense. His now-wife Maggie is a lovely doctor’s daughter who is perfect in every way except … she’s not Korean. The Zombie Apocalypse solves this problem by getting rid of the disapproving parents. A lot of Asian-Americans can relate to this.

6. Maggie is neither a damsel to be won, nor a hag that men hate.

She fights for Glenn, goes back to rescue him and manages to remain feminine while kicking zombie ass. Yes, for all you die-hard romantics, true love is possible even when zombies are coming after you! Their love is a template for the new, Future/Past Relationship as defined by real-life anthropologist Helen Fisher, who cheerfully postulates that postmodern men and women will become true partners inside a hunter-gatherer society. Fisher doesn’t account for libido-killing scenarios such as the exhaustions of being a zombie pet parent. It’s probably not helping Michonne’s love life that she’s a crazy cat lady, zombie version.

7. It gets the guns right.

For Second-Amendment America, a show loses all credibility if the firearms aren’t handled correctly. In this regard, “The Walking Dead’s” writers are the best in show business. For example, the first season included extensive debates over who could be trusted to pack heat. City girl Andrea lands in the NO pile — but it’s not because she’s a blonde bombshell. It’s because she’s a menace with a firearm. She accidentally shoots Daryl, prompting her to suck up her pride, face her prejudices and accept shooting lessons from Shane. For sentimental reasons, she carries a 9mm “Ladysmith” pistol because it was given to her by her father. Circumstances force her to become a crack shot, but she refuses to let them turn her into a killer. Her relationship with firearms remains psychologically consistent with her character.

8. Even gods have feet of clay, and everybody is expendable.

EVERYBODY. It’s kind of reassuring because it reminds us that universe has its own sense of justice. No matter how powerful, the mighty always fall. Wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley around 1818:

… “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things…”

This more or less describes the first time that Sheriff Rick realizes that legless corpses don’t usually try to eat you. However, Shelley’s sonnet, one of the most famous ever written, is about the end of the British Empire disguised as a story about an ancient potentate named Ozymandias. Two centuries after Shelley wrote his poem, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that “Ozymandias” will be simplified to “Obama” in certain high school textbooks.

9. Team Carol.

That is all.

10. It’s a live-action vanitas.

vanitas is a still-life painting which reminded viewers that life is fleeting. These paintings tended to be gloriously  grotesque, stocked with human skulls, dying flowers and great plates of rotting food. Despite the fact that the vanitas was all about futility wedded to horror, the genre was especially popular in 17th-century Holland, then the wealthiest country in the world thanks to a particular blend of mercantilism, moral conviction and an immense fleet of well-armed ships. Sound familiar?

If life is fleeting, power is, too. Is it a coincidence that there are “there are now more states under single-party control than at any time since 1944,” and that party is Republican? Nearly every pundit is predicting that Republicans will take the House and the Senate in the midterm elections, and all signs suggest that the trend will continue. Will conservatives take over Washington, D.C. this November? Will Hillary or Elizabeth win the presidency?

Zeitgeist says: Watch “The Walking Dead” to find out. It looks an awful lot  like the nightly news.

Paula Lee is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine. She is the author of the travel memoir “Deer Hunting in Paris,” which won the 2014 Travel Book Award of the Society of American Travel Writers, and the serial novel, “The Peepshow,” which was published under her pseudonym B.B. Young exclusively on TheBlot. 

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