Between this site and my podcasting on The Body Count, I’ve made no secret of my love affair with The Walking Dead comics. As far as extended-run, non-super hero comics go, I think it is the best series of all time. The psychology, the pathos, the existentialism, and, to be sure, the action and gore, all put the series high up the ladder. In fact, I’d say that the first 60 issues are as good as any long story arc ever seen in the comic world. And now we are on the cusp of having all that goodness turned into a well-budgeted television series made by talented people who have kept creator Robert Kirkman close and involved. It should be a no-brainer that The Walking Dead on AMC will blow our socks off like a close-up shotgun blast, right? Not so fast. I can see a number of reasons that The Walking Dead could come and go quickly, and, unfortunately, some of the risks are related directly to what makes the comics so good in the first place.
- They will focus on all the wrong things: This is my number one concern. Television, like film, is a predominantly visual medium. The Walking Dead is loaded with visual elements that will pop on the small screen—scary imagery, a post-apocalyptic landscape populated by zombies, and gore by the bucket full. However, none of that is the meat of the comic. More than any other horror comic ever written, The Walking Dead is a character study. If the production spends too much time trying to dazzle us with shiny objects and too little time exploring the layered psychological elements that power the story, the show will only appeal to people fascinated by shiny objects. That isn’t The Walking Dead comic book readership and it isn’t the AMC viewer that comes for classic films or Mad Men and sticks around to see what this new show is all about.
- There will be too much gore: Seriously. When I heard about the project, my first thought was, “They can’t do that on television.” It turns out “they” can. The question is, should they? Kirkman has been quoted as saying that AMC hasn’t flipped out over any of the gore they have seen in the dailies, and it is generally accepted that it is going to be like nothing ever seen on free television. That’s good for me, and maybe for you, but it isn’t good for building an audience of housewives and soccer moms that will be needed to keep the ratings up. If the show is done right, the story and characters are compelling enough to hold the attention of the Mad Men fans or anyone else that stumbles upon it while channel surfing, but not if they are so disgusted by the gore that they don’t give it a shot after the first episode. I think the show would be better off if they gradually ramped up the gore over the first season. The truly iconic violent images from the series tend to be toward the end of story arcs, so that shouldn’t be a problem. If they come out with all guns blazing, it will please horror hounds, but it might backfire with the larger audience.
- The season will be too short to build an audience. Despite debuting right before Sweeps, The Walking Dead is basically the length of mid-season replacement series. This means that the show has very few episodes to expand the audience beyond the comic book and horror fans that will be with the show from day one. We know that a second season isn’t a given, and with just six episodes worth of material to put out there, will the general audience have time to discover the show?
- Horror is the red-headed stepchild of series television: This is the only reason my life in the current Nerdtopia isn’t perfect. Sure, we get adaptations of The Game of Thrones, The Watchmen, The Walking Dead; we get great Batman and Spider-man movies (nuh-nuh-nuh-spider-man 3-I can’t hear you-nuh-nuh). Indy comics are hitting the big screen in uncompromised glory (even if no one is actually watching them). It is a great time to be a nerd, but, alas, not so much for the horror nerd—at least not on television. The last horror series to be a hit on network television was…wait, there has never been a hit horror series on network television. Buffy was a critical hit and had a great seven-year run, but it faced cancellation at the end of nearly every season. Supernatural has experienced a similar fate though with lower highs and higher lows. The only time we have seen any real success is with a horror/sci-fi blend: X-files, V, Fringe. There have been a number of good series, just not many successful ones. “Why” is a topic for another post, but I wonder if there are enough fans of the genre to make a horror show a hit, especially when the show is epic and expensive and really needs to be a hit, not just a moderate success.
Two Reasons Not to Worry About the Above and (Why We Expect The Walking Dead to be a Huge Hit)
- The source material kicks all kinds of ass: As I said in the intro, The Walking Dead is as good as it gets in the comic book world, in the horror world, in the writing world. If the team stays on target and puts the best elements of the comic on the screen, the show will find an audience. There is probably a great play on “the cream always rises to the top” idiom using blood or brains or something to use here, but I can’t come up with it.
- They are keeping Kirkman close: All reports are that Robert Kirkman has been involved creatively in nearly every facet of the show. No one knows better than him what makes The Walking Dead great, and his involvement should be the gris-gris that keeps the evil spirits away.
We won’t have to wait long to see which of the above scenarios plays out. The counter on the web site tells me we have only ten days and a few odd hours to wait. Personally, I’m an optimist. I always see the zombie as half dead. The worst-case scenario: we have a great Season One box set to slide in beside Firefly on the bookshelf.