Whether you watch the show or not—some of us gave up several seasons ago — The Walking Dead changed television. We are in a different climate now because of what that show did. On some level, I can see it. On some level, I admire it.
This really isn’t about whether or not The Walking Dead is good or whether it’s a show for everyone. Instead, what I want to look at is how this show, over every genre series that tried and failed before it, became the biggest hit of all time and completely changed the landscape of horror on television.
There’s something on TV right now for everyone who loves the genre, and that’s not something I ever expected to be able to say. Yes, we all have our favorite horror TV shows from years—or decades—past, but they were rarely if ever on at the same time. But now? Now, we have so much content and we’re getting it all at once. Maybe zombies aren’t really you’re thing and you’re into psychological horror. In that case, you can watch Bates Motel instead, or you could have watched Hannibal until very recently.
And it’s all because of this one show. All because on Halloween, 2010, when people could have been at a party, trick or treating, TP’ing houses or doing just about anything else, they all tuned in to watch the premiere of The Walking Dead. The numbers it took in were unheard of and after several years they are still only getting bigger.
I remember that premiere. It blew me away, but not because I was a fan of the comic or even necessarily because of the hype for the show itself. I distinctly remember tuning in because here was Frank Darabont, director of amazing A-list hits like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, channeling George Romero. It was Darabont doing zombies, with amazing practical FX work and characters that—at least at first—I could really, personally care about.
To me, that first season is still a really solid six-episode miniseries in its own right. When I heard about how Darabont was unceremoniously fired after that record breaking tease of a first season, I thought the show was over. I thought the second season would be a disaster and that AMC would pull the plug as soon as the numbers started going down.
But they didn’t, of course. They just kept on skyrocketing. Which is just amazing to me, because it meant that after only one season comprised of a meager six episodes, The Walking Dead had stopped being a show and started to become a brand. It was bigger than any of its individual parts, and that’s why it’s had a different showrunner virtually every season. That’s why, as they have hinted so many times, absolutely any character could be killed off and the show could continue without so much as a dent in the ratings.
It’s a franchise, of course. But franchises, historically, have always been what have driven the horror genre and opened the doors for other opportunities. The ratings for Walking Dead were too big to simply prove that horror could work on TV, they seemed to say that horror had to work on TV, that TV was hungry for horror. Other networks are still trying to play catch up, digging up old IP’s, whatever they can to get their horror show on the air.
Walking Dead may not have been based on a movie, but the filmic influences were clear. It’s only natural that the series that followed on its heels were titles like Dracula, Bates Motel, Hannibal, Scream, Sleepy Hollow, and upcoming projects like Damien, Friday the 13th and Tremors. I’m sure there’s so much more that will probably be announced by the time I finish typing this. All of that can be attributed to the power of The Walking Dead. These shows don’t even have to be good and people will watch them. Maybe they are good, but they’re just not your thing. The fact that we live in a world where TV networks are catering to all tastes and kinds of horror is something that will never cease to amaze me, and I suppose I have The Walking Dead to thank for that.