Last weekend I started Season 5 of The Walking Dead. It had been a year since I had watched it, having to suffer the requisite Netflix waiting period, and the details of where the story was picking up were murky. But it didn’t matter. One doesn’t really watch The Walking Dead for the plot. One watches it for the shock. Here was this episode’s shock (jump after the picture to avoid it, though it’s not a plot spoiler):
The season opened with four men getting their heads smashed with baseball bats, and having their throats sliced and bodies hung over a slaughtering trough to drain their blood so they could be butchered, cooked, and eaten. This was before the opening title sequence.When this episode aired, October 12, 2014, 17.3 Million viewers tuned in. The Season 6 debut last week reached even further, with 19.5 Million viewers.
The Walking Dead, on AMC, is is the most popular scripted television program in cable history. And it’s not even close. Its fifth season was the 4th most watched program on all of TV, behind Big Bang Theory, Sunday Night Football, and NCIS. The next highest cable program (not counting football) is Game of Thrones, which ranks 45th.
Which means that, when it comes to cable television, there is something different about The Walking Dead. This isn’t news. The combination of brutal violence, apocalyptic horror, and human melodrama makes The Walking Dead as addicting as it is entertaining. There’s just nothing like this on TV.
At least for now.
AMC is looking for more. They’ve created their spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, in hopes of capturing the direct runoff from The Walking Dead audience. But they also have another non-superhero comic book adaptation that features extreme violence and a lot of walking in the works: Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. The show is being developed by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Sam Caitlin, and debuts January, 2016. The preacher in Preacher is Reverend Custer, who is possessed by supernatural powers, kills his congregation, and sets out across the US in a search for God (who has vacated heaven, and left the world a bit of a mess).
The Walking Dead is the gold standard of genre television, when it comes to ratings, anyway, and any executive at any network would be foolish not to seek out some of that post-apocalyptic magic. Buckets of blood can be expected in Preacher, which is one of the most violent comics books from a major publisher that I’ve ever encountered. If the gleeful exploitation of violence is the secret sauce of The Walking Dead, then AMC is on the right track with Preacher.
AMC, though, is not alone on that track. Looking at the slate of comic book inspired TV adaptations that are on the horizon (Den of Geek listed 39 of them earlier this week. 39!), it’s clear as a decomposed rib-cage that The Walking Dead‘s success merits comparison for nearly all non-superhero titles (Sex Criminals and The Wicked and Divine are exceptions).
Right down the list one can see The Walking Dead‘s influence: Infinite Horizon, Outcast (written by The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman), Enormous, and most directly, George Romero’s Empire of the Dead. All linger right near the edges of the model created by The Walking Dead. This makes sense from the business standpoint. It also creates a vacuum towards the violence-inspired graphic stories that should make fans of comics wonder what will happen to their favorite titles.
Which brings us to Y.
Last week, FX announced a plan to develop the science-fiction comic book series Y: The Last Man for television. Y: The Last Man was created by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra in 2002. The book spanned 60 issues and ran until 2008. It is one of the most beloved science fiction stories in comics. Among the show’s developers is Y creator Brian K. Vaughan himself.
Y: The Last Man is a post-apocalyptic narrative. It tells the story of Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand, who one day find themselves the last two males on earth. Life as the only man on the planet is, it turns out, a raw deal, and the ensuing 60 issues will find Yorick and Ampersand hunted, imprisoned, desired, studied, all in the name of finding the secret that kept Yorick alive, and how the rest of the Y chromosomes might come back.
This is not the first attempt to adapt Y for the screen. The rights have bandied about since 2008 in various attempts to bring the story to TV and film. But cable seems like the right place for Y, and with Vaughan on board in development (it’s not his first show, he also created the now-canceled Stephen King adaptation Under the Dome) this time it seems fairly likely that Yorick will have his day on the tube.
Even though Y has very little overlap with a book like The Walking Dead, it’s easy to see how FX might encourage Vaughan to make his science-fiction story into a rehashed post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario like The Walking Dead, or any of the other titles listed above. It’s got maniacal tribal communities committing horrific acts of violence. It has seemingly peaceful communities hiding some seriously dark shit. It even has a badass African American woman that accompanies Yorick on his worldwide journey. Agent 355 appears as a tough-as-nails assassin-style bodyguard slowly revealing depths that previously seemed lost to the world.
The point is, if a network was inclined to make an adaptation of Y: The Last Man, and said network was particularly interested in the success of The Walking Dead as a model, it would not be that difficult to turn up the violence and melodrama of walking for years in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and turn down the humor, science-fiction, and unique brand of comic-adventuring that Vaughan and Guerra brought to readers for six years with Y.
Such a result would be a shame. Science-fiction on cable has had little staying power over the last decade (RIP: Battlestar Galactica), and despite the “best” efforts of SyFy Channel and others to bring about a resurgence of intelligent, high-quality science-fiction to TV, that hasn’t happened. Y: The Last Man is a title that could inspire that level of sci-fi TV.
But it seems more likely, from an FX standpoint, that the show will try to emulate what works: The Walking Dead.
Which should lead us to wonder if The Walking Dead is the new Chuck Lorre sitcom. It is popular beyond belief (The Big Bang Theory only draws about 2 Million more viewers than The Walking Dead), with strong critical approval while always being excluded from that prestige TV category (both The Big Bang Theory and Walking Dead have strong consensus of positive reviews), and an influence upon the television landscape that far exceeds the success of the show itself (ratings for both Walking Dead and Big Bang remain superb, apparently able to weather any changes).
But the thing about Chuck Lorre’s success: it’s making TV worse. The success of The Big Bang Theory is dragging down network sitcoms, leading to the cancelation of funny weird shows like Happy Endings and leaving in its wake bilge like 2 Broke Girls. The Walking Dead holds this same capacity. Over the next few years, if not already, it will change the development habits of scripted cable TV. And before its grasp captures classic books like Y: The Last Man, it behooves all viewers to wonder just how much blood, and how little drama, they want.