I’m not talking about how you might feel this morning.
I’m also not describing the lives of millions, even billions of other people. The commonality of human experience shows the majority of them over-worked, under-paid, dulled by the daily fight to make it through the day only so they can curl up in deepening shadows somewhere comparatively safe in order to rest for the next day’s battle. Alas, that’s not this essay, at least not directly.
Unless you’ve been isolated from contemporary culture, The Walking Dead instead refers to a ubiquitous television program. It’s no longer new; it’s been on for years, but as a cultural touchstone, it’s now entering a rarified space, at least as much as television can ever be rarified. It’s become a cross-cultural reference point that somehow plays to vast audiences in a time when audiences of any substantial mass are more fragmented and distracted than ever before. It’s even about to spawn a spinoff—like a zombie bite!—to air while the other program continues along with it’s own narrative.
The show is profoundly bleak and does not apologize for itself. The product of a creative team as precise as old-school watchmakers, it works hard to present ethical conundrums for viewers. For some of those viewers the ethical “what ifs” and “what would you dos” are themselves socially redeeming aspects. (Educational television!) The show also works hard to demonstrate a multi-ethnic, multi-class camaraderie among the story’s main band of survivors, traits specifically targeted to present a progressive, positive social value amid the carnage and decay. But the going is hard. Even if every character doesn’t survive—and they occasionally go down in shockingly sudden and dramatic ways—the show presents an overarching optimism without every trading in maudlin sentimentality. Soaked in gore, wrapped in filthy clothes, and trading in depravities of wide and varying assortments, the Walking Dead shines on television. Scripts move like a precision instruments. There’s rarely a false camera angle; there’s hardly ever an extraneous scene. Where some might overlook the art direction for it’s studied decrepitude and squalor, there’s a vibrance and energy in the frame that simultaneously describes fantasy and edgy mortality. It works as a left- leaning paean to the collective spirit of humane, like-minded folk pulling together for the common good. It also works as a right-leaning horn sounding out for American ideals of individualism, survival on the frontier, liberty, and manifest destiny. See what you want to see, hear what you want to hear. Zombies are equal opportunity people eaters.
That mortal fantasy is the crux of the show’s genius and the singular reason why it’s so successful. Without a complex and sophisticated playbook of narrative rules governing the program’s engine, the action would be little more than splashing around in a shallow pool. Instead, The Walking Dead taps into a deep sea of anxieties and simultaneous wish fulfillment and social means testing. It even studiously avoids religious implications, a calculation clearly designed not to polarize a hyper-sensitized, fractious audience. When the series spent a few episodes in a church with a fallen member of the clergy, the show carefully avoided sermonizing, turning potentially perilous religious digressions into little more than narrative details. The production never turned the church into a metaphor, nor the preacher into a archetype. As a result, viewers brought themselves to the story without theistic friction interfering with more visceral realities. Besides, zombies may be walking dead, but in The Walking Dead, zombies are hardly the biggest threat. Audiences know that zombies can ruin a picnic, but it’s other humans who can really make a good day turn bad.
It’s interesting to consider The Walking Dead’s cultural twin. Game of Thrones presents a multi-class, multi-ethnic view of a world awash in endless, fearful uncertainty, both for individuals as well as for entire civilizations. Torment and pain are the currency of the day, with momentary pleasures largely narcotic distractions from inevitable grime and anguish. It’s superb and also tragically sad. If this along with The Walking Dead have become cultural touchstones for the era— the engines of our fantasies— there’s something profoundly amiss. (Full disclosure: I’m hooked on both.) We do not long for anguish exactly, but we tune in to watch it befall others in wide and varied forms as a means of comforting ourselves that our own existences are not quite as rough. As the boxer Jake LaMotta, played by Robert DeNiro, said in Raging Bull, “That’s entertainment.”
Creative people know the dilemmas inherent in trying to survive grinding pressures day to day. They may not face mortal threats by tooth or blade, but the pressures to endure in a world of endless, often winner-take-all competition, can dilute standards and values to the most base denominators.
Ironically, these shows are also strangely aspirational. Where Star Trek made people dream of utopian civilizations based on noble ethical guidelines, The Walking Dead makes people decide what kind of person they are right now. Where shows like ER and NYPD Blue once made us identify with intentionally flawed characters, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones makes us identify with the decisions and attitudes of those characters more than actually care about what happens to them. We go for the ride so we can do thought experiments about ourselves, and if one of them gets eaten or stabbed…well…one of these other characters will pick up the narrative thread, right?
This is, of course, an inverted view of what’s aspirational – a profound change from the way goofy evening soaps like Dynasty used to be aspirational for those craving lives of wealth and fame. These modern programs show inverted aspirations because they’re about worlds were people can do whatever the hell they want, but only if they’re tough enough to make it to the next day. It reminds us of the 24-7 edginess that stalks us all tweet by tweet. In the larger culture both programs reinforce a growing sense of social Darwinism, something people feel more and more each day as every single click and movement in our lives gets measured for it’s influence. Ask any teenager who carefully cultivates a rising total of social media followers. Everything we do these days is either incrementally helping us advance (and thus endure) or harming us, proving our less-than-worthy value in a survival of the fittest world. Viewers watch these shows with a knowing glance over their shoulders. Many people believe (dangerously) that we’re really not that far from a form of social collapse preordained by these fictions.
Our media and entertainments simply reflects our reality. These programs are roman à clefs for our times.