Nobody wanted to touch it. Zombie movies, sure. They had their own kitschy, niche appeal. But a television show, intended for a mass audience, hoping to hook, well, whom exactly? Yes, zombies are popular enough with the goth-emo hybrids haunting Hot Topic and classic horror movie buffs, and comic book zombies will always have their place… but a show about zombies — for a mass television audience? All that gore, all that darkness (or just downright absurdity, depending on how you look at it) just didn't seem like the safest of bets. But then AMC decided to give The Walking Dead a shot, even if it was a shot in the dark.
And zing, to the surprise and delight of masses of viewers looking for something fresh, that shot hit home. How exactly did this happen? How did a story and concept that were originally intended to entice and entertain your average male comic book reader between the ages of eighteen and forty manage to expand its horizons so broadly? Not without a natural evolution from one medium, and one audience, to another.
(At this point, any reader who is not yet caught up on the show or the comic books should proceed with the caution of a live body in a warehouse full of the undead. There will be pitfalls and spoilers around every corner.)
Firstly, it will come as a surprise to many viewers that this popular TV show even began as a monthly comic book series. Because it is presented in an entirely different medium rife with changes both necessary and simply aesthetic, the television show now stands firmly on its own. Many of the show's viewers, one would venture to guess, would be disappointed or even shocked at some of the elements in Robert Kirkman's well-loved comic books.
Perhaps the most popular addition, and one of the greatest boons to the success of the show, created entirely for the show, is the character of Daryl, who has edged out the popularity even of the series' hero, Rick. With legions of fans sporting tees that read "If Daryl Dies, We Riot," the show's fans have resolutely had their say. Norman Reedus took a character that was perhaps initially intended as little more than an extra to be slaughtered and breathed into him life, charm, and complexity worthy of a true champion and heartthrob. There are also characters we all loved to hate, who got to stick around on screen far longer than they did in paper and ink. Shane, the sexy, dangerous villain who became increasingly, mesmerizingly unhinged and created a complex love triangle between himself, Lori, and Rick, was just too good to toss out in the first or second episode. Lasting nearly all the way through season two, Jon Bernthal also took on a depth not seen in his comic book counterpart, and became the cause of not just one but two awkward romantic triangles – a formula that will always be a favorite with TV viewers.
Shane's second conquest, Andrea of the famed young lady/older man romance with Dale in the comic books, evolved into a woman that is a far cry from her comic book equivalent. Already cast as significantly older than she was in the comic books to make the TV viewing audience less uncomfortable with her potential romantic relationship with Dale, the grey-bearded sage of the group, Andrea begins a reckless fling with the unruly Shane in the second season of the show, showing that the show's drama and appeal come as much from the tearing of heartstrings and the raging of passion as the ripping and devouring of actual flesh and blood. And let's face it, TV audiences usually go for evenly-matched couples, in sex appeal and good looks as well as age. Little more than hinted at, any prospect of a romance between Dale and Andrea dies when the character himself is prematurely killed off. Although this was due mostly to the actor Jeffery DeMunn's decision to follow Frank Darabont's exit when he chose to step down as executive producer due to the show's exhausting schedule, so we can only guess as to whether this line would have been pursued had Dale's character gone on living. Incidentally, favorites of the former producer of The Walking Dead, Demunn and Bernthal will both be in Darabont's newest project, Lost Angels.
While still considered edgy for television, the show has also toned down other risk factors besides mismatched romances. Children. They are sacred, the preservation of their safety hits far too close to home for most of us. Whatever else we are ready for, we're apparently not ready to see them die on screen. Just how far does the show push this dilemma? So far, unlike in the comic book series, all the major deaths of kids have occurred off-camera, leaving us with only the aftermath – Sophia stumbling out of Hershel's barn in walker form in one of the show's most gut-wrenching reveals, the small girl zombie Rick encounters in the first episode, Morgan's young son's death only told of in dramatic monologue—are all quite upsetting enough for most of us, thankyouverymuch. One wonders what will become of the infant Judith, whose presence lends an almost unbearable tension to the group, as she dies in possibly the most shocking (but hardly the only) incident of child murder in the comic books.
With all the changes, one wonders where the show will take us next. Certainly Hershel has morphed into Dale's doppelgänger as the group's calm voice of reason, and the popular comic book character Michonne has been introduced to the group (albeit in a more multifaceted, and therefore more relatable and less comic-book form), much to the delight of her old and new fans, but one still gets at least the impression that nothing is off limits – that anything could happen, anyone could be the next causality. And that's exactly where they want us. Because not only are we fascinated by how much more these characters can take, we are darkly fascinated by how much more we, as viewers of this unprecedented television material, can handle.