For television viewers 2010 will be remembered as the year that began with the arrival of the most brutal and graphic series in the history of the medium – Starz' gory gladiator epic Spartacus– and ended with the premiere of another show that is in many ways even more violent and shocking – AMC's The Walking Dead. Tellingly, both programs could have been slapdash cheese fests, in the rich traditions of the low-budget sword-and-sandal action movies and goofy zombie flicks that filled drive-ins and late-night pay cable schedules for decades. Both could have enjoyed instant distinction and ongoing discussion simply because they show things most series do not. They dare to go there. Instead, the integrity of their artistic visions and the uncompromised quality of their storytelling should make both of them strong contenders for many critics' annual best-of-the-year lists.
The difference between the two, of course, is that Spartacus is a pay cable series unfettered by content restrictions while The Walking Dead– a powerful horror story about a handful of people struggling to survive after most of the human population becomes man-eating monsters --is on advertiser supported basic cable, where it doesn't so much push the envelope as rip it to shreds. Not since The Shield has an original basic cable drama done so much so quickly to move beyond the understood limits of its medium. Like The Shield, it does so with such high standards and such a strong sense of purpose that it seems unlikely to generate much of a fuss. I can't say that it raises the bar for other television series about zombies, because there are no other ongoing series about walking corpses. Instead, I dare say that it raises the bar for zombie movies, which tend to shy away from detailed character development and focus instead on the terror at hand.
I've been catching up on the comic book series on which Dead is based, and it's pretty clear from the start (on the page and on the screen) that the title refers as much to the rag-tag human survivors of whatever happened to turn most of the population into mindless creatures that exist solely to consume the flesh of living humans and animals as to the creatures themselves. (I have no idea if the comic, which is still a hot seller after seven years, has ever provided an explanation as to how life as we know it came to so ghastly an end.) Emotionally and psychologically, many of the survivors are as dead as the zombies around them, an understandable end result of working so hard to stay alive when life doesn't offer the possibility of anything beyond an extension of their present despair. It is this narrative element that elevates Dead from a standard horror story to a strong human drama. Interestingly, it is clearest when the living confront the dead: A determined show of compassion by a police officer for a bisected zombie and a man's failed effort to eliminate the zombie that was once his wife are deeper and more profound moments than any of those shared by the survivors (at least during the first three episodes).
That's another thing that makes Dead so unique and so special; its ability to suddenly pull the viewer in and engage his or her sympathies on a primal level, even if he or she is busy trying to maintain a safe psychological distance from the unrelenting horror at hand. Dead is scary good fun to watch in a detached state, but it's a way more intense viewing experience with those periodic emotional connections. You have to feel for these people, even when they aren't particularly likeable, and you're reminded from time to time that the flesh-eating monsters deserve some compassion, as well.
I think AMC is making history here. There have been many anthology series over the years on broadcast, basic cable and pay cable that might be classified as horror (including Night Gallery, The Hitchhiker, Masters of Horror and Fear Itself) and even more ongoing dramas that contained strong horror elements (Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries among them), but I can't recall another series structured around a core group of characters that was a full-throttle, straight-forward horror show utterly devoid of humor, camp or general weirdness. That is, one that felt so damn real. How extraordinary it would be if The Walking Dead were successful enough in its freshman run to warrant additional seasons, and if those subsequent seasons were also timed to the arrival of Halloween. Should that happen, I'd like to see them debut earlier on October, so as to take advantage of and enhance the spirit of the season. Fresh Dead would be a wonderful addition to AMC's annual FearFest.