Just in case anyone had forgotten, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is still television’s mightiest show. The ongoing proof of that statement, which has been valid for several seasons, came on Sunday when the numbers for its season five premiere (more than 17 million viewers) made it the series’ highest rated episode to date and, according to reports, the top-rated drama program in the history of cable television.
This news came just after all the excitement over at FX, where last week the fourth season of “American Horror Story,” titled “Freak Show,” itself broke all kinds of records. Its Live +3 numbers (10 million viewers and counting) made it the highest rated telecast in the history of the network.
It should come as no surprise that the season premieres of these franchises performed well, as they were both superior in many ways to the first episodes of their previous seasons last fall. As to whether or not anyone could have guessed that they would smash records the way they did – or that “The Walking Dead” would triumph among adults 18-49 in direct time period competition with NBC’s Sunday Night Football – well, I think not, especially because both series have been around for a while and are at an age when shows that are not comedies traditionally enter into ratings declines. (Mention should also be made here of the season premiere of AMC’s brilliantly conceived, low-budget chat show “Talking Dead,” which set its own record at almost seven million viewers, making it a big hit in its own right.)
Of course, having such easy access via streaming and on demand services to previous seasons of ongoing series – especially those with fabulously addictive qualities, a category into which both “Dead” and “AHS” readily fit – seems to be working to the advantage of almost every current show. Would “Dead” and “AHS” be going through the roof if streaming and bingeing weren’t widespread things? There is no way to tell for sure, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to identify a connection. Nor is it unreasonable to assert that even without possible pumping from streaming options these superior shows would be doing very well.
Several years ago I wrote a column about “Dead” and “AHS,” which were both new to television at the time and were both rather forcefully raising bars with their presentations of extreme horror, violence, sexual activity, terror, blood, guts, murderous behavior (not necessarily of the supernatural variety) and general occult themes – all looked down on once upon a time by viewers, critics and the advertising community. In that column I praised the overall quality of both shows but questioned how much might be too much – especially for advertisers.
Now I have my answer: When it comes to scaring or grossing out television viewers, especially in younger demographics, too much of the above is never enough. And given the ratings both shows are reaping, they are big wins for their advertisers, as well. Frankly, and perhaps strangely, I was eager to see on Sunday night if Microsoft was going to continue its association with “The Walking Dead” with yet another zombie-themed commercial. It did, in a spot with a twist (the menacing zombies were enthusiastic TV party-goers) that ended by directing viewers to Twitter to “share how they prepare to watch” the show via the hashtag #myTWD.
I won’t go into great detail here about why I thought these two season premieres were so great – that’s fodder for future columns as the current seasons of each progresses. But in short, “Dead” delivered an episode that was in many ways hugely rewarding for viewers who may have been growing tired of watching their beloved band of zombie apocalypse survivors suffer one terrible loss after another. In this episode they all kicked butt and got themselves out of a yet another nightmarish situation (the Terminus scenario), one that wasn’t allowed to drag on endlessly (like the darkly depressing prison storyline). And the characters made smart choices that saved their bacon (again unlike the prison saga, which dragged along while the characters seemed to grow more clueless by the week).
I defy any fan of “The Walking Dead” to complain about anything he or she saw in Sunday’s episode or to say that they aren’t waiting with breathless anticipation for next week’s show.
As for “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” I thought it got off to a smart start, swiftly and thoughtfully introducing a host of fascinating new characters. Many of them have their own storylines, but they all seem to exist on the same canvas and be a part of each other’s lives, which was not the case last fall with the muddled “Coven.” The latter started out messy and never cleaned itself up; “Freak Show” already feels formal and complete.
It doesn’t hurt that this franchise is always filled with amazing performances by big stars, but I once again have to direct most of my praise toward its shining centerpiece, Jessica Lange. It’s amazing to me that she has made the four women she has portrayed in this franchise -- all mad and mysterious to different degrees – stand out and so clearly apart from each other. She deserves all those Emmys she has been collecting, and I suspect she may have to make room for yet another for her portrayal of carnival impresario Elsa Mars.
Ed Martin is the Editor of MediaBizBloggers. He is also the television and video critic for MyersBizNet. Follow him on Twitter at @PlanetEd.
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