The Walking Dead: Sunday Night is TV Watching Night Again

For the first time since October 1996, I’ve found a TV show compelling enough to force me to plant my butt on my couch on Sunday nights.

For other like-minded geeks out there, you’ll know that 1996 was when The X-Files moved from Friday nights to Sunday nights. (Supergeek factoid: The episode that the show debuted with on its first Sunday night outing was “Unruhe,” a classic serial-killer-of-the-week episode that successfully served to introduce the show to a more mainstream audience.) The switch was among the FOX network’s more strategic moves, elevating the show from cult favorite to full-blown cultural phenomenon that would be the standard of late 90’s procedural dramas for the next decade.

And now, as then, I find myself giddily anticipating Sunday nights.

It’s not because of Family Guy, which I’ve relegated to watching on DVD or Hulu or reruns on TBS. It’s not because of Showtime’s Dexter, which ended its strongest season last year with John Lithgow’s guest stint as the Trinity Killer but seems a little “eh” this season with the introduction of Julia Stiles as a victimized woman using Dexter to eke out her own brand of revenge. Oddly, it’s also not because of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which although I’m a big fan of—and will probably buy on Blu-Ray once it’s out—can always be watched on demand.

My newly discovered appointment TV show is AMC’s impressive and ambitious The Walking Dead, whose disturbingly intense and emotionally compelling pilot episode premiered last night.

Full disclosure #1: I’ve only recently come into the fold of shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, so I feel late to the AMC game. I *know* they’re quality shows, but for whatever reason, I didn’t get into either of them until recently. But knowing that AMC – not NBC or CBS or FOX or God forbid, the CW – was putting this show on, I was fairly confident that the final product would be something worth watching.

Full disclosure #2: I’ve never really been a fan of zombies. I like my protagonists and antagonists smarter than your average bear, so characters that have an operating IQ at or below that of the Hulk (or Bizarro) just don’t have any appeal to me. My nerdy friends (mostly Sean) raved about the graphic novel on which the show is based, claiming that the story actually lends itself more to character development than just zombie killing antics.

Full disclosure #3: I’ve also never been a fan of post-apocalyptic stories (e.g., The Road, or CBS’ short-lived Jericho). There’s something very Left Behind-y about living in a world that’s been destroyed that makes me feel extremely claustrophobic.

That said, The Walking Dead completely shattered my expectations. I was engaged for the whole hour and a half—from the eerie opening sequence, which quickly tells us what kind of show this is (yes, this is a show where we kill zombies, even if they’re little girl zombies) to the chilling closing seconds, where Frank Darabont’s (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) skillful camera zooms out on the ravaged streets of Atlanta, the protagonist trapped inside a tank while zombies pile on like ants swarming on a juicy piece of candy.

Thrilling, intense, and—I can’t believe I’m saying this about a zombie TV show—emotionally affecting, the show uses the zombies to further character development and not just to heighten the stakes. Naturally, Lost-style, we know that there are “survivors” in this new post-apocalyptic world. We can also be fairly certain that in the weeks ahead, we’ll get to know each of these survivors and get around to liking them just before they become zombie dinner. (On a side note, from a zombie newbie: Why are some zombies less decay-ey than others? Do they eat more than other zombies do? And why don’t they just eat each other? Not fresh enough?)

When it comes down to it, the show isn’t really about zombies. It’s about the non-zombies who are trying to achieve some form of normalcy in their lives, juxtaposed against the fact that zombies are a very real threat to their existence (much like the Losties had to cope with polar bears and smoke monsters and such and much like Mulder and Scully had to do their jobs like good feds, despite the fact that there was a shadowy government conspiracy in cahoots with aliens trying to usurp their every move). That conceit is, in and of itself, quite compelling to begin with.

Based on the pilot episode, I’m hooked.

If I’m recalling correctly, this may be the first-ever zombie-based television show to grace the airwaves. Conceived any other way (cough, Glee, cough), this show would have fallen flat on its decaying face. Thankfully, there’s plenty here to chew on (pun fully intended) to make sure that I resurrect my Sunday night TV-viewing ritual around a groundbreaking show.

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