The season two premiere of AMC's Walking Dead set a record as the most-watched basic cable drama, skyrocketing some 38 percent from its freshman ratings, netting 7.3 million viewers in total, and spelling out both the lasting power of AMC and the doom of several other cable shows.
The 90-minute TV premiere was the highest watched for a single dramatic episode in two key demos, breaking a basic cable record held steady for over ten years. 4.2 million viewers were 25-54 year-old adults and the coveted 18-49 young adult demographic checked in at 4.8 million viewers.
The zombie drama, based on the still-running Robert Kirkman comic books, is no stranger to strong ratings and good reviews. The series, which stars Andrew Lincoln, Jon Berthal, and Sarah Wyne Callies, depicts the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, with survivors from Atlanta, Ga. struggling to stay alive and find a place for themselves. It premiered on Halloween night, Oct. 30, in 2010, where it drew 5.3 million viewers and a 2.7 million rating in the 18-49 demo, the largest demo audience for any series premiere that year.
Many fans had expressed concern about season 2 after Frank Darabont, the original showrunner, was fired by AMC some days after he promoted the show to Comic Con audiences in July.
Darabont, who as creator and producer had helped make Dead the biggest ratings hit for AMC thus far, was dedicated to preserving the feel and plot of the original comic. Darabont has said nothing about the firing, and his lawyer says he has no interest in talking to the press.
Whether because of curiosity or continued devotion to the show, however, Dead stood tall. Combined with encore airings, the zombie drama's premiere drew 11 million viewers in total.
AMC on Rise, Cable Shows in Trouble
The Walking Dead came to TV with some pretty impressive older brothers. Mad Men, the 1960s advertising drama and AMC's first big hit, was entering its fourth season with ever-increasing viewership and widespread critical acclaim and countless nominations and wins, including several Emmys, AFI Awards, and Golden Globes.
Breaking Bad, AMC's second success, was even more immediately lauded, with some critics calling it one of the greatest dramas of all time. It too achieved good ratings, with several Emmys and over 40 nominations for various other awards and prizes.
The Walking Dead, however, has left its brethren in the dust. It's one of those rare television programs, AMC president Charlie Collier told The Hollywood Reporter, that reaches both a core genre fan as well as great audiences looking for a great, character-based story.
Robert Kirkman was similarly impressed by the show, which he has followed (and guided) closely. I'm absolutely floored, he said of the show's success in basic cable records, adding that he was glad the drama has departed somewhat from his original story: If it was just the comic book adapted directly, I would be completely bored with the show by now.
As The Walking Dead took off in reviews and in rating, other basic cable shows were hurt by the competition. Desperate Housewives hit a season low, The Good Wife was knocked down several places from its usual ratings, and Pan Am, the already tenuous new ABC dramedy, dropped below a 2.0 rating.
Now that Walking Dead has made such a strong showing, the next few episodes should set any lingering doubts about a Darabont-less show completely to rest.
Season 2 Spoilers
Season 2 will reportedly see Lincoln's Rick Grimes being to question his leadership, both as the head of the survivors and as a father. Flashbacks will help fill in some of the characters' pasts, and the love triangle between Lori (Collins), Rick, and Shane (Bernthal) will be expanded. Other spoilers: Andrea, coming off of a failed suicide attempt, will begin a character evolution that will eventually transform her into the fearless sharpshooter she is in the original comics.
Perhaps the biggest change this season, however, is an expansion of the human world, including (spoiler alert!) its less savory characters. Zombies are a threat, Kirkman told The St. Petersburg Times, but to a certain extent, they're a manageable threat. What truly terrifying, he teases, is the threat of your fellow man: You can never really predict human behavior.
As human failings amp up the drama, however, the call of the zombie will remain a big draw, precisely because of what it reveals about human nature. Zombie stories, more than any kind of monster story, forces the creative talent to focus intently on the human drama, said Kirkman. Because zombies have no personality, they have no motives, they're just an unrelenting force.
Stories like 'The Walking Dead' end up being more about protecting your children or working well with others, he concluded. That's the universal appeal of a survival story.