AMC’s massive publicity campaign for The Walking Dead paid off for the premiere, with 5.3 million viewers and a Coveted Demographic rating that surpasses quite a few major network shows. Of course it will drop in future episodes, but it’s dropping from a number that was inconceivable for this network even a year ago — 5.3 million is more than Community has gotten for all but one episode this season (the Zombie episode, of course). As Jeremy Mongeau said on Twitter, it seems to be AMC’s True Blood, a monster show adapted from a pre-existing property, offering a perfect combination of low and high.
The low: extreme violence that even a modern-day broadcast network could not get away with. (The instantly-famous “it’s okay because it’s a zombie” shooting scene would still probably not be allowed on a broadcast show, zombie or no zombie.) The high: A dose of social commentary and emphasis on moral issues — are the humans the real monsters? — that makes it okay to enjoy the violence and soapy elements. Some commentators are annoyed by True Blood‘s pretensions, but they’re a necessary part of what makes the show so popular. The sense that True Blood is a high-class show, and not just an Aaron Spelling thing with more fangs and more breasts, means that it can be enjoyed by people who would not normally tune in for a pure escapist romp. Walking Dead is more serious and downbeat than True Blood, based on a property that is more serious in tone than the Sookie books. But it has the crossover appeal of a lot of good “serious” comics — which, as the Scott Pilgrim movie proved, doesn’t extend to comic adaptations that don’t take themselves seriously at all. They work for people who like broad, extreme comic book action and those who want something that isn’t so comic book-ish.
I have no idea what other networks are going to do for their inevitable monster shows (update: as a commenter correctly noted, I forgot to mention that the CW has already done this with The Vampire Diaries), though you can certainly see why NBC wants to remake The Munsters. It does seem like adaptations of pre-existing properties are really good bets for this kind of show. Maybe special effects are finally cheap enough that a network will try bringing back this guy on a TV budget.