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Millenials Love the Dead

October 15, 2014

Apologies, this is a long post, but the media has been questioning why “Walking Dead” season 5 premiere had such ratings dominance this past Sunday. Here’s some thoughts, and thoughts of the Millenial Generation, writ large.

AVclub: “The Walking Dead broke ratings records again” by By Sean O’Neal:

This year the debut of the AMC’s show fifth season pulled in 17.3 million viewers, which is around a million more viewers than watched the fourth season premiere, the last time it was breaking records. Some 11 million of those were adults 18 to 49, giving it an 8.7 rating in that demo—and putting it in the running to be the most-watched television anything of the week.

E!online: “The Walking Dead Premiere Breaks Ratings Records—Again!” by Chris Harnick:

“It’s a Dead man’s party. Who could ask for more?” Charlie Collier, AMC president, said in a statement.

The Walking Dead is one of those increasingly rare shows today that can command a live audience not significantly cannibalized by time-shifted viewing. Who would have thought that cannibalized television could be curtailed by cannibal-ized television?”

Time: “Why The Walking Dead Is So Brutal–and So Popular” by James Poniewozik (with a really neat javascript that blurs spoilers):

Extreme is the new mainstream… It used to be, in TV, that you had mainstream entertainment and then you had edgy entertainment. Mainstream hits, generally, offered familiarity and security… The Walking Dead, on the other hand, is a nightmare–which millions of people want to visit every week. So what gives? I see a few factors:

* Nothing is really mainstream anymore. You have to look at any ratings story today in the context of shrinking audiences generally.

* The youngs love their zombies! … viewers under 50–also known as the chief reason advertisers pay money for ads

* America loves dark. … truly ugly stories of sadistic, often sexually charged violence that imply we all live in a sick, sad world filled with predators.

* These are dark times. … an apocalyptic drama lets us face the end of the world once a week and live.

* Authenticity pays off. .. I haven’t always loved The Walking Dead as a drama–its characters can be one-note, and its ambitions as a character drama can get lost amid the kill-quotient-of-the-week. But I will say this for it: it freaking commits. It’s dedicated to showing the raw implications of its premise, … In an age of extremes, no one wants to settle for half-measures.

In response to the Time article, in BloombergView: “Millennials Are Living ‘The Walking Dead’” by Stephen L. Carter:

The show is true. Not the zombie business, but the coming collapse of authority. She and her friends don’t believe that the government will able to protect them if great disaster strikes. That disaster will strike is a given. When it does, she said, young people will have to look out for themselves

The Time article says we live in a dark age, but the deeper truth is that we live in a frightened age. Even if one believes, as some do, that things are getting better — that it’s a combination of media hype and the availability heuristic that makes people fearful — the concerns are nevertheless real.

young people in particular.

fewer than one out of five millennials believes that other people can generally be trusted, according to the Pew Research Center. (For baby boomers, the figure is 40 percent.)

No faith in government, no optimism about the future, no trust in other people. That’s what we’ve bequeathed to the young. Record viewership for “The Walking Dead”? The only surprise is that the ratings aren’t higher still.

Speaking of Millennials consider the article in Vanity Fair: “Generation Wuss” by Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis is also writer of the movie “The Canyons” which I have said I think is a movie with significant zombie themes, and also the movie “American Psycho”. In the Vanity Fair piece, Ellis wrote:

my reaction stems from the fact that I am looking at Millenials from the POV of a member of one of the most pessimistic and ironic generations that has ever roamed the earth—Generation X

Oh Gen-X’s pessimistic irony. The idea of being upset at the loss of authority makes no sense to those who have made irony their authority. The zombies of “Walking Dead” are not ironic zombies. They are actual fucking zombies. This is the bravado of some Millenials, see in AsiaOne: “From zombies to demon possession” by Alison De Souza of The Straits Times:

Graphic novelist Robert Kirkman may be singlehandedly responsible for the zombie revival in popular culture

“I can be cocky,” says Kirkman,

Singlehandedly! Ha! Just like Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, right? It is the return of Great Man narratives, an insistence on a master narrative where individuals act to do great things. But it’s always more than one person, a wild collaboration of all sorts of conscious and unconscious conceptual blending. Some Millennials are able to displace the irony and demand self-validation. They are able to appear as if to create themselves. But others are easily less successful or more easily deflated. The same phenomenon that creates these amazing individuals makes what Ellis sees as wussy. That’s the contradiction that propelled Michael Cera’s early career. But it’s hard to keeping acting as one coherent individual in a world of so many overlapping old dead symbols.

Vulture: “Why Do People Watch The Walking Dead? Your Pressing TV Questions, Answered” by Margaret Lyons:

I cannot explain the popularity of The Walking Dead. I don’t get it at all.

Are people ultimately good? Does humanity crave society? What is the difference between consciousness and sentience?

if you tried it and it wasn’t for you, don’t feel compelled to take another look.

This is the attitude most people have towards those deep unanswerable questions of human nature. Some people enjoy indulging in these questions, others find them uncomfortable. And largely, people think it’s ok to ignore them if you don’t enjoy it. The zombie questions are for a cult academic audience only.

The Vulture article continues with answers to some other questions and the answer become somewhat related to zombies. One question is about the confusion of new media distribution models (see cable wars) and the difficulty finding shows on which service. The next question is about the limits of disbelief in watching unrealistic television:

Even if its entertaining, can you reconcile judging a show that basically purports to be realistic as great when it is totally unrealistic?

This is a common objection to zombie stories but Lyons points to how much non-reality some people are willing to accept in other TV drama:

I don’t think The Good Wife purports to be realistic about the practice of law, though, any more than in purports to be realistic about being set in Chicago when you can see the Empire State Building in the background and there are yellow cabs everywhere. It’s not that I don’t share your frustration — watching people with spaghetti arms do CPR on TV makes me want to cry into 10,000 Red Cross certifications — it’s just that so little of my enjoyment of shows relies on their ostensible veracity.

Is that applicable to other parts of real life too? Is truth and veracity not really as reliable as we may expect? Is there a better measure of reality? (consider zombie lies) Lyons continues:

Are there real emotions? Do people have coherent points of view — not ones you agree with or ones that are good necessarily, but consistent ones, at least? Do all the characters seem like they’re in the same world? Does it seem like the characters do things when they’re not onscreen? Do different characters have different voices, or do they all sound like variations on one writer? Does anyone make jokes?

Jokes are dangerous without a coherent frame of reference. Lyons concludes the Q&A article with a recommendation to watch one of the most wholesome zombie shows still around, suitable for all generations:

You seek Degrassi (sometimes known as Degrassi: The Next Generation). The show returns for its 14th season at the end of October, but there’s no real need to catch up on the previous hundreds of episodes.

Kirkman would suggest you check out his new show, see again the AsiaOne article cited above which quotes Robert Kirkman about future plans for a project about demons:

Zombies are not real and they’re never going to be real. But there is this phenomenon with demonic possession where there’s this huge number of people worldwide who actually believe this could be a real thing, and that makes it so much scarier and so much more tangible.

Haha, that’s funny that he said zombies aren’t real but demons could be. That’s smart marketing but what makes Kirkman think that? Has he sold his soul to a demon? Is that how he knows? Is that how he became the figurehead symbol of this cultural movement?

At 35 he is an elder Millenial or a baby Gen-X. It doesn’t matter. If zombies are not real then neither are generational differences. Except of course, zombies are real. Just like hippies, and freaks and geeks. Acclaimed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asked in 1968, in Modern Times: “Are Hippies Real?” He concluded that regardless Hippies would affect the future. In 1978, Russell Baker suggested the freak was being replaced by the zombie. And not long after, the Millenials started being born.

Still, the question of authenticity in any of group is difficult. Modern authors have to spend a lot of time in public playing the part of the author (consider George RR Martin for “Game of Thrones”). Their appearance adds authenticity to the product, they are as much writers are they are actors (also consider again Brett Easton Ellis and the all those of the Gen-X poser irony camp). Some people find a way to appear as if existing in a state of flow (another Csikszentmihalyi concept) but like access to a network stream, flow doesn’t come cheap (Faustian bargains are more expensive than Comcast). Is it any wonder that many Millenials enjoy Anonymous? Otherwise like Harvey Milk, GoT Dead?

got dead

Yet despite the appeal of Anon, we cannot deny that we are people in bodies with histories. See this piece in io9: “We Are All Living Among the Dead” by Annalee Newitz. Newitz is dealing with some personal grief but let’s consider her thoughts more metaphorically. She is writing about dead people but consider the dead as all the symbols of language that surround us, all the old memes, and all the ways of interpreting and reinterpreting the world, she writes:

The longer you live, the more likely it is that your everyday life is inhabited by the dead. You see an old friend, who died last week, disappearing into a crowd. You hear your father, dead last year, cracking jokes you once loved. It’s like a zombie movie, only more melancholy — and with fewer obvious ways to survive.

I think our fantasies of zombies and ghosts are ways of explaining this feeling, this sense that the dead are still out there broadcasting and walking around. Just because someone has died doesn’t mean they don’t continue to shape our lives.

If only it were as easy to dispatch my sadness as it is to shoot a zombie straight through the eyes.

Hey you, out there — please stay alive with me. There are no zombies to fight. We only have each other.

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