The problems with television horror/suspense have been numerous over the years. Despite the early ground breaking of such shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, a lot of what television has had to offer in terms of spooky were rubber masks and over acting. Producers felt comfortable in talking down to horror audiences in terms of plot structure and character development, betting on the belief that most fans left their higher brains at the door. A few shafts of light broke through for the diehards, such as the original version of the Dark Shadows series or the short lived Kolchak the Night Stalker (whose fans included X-Files creator Chris Carter). But for the most part, despite the explosion of horror in movies and other media in the last 30 years, T.V. treated the genre like a stepchild, left alone in a sad corner of the Syfy Network.
That changed dramatically with the coming (shambling?) of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Based on Robert Kirkman’s on-going graphic novel, the T.V. series explores the travails and trials of a group of Georgia-based survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. While not the first T.V. horror offering to take plot and character seriously, Walking Dead broke new ground in several ways. One, the critics (for the most part), embraced it, giving positive reviews never seen for a horror themed series. Secondly, it clobbered the competition in the Sunday time slot despite not featuring “name” actors or directors.
To see a show like Walking Dead escape the “put-the-weird-show-on Friday-night -because-no-one-is watching” ghetto was a game changer. AMC has experienced a viewing explosion, complete with viewing parties, Twitter feeds and a Walking Dead feedback wrap-up show following each première. And, trust us, other network programmers sat up and took notice.
This fall, viewers have seen such offerings as FX’s long-delayed American Horror Story, a twisted, sexy ghost story straight from the heart of David Lynch, ABC’s One Upon Time, which promises a dark spin on classic fairy tale characters and NBC’s Grimm, which brings the famous brothers cautionary characters to 21st Century life. By the Halloween weekend, horror fans will be able to sit down to a feast of the weird after a generation of famine.
However, the biggest question may still be lurking out there in the graveyard of T.V. land: How good is this stuff? Walking Dead’s season two is off to a solid start with plot twists and character conflicts torn out of the George Romero handbook. Perhaps producers only long term fear is the knowledge that fans are more wedded to Zombie doctrinal lore (i.e. shamblers vs. runners, brights vs. dumbs) than any of the individual actors or performances. American Horror Story shows promise as the onion skin nature of the haunted abode comes out via episodic flashback and narrative. If the able writing team can avoid the usual logical trap of why the brain dead characters just don’t eventually pack and leave the scary house, they may have something.