Disclaimer: The thoughts in this article evolved over the course of watching the series through Season 3 Episode 8. The only plot references are fairly inconsequential from Season 1. Consider it spoiler free.
So what is it that we find so captivating about The Walking Dead?
I originally had the shows popularity pegged as some form of inverted escapism; reminding us that our lives really aren't that bad after all. The Housing Bubble, the Great Recession, The Fiscal Cliff; catch phrases that amount to dashed dreams and lost opportunities for most Americans. Young adults living at home. Non-existent career opportunities. Disappearing retirement funds. After watching an episode of The Walking Dead you can't help but sit back in your cozy couch or warm bed and let out a heavy sigh of relief.
But the more I reflected on my enthusiastic conversations about the show, the more this theory fell flat. As time passed I perceived not repulsion, but excitement. A yearning.
I searched deeper, asking what could possibly be attracting me to the world of The Walking Dead.
In the end I realized, The Walking Dead is our familiar old friend Escapism after all.
Yes, the characters have lost the most basic needs that we daily take for granted. But, they have gained much which seems hopelessly out of grasp from our modern lives.
Glenn's story is a straightforward example: Before the outbreak he was a pizza delivery guy. Now he is a man; confident in his abilities and his identity, he has purpose, and is part of a community that depends on him and who he trusts in return. There is the thrill of an adventure and also a sense of direct control of his destiny. The challenge that confronts him is large, but it is also simple and tangible. His mission - the survival of humanity - gives glory to his daily life.
Maslows Hiearchy of Needs has been flipped on it's head.
Modern society has spent an immense amount of energy securing physiological and safety needs. With these stripped away The Walking Dead, naturally we watch with a sense of horror and fear.
But modern society seems lost when it comes to securing belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. But the world of The Walking Dead seems predisposed to make these needs readily available to the survivors. Which begins to reveal how the show is an escape from:
- complex problems that have no solution.
- a destiny determined by factors out of our control.
- a vague and hallow sense of identity.
- boring routines of a banal existence.
- a small and disconnected purpose.
- shallow and peripheral relationships.
- an absence of adventure.
So while I can understand an initial repulsion to thought of living in the world of The Walking Dead, this is quickly overwhelmed by an excitement for a fulfilling life.
The scale, complexity, and distractions of modern life make it hard to define the challenge of a fulfilled life; setting achievable goals, understanding ones role, and maintaining meaningful connections. And once you've begun to define it, you realize the hardest part is finding the discipline and focus to pursue it.
In The Walking Dead the challenge is simple and the "luxury" of choosing to pursue it is removed.
If only modern life were so simple.