“Walking Dead” this season averaged 13.3 million live-plus-same-day viewers per episode (a 24% increase over Season Three), 8.6 million of them adults 18-49 (a 22% increase over same). Those numbers have been the talk of the business for months. Even so, I don't think anyone expected the season finale to build on them in so dramatic a manner: Sunday's episode delivered a breathtaking 15.7 million viewers, 10.2 million of them adults 18-49. One can only imagine how much they will increase when live-plus-three and live-plus-seven data is added to them.
No wonder every network is in overdrive trying to locate horror and science-fiction franchises with which to compete. That's grand for fantasy fans, but I doubt that any of them will come up with anything that even comes close to the robust power of “Walking Dead,” which strikes me as one of those lightning-in-a-bottle TV phenomena that only come along once in a generation and that nobody ever sees coming, like the Luke and Laura arc from 1979-1982 on ABC's “General Hospital” that became an outsize hit the likes of which daytime television had not seen before and has not seen since; or CBS' powerhouse classic “Dallas,” which began life in 1978 as a six-episode throwaway experiment on the network's Saturday night, or NBC's groundbreaking, genre-redefining “ER,” which stunned everyone with its huge ratings at the time of its 1994 premiere.
As with those two shows, “Walking Dead” is at heart a serialized drama, which is still a genre that is best served by television. In fact, the most successful showcase dramas on industry leaders AMC and FX are serialized dramas or soap operas at their roots, re-imagined for a new generation of television viewers that enjoy some grit with their entertainment.
Happily, Sunday's “Walking Dead” was a powerful and extremely satisfying topper to a season that had some weak episodes (most of them involving that prison virus story) and many that were very strong (especially the character-enhancing episodes that comprised its second half). It can be argued that, with the possible exception of its time-period competitor, CBS’ “The Good Wife,” “Walking Dead” this season had people more engaged in one way or another than any other series on television.
The closing act of the season finale was somewhat off, with all of the characters letting their guard down as they entered a clearly foreboding “sanctuary,” only to end up herded into a dark train car to await their fate (which, the story seemed to suggest, involves cannibalism). But everything up to that point provided one terrific payoff after another, from the many flashback sequences that shed new light on life in the prison at the start of the season to the sequence in which beaten-down Rick finally acknowledged the ugly reality of life in the zombie apocalypse and did what he had to do to save his life and those of his son and friends. (His savage attack on his tormentors was unlike anything ever seen on series television, except perhaps on NBC's boundary-bashing “Hannibal.”)
Meanwhile, AMC had another big success Sunday night with the season finale of its low-budget live chat show “Talking Dead,” which immediately follows each new episode of “Walking Dead.” (I still think this is one of the smartest ideas any network has ever executed, especially following a show that leaves its viewers talking to themselves or to others online.) At 10 p.m. the very modest “Talking” (which for the first time had “Walking” star Andrew Lincoln as a guest) delivered 7.3 million viewers, 4.7 of them adults 18-49. This is an extraordinary performance for a show in which a couple of people sit on a couch and take questions from members of a small studio audience along with fans via phone, Facebook, Twitter, text and e-mail. Host Chris Hardwick remains the perfect guy for this gig.
“Mad Men,” which returns to AMC in two weeks, isn't as strong a performer as “Walking Dead” or “Breaking Bad,” but like those two shows I think it deserves a live after-show of its own, perhaps in a half-hour format and with a bar on set, like Bravo's “Watch What Happens Live.” “Mad” may not have as many viewers as its current and former schedule mates, but those who do watch are almost always left with a need to discuss each episode, or at least listen in on an engaging conversation about it.