Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Zombie Night Football

It's incredibly easy to find images of
zombie football players on the web.
Just sayin'.
"The Walking Dead" did something not a lot of scripted television shows have done recently: it outdrew an NFL football game in the key 18-to-35 demographic last Sunday. This was the second episode of the season as well, and so far the fourth season has commanded the best ratings yet for the AMC show. Quite a feat: The NFL rarely allows other shows to take it's viewership. It may be a temporary thing, and the NFL will likely go on and continue to squash all other shows again, especially as the end of the football season approaches. It's still almost unheard of.

It leaves a big question:  Why is this happening? I think it is two factors, opposite and in tandem: How the NFL and "The Walking Dead" are remarkably similar-- and how they are almost exactly opposite.


• Basic Rules of Action. People, especially people in the key demographic, watch a football game and "The Walking Dead" for the intense action. As I noted elsewhere, a football scrimmage and a zombie attack are remarkably similar things: The offense swarms in from all directions, intent on tackling and gaining possession-- of a brain or a football (about the same size). A wave of undead and a line of fullbacks both possess a undeniably intimidating quality, and both are going to bring the hurt if not stopped. Stop a zombie attack, and seconds later they're lined up again, ready to re-attack. Stakes are higher with zombies, of course, and there is nobody to a call a roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

• Unpredictability. Media Critic Neil Postman claimed that sporting events are popular because, unlike scripted television, they offer genuine surprise to the viewer. The most ridiculous mismatched teams can face off, but the final score is far from guaranteed. It's a game of inches, and close one can be nail-bitingly tense.

The extremely clever show runners of "the Walking Dead" know that uncertainty can make for riveting television-- a rule that can be encapsulated by a single principle (one first put forth by, of all people, Joe Bob Briggs): anybody can die at any moment. The show is notorious for killing off key characters: No character shield in effect here, no sir. The way the show's shots are composed and edited is consistently and completely unnerving: long, quiet sequences (to raise viewer tension) with lots of off-center compositions (which make you wonder "what's just off-frame? What's behind that door?" etc.). Finally, there is at least one awful, surprise, pop-up zombie attack per episode. So the visceral thrill for viewers is remarkably similar in both a live football game and scripted zombie drama.

DIFFERENCES: Well, DUH. These two shows could not be any more different. DUH. Okay, but HOW they're different-- and why one is at least temporarily outdrawing the other-- says a lot about American culture and tastes. So yeah, DUH-- but DUH with a pedigree.

• Spectacle vs. Intimacy: To watch an NFL broadcast is to witness nothing less than a massive money bonfire. Millions of dollars of player's salaries clocking up on the field. 50,000 fans who plunked an average of $250 per ticket, wearing $80 replica jerseys. Commercial advertisers paying the most prime ad rates on TV. And the network itself, burning through a billion-dollar broadcast agreement, covering the game with dozens of state-of-the art cameras and the best graphics in the industry. In terms of color, action and sheer spectacle, no other regular broadcast comes even close.

"The Walking Dead," on the other hand, is scripted television playing on a basic cable network. It's produced on location in rural Georgia (the graphic novel was set there-- AND the state offers a sizable tax break for productions) and shot on film-- not even 35mm film: It's shot on economical, if almost antiquated, Super16. This lends the show a grainy, muted look. The episode budgets are surprisingly large ($2.5 million as an average) but it's hard to see it through the resolutely natural feel of it: the money is all in the realistic-looking effects, makeup and props. It's all designed to make the horror intimate-- and real.

• Transience vs. Permanence: The universe of the NFL is based on the temporary nature of everything you see in it. The very game you're watching will be history mere hours after the last play, just a jumble of statistics not even worth a re-run (unless something truly unusual or tragic happened on the field). Every product advertised has several newer versions of it waiting in the wings. Even the player's uniforms are subtly redesigned every year to assure a steady revenue stream. It 's disposable event which reinforces disposable consumerism and disposable consumers.

After the zombie apocalypse, however, the great American machine of consumer goods has completely stopped. The main characters of "The Walking Dead" struggle to survive with whatever worn-out tools and artifacts were left behind. Nothing is disposable. Nothing is wasted. Even bullets to kill zombies are carefully conserved. An interesting detail from last week's show highlights this thrift: Rick's toddler-age daughter contents herself playing with a stack of red plastic party cups, the very icon of disposable culture.

• Self-Image and Freedom: I think people form a positive relationship with a TV based on how it reflects on their self-image. You watch a police procedural to feel smart, a talent show to feel like a part of the talent discovery process, and a show show like "Here Comes honey Boo-Boo" to convince oneself that things could be much, much worse.

The big pull for the NFL is basically the same one for all professional sports: Rooting for the home team. Given the fact that the only local aspects of any given pro team is the stadium and the owner, this can be called a fading asset. So let's look at these through a very narrow filter: how the NFL and "The Walking Dead" define freedom, a tenet still held as near-sacred for the average American. We like to see ourselves as a free people in a free country: how do these shows interpret this for us?

To watch an NFL game is to be in the massive bear hug of free-market capitalism, meshed into the gears of a finely tuned hype machine. Everything is for sale: Every object is branded: every surface has a logo on it. The exception is the gridiron, which is reserved for NFL branding (for the time being: Premier League Soccer teams have had ads on their kits since the 80s). Filtered down as an expression of our freedoms, about the only aspect on display is the freedom of the wallet. We're free to buy everything we see and we're encouraged to express our relationship with our home teams by buying authorized merchandise. It's a relationship we all understand, but it is the hollowest expression of American liberty there is.

In the universe of "The Walking Dead" government, commerce, and the legal structures of society are gone. Freedom is total. The main characters are free of all but the basic responsibilities-- in fact, the only relevant values are those of collective responsibility: everyone helps everyone else survive. It's a scary world, but every living human has a vital place in it and an important job to do.

I can't help but think that there is some appeal to this simplicity. What sounds more exciting to an 18-to-35 year old demographic unit: watching millionaire NFL players give each other concussions, through a high-tech haze of self-serving hype and branding? Or patrolling the ramparts of an abandoned prison with an M4 rifle, the guardian of the last bastion of humanity?

Why did "The Walking Dead" beat the NFL? Maybe because eventually everyone gets a bit tired of being hustled all the time. Zombies may want to eat your brains, but at least they aren't trying to sell you anything.

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