Time magazine this week has a big cover feature speculating on why "The Walking Dead," just back for its fifth season on AMC, remains so popular. With more than 17 million viewers, the zombie-show's premiere on Sunday easily won the night.
So, what's going on, asks James Poniewozik, the magazine's television critic? The characters are cardboard, the dialogue is often wooden, the plot turns are implausible (yes, I love Carol too, but come on!), and the violence is brutal. The show, writes Poniewozik, is not just gory, but "unrelentingly, punishingly ... grim." Grim indeed. At the end of last season, one of the main characters shot and killed a little girl who had turned into a psychopath. Not into a zombie -- into a murdering pre-teen psychopath.
When then do so many tune in? So many young people in particular? Because, he says, we live in dark times. All the news is bad, from terror threats to climate change: "In one way or another, we're constantly asked to envision how we and our own would thrive if everything went to hell and we lost all our societal supports." That's a part of the reason. But I don't think it goes nearly far enough. The problem with the current age isn't that so much of the news seems to be bad. It's that so many young people don't believe the news will ever get any better.
Last week my wife and I visited a local phone store, looking to replace her iPhone, and the young woman assisting us -- I would put her in her mid-20s -- mentioned how excitedly she was awaiting the new season of "The Walking Dead." When we asked why, she seemed surprised that we didn't know.
Everybody watches it, she told us -- by which she meant all her friends, people around her age. And they watch it, she said, because it's true. She was very insistent on this point. 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.
She was smart and smiling and helpful. She seemed entirely in her right mind. But her tone wasn't speculative. She wasn't talking about a "maybe." She was talking as though the die was already cast. The collapse, in her mind, was already rushing toward us.
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.
Talking heads who lament the unwillingness of large numbers of Americans to accept the assurances of the Centers for Disease Control that there will be no Ebola epidemic in the U.S. should realize that we live in an age when fewer and fewer people are likely to accept the government's word on anything.
Fewer young people in particular.
Only 26 percent of young people in the U.S. believe they will have better lives than did their parents, according to an Ipsos MORI global survey, and that pessimistic trend about the future holds throughout the West. Perhaps it is no accident, then, that 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.