Why do we like Battlestar Galactica (2009) (hereafter BSG) and the Walking Dead (WD) so much? What makes it so great and entertaining? What makes the writing so high quality?
I don’t pretend to speak for the millions of fans watching it? But I think there are a few things about these shows that make them so enthralling and captivating.
We are people who learn through stories. We enter into the worlds created by those stories. One thing apocalyptic films about survival and life and death is that they jolt us out of our cheap, comfort-driven, first-world-problem, materialistic culture that seems to chase after phantom entertainment that provides us with temporary pleasure and entertainment but ultimately leaves us feeling dry and shallow.
Just think of the plethora of reality-TV shows, like Real Housewives, Jersey Shore, the Twilight franchise, Miley Cyrus, etc. They don’t have any real substance, only cheap drama, and so they have to milk whatever little they have and outdo each other in stupid pettiness.
What apocalyptic TV shows do is invite us into a world wherein people can no longer afford to chase after these petty things, where questions of survival, pragmatism vs. idealism, and choices potentially involving the death of thousands of lives (think of Apollo having to shoot down a spaceship that the Cylons use to track the Colonial Fleet) or of human civilization itself abound. In other words, these apocalyptic worlds force us to reckon with the larger questions in life, and they throw them in stark relief sans petty distractions. No longer do people blindly chase after money for money’s sake, for money no longer has inherent value in a world where banks no longer exist, where people won’t necessarily trade food or water for money.
No I am not saying that I support utilitarianism; beauty is vital to human culture (which even characters in BSG and WD still agree, recognizing the luxurious element of such things, though). However, in BSG and WD, we have episodes with plots based on survival or relationship struggles, not something like making more money, etc. That is, in a world without banks or stock markets or much of any infrastructure, these stories are not distracted by things that are loud and seem important (like increasing one’s bank account), but cut straight to the chase, piercing through the blinding veil of materialism, straight to things that matter. Money, for example, is exposed as a means to an end (useful for bartering only when people still are willing to exchange it for goods); money is and can no longer be an end in and of itself. What does it matter if you have a million dollars and are surrounded by zombies or Cylons?
WARNING! Spoilers and quasi-spoilers may appear below . . .
But, of course, people still are petty, and good TV is realistic TV. Important, “big-picture” questions don’t count off personal problems. Relationship struggles and jealousy are important. Love and friendship are important, even if very personal. Just think of the tension between Rick, Shane, and Lori in the first two seasons of WD.
There is also room for pettiness, because humans do tend to be petty, even when they shouldn’t. I love the part in BSG (early on), when Laura Roslin realizes that human civilzation has been essentially wiped out as humans know it and that she is now the President of the Twelve Colonies and is responsible for the remaining population of the human race, and here she is still most worried about how she has cancer. She confesses this “pettiness” to her trusted aide, Billy. But I appreciated this because it is both so real and personal and yet it does not glorify the so-called “pettiness” (neither does it make one’s struggle with cancer a “petty” issue – it is important). This helps us have a real view of humans in all their strength and pettiness, and it doesn’t degrade humans by glorifying it and reducing human experience to petty struggles (unlike many reality TV shows and tabloids . . . we are so much more than that cheap drama).
See part II here.