Do ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Big Bang Theory’ Reflect The Spirit Of The Times? A Look At TV Culture And Top Ratings In 2016

The Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory are the top rated scripted TV shows in 2016 when considering all the variables. The question is being asked, even among academia, what does this say about the current society?

The Walking Dead is attracting far more young adult viewers than any other scripted program on all networks. An unequaled 5.62 million viewers age 18 to 49 watch The Walking Dead each week, even after the recent drop in viewership after the Season 7 premiere.

The Big Bang Theory, with its 14.62 million viewers, tops The Walking Dead in total viewers and comes in second for the young adult age demographic with 3.39 million.

Compared to The Walking Dead and Big Bang Theory, the runners up aren’t really all that close. Empire comes in a distant third for the coveted 18 to 49 age demographic with 3.21 million but has only 8.67 million weekly viewers total, according to Spotted Ratings. NCIS has 14.86 million weekly viewers, but only 1.86 million of those are age 18 to 49.

So what is the greater point of The Walking Dead and Big Bang Theory? What tone are they setting for the culture of mankind in the 21st century? What are they trying to tell viewers and why are so many young people listening?

The Walking Dead is set in a simply terrifying, gruesome, zombie apocalyptic nightmare world. It is about survival in the worst of circumstances. Fear rules the day, and fear rarely brings out the best in people. The Walking Dead landscape is full of monsters and a surprising number of those are human.

Big Bang Theory is a comedy about four guys who are rocket scientists but sometimes lack in social skills. They are truly children of the tech world, who are not too experienced with human interaction.

The Walking Dead and Big Bang Theory obviously speak to two polarized frames of mind in society today. They speak to the widely varied experience of life in western culture.

Do Big Bang Theory and The Walking Dead represent different moods of the same people, or a different demographic completely? Is it wrong for a society to appreciate both comedy and horror? Is this just another example of cultural diversity? Is there a common thread between Big Bang Theory and The Walking Dead?

Though The Walking Dead is symbolically set in the zombie apocalypse, and Big Bang Theory speaks mainly to the comically paranoid social fears of four intellectual nerds, they are both about stress and anxiety at least in some sense.

Big Bang Theory Cast
Big Bang Theory cast [Image by S Bukley/Shutterstock]

While Big Bang Theory allows viewers to laugh away their stress, The Walking Dead forces them to look at the worst case scenario. The Walking Dead provides a sideways glance at reality through symbolism while simultaneously providing an escape into a fantastical nightmare.

Most The Walking Dead viewers believe zombies to be impossible, though even the CDC says that to be prepared for a zombie apocalypse is to be prepared for anything. The CDC strongly sanctions zombie preparedness. They are being tongue-in-cheek, but the overarching point is the world’s citizens need to prepare for previously unknown disasters.

That The Big Bang Theory and The Walking Dead both feature anxiety, stress, and outright fear, even though in totally different ways, speaks to the current age. Do Americans live in a fear based society? Certainly not in the way people in war zones do, and yet, news, entertainment, and even the commercials are full of ideas that provoke fear, anxiety, insecurity and above all a sense of want. The current economic crisis yields even greater concerns, especially for young people.

Are The Walking Dead and Big Bang Theory viewers searching for tips, advice or perhaps just some idea of how to deal with life? Could it be true that TV viewers are only seeking entertainment and an escape from their problems?

The Big Bang Theory encourages viewers to examine work stress, relationship anxieties, and social fears with a lighthearted laugh, but it does express these issues very well. Sheldon’s various phobias, Leonard’s low self-esteem, Raj’s shyness, Howard’s struggle for independence, and all of their various mother issues are things young people deal with. Big Bang Theory addresses a lot of common stressors in a comedic way.

Walking Dead Cast
Walking Dead cast members [Image by Rich Polk/Getty Images]

The Walking Dead, however, is a big bold look into bigger and perhaps subconscious fears. The Walking Dead addresses the very real fear of poverty, scarcity, and lack as the characters scavenge for dwindling supplies. Fear of attack from both zombies and human villains could parallel the fear of street violence and crime issues. More than that, though, it addresses the idea that for whatever reason the world is at risk of total collapse.

The Walking Dead earned an intellectual critique in The Week. Sean T. Collins postulates a theory, based on an essay in the academic journal Horror Studies, that the Walking Dead glorifies fascist concepts. Collins quotes Stephen Olbrys Gencarella’s essay.

The Walking Dead is the only show that actively courts, rather than critiques, fascist ethics, and suggests that it’s the only viable solution to perceived threat.”

The Walking Dead, though, seems to endlessly debate ethics. Fan comments and blogs often state their frustration with the constant debate of morality, in a world devoid of similar ethics. The argument could be made that moralizing isn’t entertaining and alienates viewers and that is why The Walking Dead writers aren’t doing it constantly. The Walking Dead viewers don’t want to hear it. It takes time away from the action all viewers prefer.

The Walking Dead expresses a survivalist mentality after society has broken down. It depicts the failures and cruelties of fearful human beings as they attempt to recreate a failed society as small tribes. What happens routinely in The Walking Dead seems easily attributable to fearful human nature.

Perhaps the perceived fascist leanings in The Walking Dead are simply a small scale mimic of things that have occurred repeatedly throughout human history, under many names.

Still, if fascism is suggested in The Walking Dead, it is used as an added element of fear. Fascism is among the greatest fears of educated mankind. Leon Trotsky said in Fascism: What It Is and How To Fight It that even those who use fascism for their own ends, still fear it.

“While it makes use of fascism, the bourgeoisie nevertheless fears it.”

The Walking Dead could be said to be about natural human fears, sublimated by an implausible situation. The Walking Dead, unlike Big Bang Theory, does suggest more serious fears like a real lack of basic needs, being stripped of one’s sense of security, and being thrust into an unfamiliar situation. In some ways, it simply addresses an abrupt change or unexpected hardship. It could symbolize the host of personal tragedies that randomly assault ordinary people.

Big Bang Theory and The Walking Dead represent opposites in most ways. Like the society that spawned them, these shows are polarized. Nevertheless, these are fearful times for many if not all people. There are some conflicting ideas and viewpoints within the TV audience to be sure, but many find these times cause for apprehension of some type.

Big Bang Theory seems to suggest laughing off one’s small troubles, and not getting caught up in paranoia and phobias. Big Bang Theory is about how silly most of the things people worry about are.

The Walking Dead explores fear in a way few television programs have ever dared. Their message is a call to fight back, and perhaps that is what makes Collins and Gencarella uneasy. There is a modern taboo against fighting back or even pushing back non-violently. Actually fighting for one’s life is a foreign concept to many in western society. Still, random acts of violence, unexpected though they are, do require fighting back.

As Geraldine Brooks said in Years of Wonder, terrifying times can bring out the worst in people. That is certainly one point that could be gleaned from The Walking Dead.

“These times make monsters of us all”

A few pages later the same author states, that the same plague that makes monsters, can also make heroes.

“This plague will make heroes of us all, whether we will or no.”

The Walking Dead’s real message could easily be found in Years of Wonder, another story about another plague. They speak to a rougher time, than many people perceive, yet in a once peaceful and prosperous country where children are now shot in their beds by criminals, the elderly are often victimized, and one in four children live in poverty, perhaps bracing for a zombie apocalypse isn’t such a bad idea.


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Are Big Bang Theory and The Walking Dead two perceptions of the same vast world? While one person is trying to figure out the right thing to say to his girlfriend, perhaps another is foraging in dumpsters for food, and yet another has lost a family member to random violence.

The Walking Dead, like all zombie fiction, illustrates how quickly an everyday situation, like the ones portrayed in Big Bang Theory, can change into an unimaginable nightmare. In Big Bang Theory, Sheldon’s paranoid concerns illustrate how most of the time people worry needlessly about things that never happen. Together, The Walking Dead and Big Bang Theory illustrate a difficult balance in these times.

Big Bang Theory and The Walking Dead define these times as a polarized, ironic combination, illustrating a vastly subjective situation, as young people hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

[Featured Image by Jesse Grant and Matt Winkeleyer/Getty Images]