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But many shows just toss the audience stabbings and disembowelings like drippy dog treats for sticking through the talking parts. Cinemax's Strike Back stacked up 208 corpses in one season, according to hollywood.com and funeralwise.com Starz's Spartacus might as well be called Spurtacus, with its slo-mo gushers of ichor and video-game-like slashing. The Following is worst of all: a shallow imitation of "cable-like" drama that milks torture and child-in-danger scenarios and centers on a pompous murder Svengali who's as rounded a villain as Sideshow Bob. Its butchery doesn't provoke reflection, just the kind of eeews and grossed-out giggles that distance you from any real engagement.
The Walking Dead, on the other hand, is an interesting hybrid of sensationalistic and sensitive. It's full of long fight scenes, with survivors piñata-ing zombies, whose noggins squish like jelly-filled pumpkins. But it also asks, What are the limits of individualism and of communities? How do you stay good in a time that requires horrible acts?
One of the most moving deaths in the series comes not at a zombie's claws but when a character dies from complications of childbirth. Before she slips away, she says to her young son, "Promise me you'll always do what's right." After she dies, he picks up a gun and--so she won't rise as undead--shoots her through the head. Because he loves her.
It's deeply affecting and human, as mother-son mercy rekillings go. But you know what else is affecting and human? Falling in love, and out of it. Growing up. Chasing a dream that doesn't involve running guns or drugs. Coping with illnesses that do not terminate in zombieism. TV's new golden age has given us shows that couldn't have existed 20 years ago. But it hasn't yet found much room for personal, grownup dramas like thirtysomething or coming-of-age shows like Freaks and Geeks--hour-long stories without explosive physical stakes or even the loopy soap-opera careening of ABC's Scandal or PBS's Downton Abbey. Beyond Downton and AMC's Mad Men, the less "noisy" shows often hide in the low-rated margins: ABC Family's Bunheads, NBC's Parenthood and Simon's Treme, which HBO has kept on like pro bono work.
It's worth asking if and when great TV can achieve as wide a scope of subject matter as great novels and movies. In the meantime, with new Walking Dead fans crawling from so many open graves, expect more carnage. Fresh off its huge, sanguinary miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, the History channel is debuting its first original drama: Vikings (March 3), a kind of Sons of Anarchy with longboats instead of Harleys. In one episode, a blacksmith is seized for treason by a Norse chieftain's henchmen, who hold his face close to the smithy's blazing coals. "The sages say we can see our future in the flames," intones the leader. "What do you see?" The man answers, "I see my own death."
Like we hadn't guessed. There's a push, there's a scream, and once again TV gives the same answer to its own burning question.