The Walking Dead vs. the Feds! Paul Cantor on TV's Zombie Apocalypse


“American popular culture not only celebrates freedom, it is also itself an example of American freedom at its best and most vibrant,” writes Paul Cantor in his new book, The Invisible Hand and Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV.

Even before politicians and elite cultural critics decried the boob tube as a "vast wasteland," they were attacking other forms of popular entertainment - novels, movies, comic books, and more - as simultaneously soporific and dangerous, either lulling the masses into quietism or sparking bad behaviors. But Paul Cantor, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that such criticisms get everything wrong.

Within a marketplace system, TV, film, and other forms of entertainment respond to viewer demands as much as they may create them. More important, popular culture is constantly developing new and different shows and media that allow more people consume and produce whatever they want. The same system, says Cantor, that brings us Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo also produces Deadwood and South Park, which he considers some of the most sophisticated contemporary storytelling to be found anywhere in the world.

Cantor also argues that the current vogue for zombie apocalypses - most clearly seen in AMC's hit series The Walking Dead - and other shows (such as Revolution) underscore the recurring theme of freedom from oppresive government in popular culture going back to early American novels and plays.

Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Cantor about the current state of American television and the economics that underlie it.

About 8 minutes.

Produced by Todd Krainin. Camera by Josh Swain and Krainin.

Scroll down for downloadable versions and subscribe to ReasonTV's YouTube Channel to receive notification when new material goes live.

NEXT: UCLA Professor Abigail Saguy on What's Wrong with Fat?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The Walking Dead is so poorly written any libertarian themes in it must be incidental.

    Battlestar Galactica and Deadwood did a much better job in depicting a civilization on the edge.

      1. Seriously. Season 2 sucked for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the stupid writing for a majority of the characters and the bad pacing. Season 3 improved on this flaws initially, but then got sucked back down into mediocre writing.

        Although the last two episodes have been good based on style alone and I am interested in the finale.

        1. What exactly are you looking for from them? The writing is fine, though your pacing comment may have some merit. But still, what is it you're looking for?

          1. I'm looking for characters who aren't mentally retarded. Whenever I watch that stupid show, I assume that I'm watching the people too stupid for actual survivors to invite into their communities.

            1. I'm really curious about this. What is it they're doing that's retarded? Why does it anger you so? I just don't get it.

              1. The gang turning Tyreese away was totally retarded. Letting Merle wander around in the same living space as everyone else was totally retarded.

                I still wonder why Michonne hasn't broached her island idea to the gang. That was the smartest idea anyone ever had on this show.

                1. Everything about Rick's wife and their relationship with Shane was retarded. You're going to hold a grudge against a dude because he fucked your wife when they both thought you were dude? And your going to nurse that grudge until you drive the dude over the edge so you can kill him? WTF. Fuck Rick and his whole retarded family.

                  1. thought you were dead*

                  2. Rick didn't have much of a grudge, but it was patently obvious that Shane wanted Rick gone so he could take his role as husband and father. Rick was largely ambivalent to Shane, and Shane was constantly scheming and hand-wringing both in evasion and observation of his goal to get rid of Rick.

                    Your take doesn't make any sense.

              2. Seriously?

                What are they doing that ISN'T retarded? Morgan is the only one approaching the whole thing in anything resembling a sane or practical manner, and he's batshit crazy. If there ever is a Zombie apocalypse, and I don't die of "What the fuck is wrong with your face" in the first 30 minutes, I PRAY all of the survivors are as consistently myopic and ignorant as those we've seen on the show. I'll have nothing to worry about.

                Rick is the worst leader of all-time. If the governor had brought that mind-numbingly idiotic assault on me and my prison, him and all of his buddies would have been dead before their first haphazard shot was fired straight up into the air (well, their second shot, they wasted their element of surprise to kill one of the newest/least important members of the group).

            2. I agree with Drake and A Serious Man.

              The Walking Dead are walking dumbasses.

          2. Characters that aren't morons and are smart enough to survive in a zombie apocalypse? It should have been obvious almost immediately that the Governor is a sick motherfucker, but it literally took Andrea until the third to last episode to figure that out. The Woodbury story line is just bad writing period.

            That being said, the episode with Morgan was great and an example of the kind of tight, self-contained episodes that they should focus more on instead of these story arcs that take forever to resolve themselves.

            1. Uh, dude, the whole point was that Andrea was being willfully blind to his fucked-upedness. Like, that was the point. Did you really not get that?

              1. Andrea has a retarded vagina.

              2. Up until the episode when the Governor locked her in a torture chamber she seemed to genuinely think that he was a reasonable guy that could negotiate a truce with Rick...after she found out he kept his zombified daughter alive and the aquariums full of heads.

                I don't see the point in making her the focus of multiple episodes instead of interesting characters like Merle.

                1. To me, Andrea is one of the more interesting characters. She's had to split off from the group and go it alone and then with Mischone. You really think a thug like Merle is more interesting? Not that it matters now anyway.

                  1. She's had to split off from the group and go it alone and then with Mischone.

                    Good in theory but the acting pacing and script for her has been terrible.

                  2. You really think a thug like Merle is more interesting?

                    Yes. Putting more time into Merle's arc from thug to suicide redemption would have been far more interesting then Andrea's arc.

                    Last night's episode with the rock star whiskey fueled one man attack was great TV....but it was far too sudden and came out of the open blue sky.

                  3. Andrea is a god-damned fool. They killed Dale, T Dog, Laurie and Shane, but there is still one complete waste of skin bumblefucking her way through this world.

                    Every person you ever knew who always wanted to be in charge, despite the fact that they have no qualities helpful for being in charge? Andrea is all of them.

                2. You do have to keep in mind that as the viewers we know way more about what's going on behind the scenes than the individual characters do. So as viewers we knew that the governor was bad news the second he led a group of his bootlickers to go kill that group of National Guardsmen. That was pretty early on in the season.

                  We also knew about his daughter and the heads in jars long before Andrea found out. By the time she did she was in full smitten swooning mode. People rationalize all kinds of shit when they're in deep smit until it's too late. It happens all the time. Think of everytime you've seen some chick go out with a dude that everyone knew was a useless abusive asshole.

                  1. "You're in deep smit now, young lady...."

            2. You mean women who like dangerous men often don't find out that he is dangerous to her as well until it's too late?

              I'm sure that has never happened in real life.

              1. The hamster looms large.

        2. The good news is that the new showrunner (which is like the third or fourth now) is the guy who wrote some of the best episodes this season, including the Morgan one and last night's episode. Even if last night's had some leaps in logic, it showed an interest in deepening the characters. Maybe the show will finally reach its potential.

          They just need to stop having scene after scene of pointless bickering. For a popular action series, there is soooo much talking.

          1. He also wrote 'Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,' but yes, last night's episode WAS much better than most of the current half-season has been.

          2. Why the fuck did he have to cry when he discovered Merle had been zobiefied...and why the false threat of Merle's Zombie.

            Would have been much better if he simply walked up to Merle stabbed him in the head then let the music let the grief intenailze.

        3. I suspect that when they come up with the story arc for a given season, they probably realize fairly early on in the script development process that they only have enough story for ~5 episodes. "Oh shit, we have to make this story arc last a full season. Quick, add a subplot where Rick starts hallucinating his dead wife. Maybe even add a couple of complete episodes revolving around the concept."

          1. I could go for a half season where they actually have a chance to settle down and plant crops or something.

            The thing with the prison is that they had just barely moved in when everything started going wrong.
            It would be more dramatic if they would let us get a sense that they were safe and comfy for a while before pulling the rug out.

        4. I actually thought Season 2 was pretty good. Despite the fact that it took for FUCKING EVER to resolve the Sophia storyline. Still, almost every episode seemed to have a little vignette or moral dilemma. When to give up looking for the girl. How to resolve the tension between Hershel's family and the group. What do to with the prisoner from the other group.

          I think the show is at it's best when the characters are thrown into some moral conflict that pits their values against the ruthlessly utilitarian values of people like the governor or Merle.

      2. "Where's Carl???"

        Somewhere at Rothbury.

    1. Oh, and by the way, BSG might have been the absolute worst television I watched all the way through.

      1. The box set of Friends on your bookshelf says differently.

        1. Don't you have a Girls viewing party to attend?

          1. This season is over, Hey, is that a box set of Will & Grace I see next to your Friends set?


              1. Once I invoke Friends, we've all already lost anyway, Chandler.

                1. I think everyone just lost.

            2. They only made one episode of Will and Grace, but it was 3 hours long and they spent the next 3 or so seasons just recutting the same 3 hours of footage into half hour episodes. At least, that's what I gathered from watching it in syndication.

        2. A Swedish friend of mine, Friends is his favorite TV show, has the box set watches it over and over.

          Told me he doesn't like shows like the The Simpsons because he doesn't like shows about losers.

      2. Wow, you must only watch the cream of the crop, then.

        It did get ridiculous and, in some ways, plain bad as it went on, but it wasn't that bad.


          1. Great. NOW look what you made Fist do...


      3. Seasons 1 and 2 were great television, but right around Season 3 the suits at SyFy starting interfering with Moore by demanding changes to make the series less serialized to increase viewership, hence some less than stellar episodes.

        And the less said about part 3 of the finale the better.

        1. Less serialized might have been a blessing. It looked very much like they were making the story arch up as they went along.

            1. Frak you Fist. The Pegasus story line with Admiral Cain and the mutiny in season 4 will be remembered as some of the greatest television ever broadcast. PERIOD.

              1. Cable isn't broadcast, dummy. And all I can remember from that show is fat Apollo and angelic Starbuck and the Final Five. Embarrassing. Enough said.

                1. Agreed that Apollo could get annoying and Angel Starbuck was dumb, but the good still outweighs the bad. No show on TV had the balls to tackle, even through allegory, the War on Terror the way BSG did.

          1. The Romans built some great story arches.

            1. +1 running water

            2. I put that in there to see who would be so petty as to add nothing to the debate but pettiness. And look who shows up.

              1. Ah, so you were just being arch.

        2. The whole finale was boring, I thought. They had all these great two-parters, where the stakes were increasingly escalated. And the big finale is... they go to rescue a kid? Really? Plus they had to resolve a lot of ill-conceived stories and relationships, and the action itself felt pretty lifeless. And of everything that happens at the end, Starbuck's resolution is the thing that really pissed me off.

          And damn it, I still want to know: why didn't they return to Kobol? Perfectly habitable planet, and most of the Cylons are now peaceful.

    2. Welcome to fucking Deadwood.

      Can be combative.

  2. Paul Cantor, a professor of English University of Virginia

    What's a "professor of English University of Virginia"? Is that anything like a "professor of English, University of Virginia"?

  3. "I would take the 25 best movies produced in America in the 20th Century and match them against the 25 best anything, except Shakespeare's 25 best plays..."

    I think all you have to do is stop at the top three greatest anythings produced anywhere and you've already got the world beat by a mile. (Two of those three being of course Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Armageddon.)

    1. I'm assuming the third is Con Air.

      1. And the real object of your hatefuck lust appears.

        1. Meme Roth can't hold a candle to Con Air

      2. Highlander. Also is Armageddon as 20th Century movie?

        1. I don't understand this comment and it angers me.

          1. Holy shit. Armageddon was released in 1998? I'm sure I didn't see it until at least 2005. I thought it was a 21st century movie, but no. I was wrong. I will now go punish myself by reading all of SF's slashfic.

            1. No, you need to punish yourself worse. Go watch Transformers 3.

              1. Go watch Transformers 3.

                Does it have shots of a pretty girl crying in the foreground while an American flag waves in the background, slo-mo explosion sequences, and washed out colors, or am I thinking of Pearl Harbor? Or Transformers I, or II?

            2. Ooo - write us some Cliff's notes when you're done, mm'kay?

            3. Armageddon was ahead of its time. You weren't ready for Armageddon last millennium.

            4. Is it anthologized someplace? I got here late and feel like my misanthropy is limited compared to the rest of the commentariat for not having read it all.

        2. Highlander.

          It won the academy award... for Best Movie Ever Made.

      3. BJ and the Bear.

        1. That's not even a movie yet.

          1. That's not even a movie yet.

            I believe it is called "Any Which Way but Lose"

        2. "Now there's a concept I can't get enough of: a man and his monkey."

  4. Will anybody here admit to watching 'Revolution'?

    I know a lot of people HATE that show (and the lead actress), and while I wouldn't call it 'great,' I think it's ........ totally watchable.

    Also - spoilers from Game of Thrones season 3 because I'm an asshole: Ygritte says "You know nothing, Jon Snow" approximately 6,000 times.

    1. Revolutions is terrible. Just awful. It's a perfect example of a story that has been forced to fit around a concept that doesn't really make any sense, but that someone thought was cool. It's not quite as bad as Terra Nova, but it's close, and I hope it gets canceled.

      1. It looks like I'm going to have to start watching that show just for spite.

    2. My wife forced me to watch two episodes of "Revolution" and then no more. That stupid bitch who's the lead just sucks, the protector sword-fightin' dude sucks....

      The only character I liked was the bad guy played by the dude who was "Gus" on "Breaking Bad". I thought he was actually ACTING! /John Lovitz

      See - I refuse to even know their names....what a shite show. Boring, bad acting, boring, bad acting...take your pick. Horrible.

      Other than that, it was great.

      1. The most important factor that allows me to derive any enjoyment at all from Revolution is, I completely purged my expectations of any "Gus Fring is in this; maybe it'll be as awesome as Breaking Bad!" hopes.

        I just went in expecting an illogical but entertaining adventure story, and the show mostly delivers on that IMO.

        Also maybe this isn't a fair comparison because there have only been 10 episodes so far, but Revolution has never had a multi-episode boring stretch as bad as Walking Dead did during the first half of season 2 and the current half of season 3 (except last night).

      2. Boring, bad acting, boring, bad acting...take your pick. Horrible.

        Now, you're just talking about The Event. The writing sucked too.

    3. Game of Thrones (the television) series is starting to suffer from my problem with the books: nothing major ever seems to fucking happen. And when it does, it takes forever to get there.

      1. I didn't really notice any sluggishness (can't believe Firefox agrees that's a real word!) in GoT seasons 1 or 2, but maybe that's because I watched all 20 episodes in a matter of like 2 weeks.

        Season 3 will be the first one I watch as they air on HBO, so if they start to drag, week after week, I'll definitely feel it. We'll see what happens, but I think it might have been a better idea to try and adapt the entire third book in a 13-episode season, instead of sticking with 10 episodes and ending with (CENSORED!) which occurs around page 700.

    4. Will anybody here admit to watching 'Revolution'?

      I bailed after the pilot. Same old, same old formulaic tee-vee milqutoast drama.

      As to post-apoclyptic shows, Falling Skies isn't great, hell, it's barely good, but sadly it's the best sci-fi on the tube now. Come to think of it, it's the only sci-fi on now.

      No, I'm not counting The Walking Dead as sci-fi, tho' I suppose it could be counted as such.

    5. Will anybody here admit to watching 'Revolution'?

      I watch idea why.

  5. Anyone watched Bates?

    I recorded it but haven't watched it yet. Is it any good?

    1. For my serial killer fix I might give 'Hannibal' a look.

  6. I'll admit to "Justified" and caught like 5 seasons of "Sons of Anarchy" over Christmas with the fam just for the hell of it...

    And then I realized they're all the same fucking soap opera crap with various different mechanisms to create conflict. But it's all chick operas for guys, so now I don't give a shit about the 6th season of Sons of Anarchy, and I'm rapidly running out of interest in "Justified".

    "Breaking Bad" I find original. Still the conflict soap opera bullshit, but with some SURPRISES! Like that kid getting shot, John the hardass getting's kept my interest.

    The rest? Meh....

  7. After what fucking David Lynch did to me with the end of "Twin Peaks" (I will NEVER forgive him giving all the show's fans a big "fuck you!"), and the fucking "WHAT THE MOTHERFUCK???! ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME I WATCHED XX SEASONS FOR THIS! YOU FUCKERS!" ending to "Lost", I will never trust my heart to a TV serial again.

    Bastards are just heartbreakers...

    1. I'm not sure why they thought a bunch of actors sitting in a church and smiling idiotically would be a great finale.

      That being said I appreciate the show for 5.8 seasons of mostly great story telling and twists.

    2. The absolute best ending to any series was Newhart's.

      1. The ending to The Shield was pretty goddamn good too.

    3. Ok, wait a second here. The executives pushed Lynch to end the original storyline early because they thought they were losing viewer interest, and he considers it his biggest regret.

      Also, Lynch was not responsible for broad swaths of the second season's downhill slide. He basically came back for the last episode to try to restore what little incredibility it had left.

      1. AHA! A Lynch Defender!

        *slaps Proprietist with glove*

        Dueling pistols! At dawn! Of the Dead!

        1. I mean, a man can make mistakes and if he admits them honestly, I'm willing to forgive him. But season two was badly derailed by the writers long before the finale.

          But you are a man lacking honor, so I shall meet you at dawn with pistols in tow.

    4. It seemed pretty obvious after about three episodes of Lost that that they were just going to throw shit against the wall and see what sticks, and create a bunch of story arches they wouldn't be able to resolve without a bunch of deus ex machina crap.

      1. My problem is that I kept looking for coherence and patterns and they would tease that juuuuuuust enough to keep me interested.

        Fuck you JJ Abrahms and Damien Lindeloph. Never again.

    5. I just finished watching Twin Peaks again on Friday. It's still one of the greatest shows in history.

      I seem to be the only one, but I insist the second season is better. Some of the subplots are pretty weak, but the main storylines more than make up for it. I do think they should've gone straight to the appearance of Windom Earle immediately after the murder was solved, but that's a minor criticism.

      I agree the ending is kind of frustrating since the cliffhangers were never resolved, but I blame ABC for that. Lynch and Frost were really hoping for another season, but ABC jerked them around on the schedule too much and ruined the chances of that happening.

  8. I was sorta defending Community S4 against Epi a while back.

    Mea Culpa, the last couple episodes were pretty awful, by Community standards, at least, and not very good by normal standards.

    1. I've been rewatching seasons 1-3, and the lack of Dan Harmon in season 4 is painfully obvious. It's not terrible, but the magic of the first three seasons isn't there.

      1. I was willing to give it a chance, the first couple eps were still decent. But, yes, it's become painfully obvious the thrill is gone.

    2. Yeah, what's with all the preachy, feel-goodness coming from Winger these days. I guess NBC thought he was too edgy before.

      1. I think the characters are just falling back on stereotypes thanks to mediocre writing.

        The Dean ticking Jeff into doing karaoke with him, which he ends up loving, and gets posted to YouTube, funny. The Dean moving in next door to Jeff, and stalking him, not so funny.

      2. That's always been my problem with Community. They have gotten much worse with time. Community should not be a cheesy feel-good show. It should be a nihilistically meta laughfest like Arrested Development. The problem with that is that without the contrived cheeseball "I love you guys" moments, there would be no rational reason a group of completely different personalities would stick together because they once studied together in freshman Spanish.

  9. Season 3 of Game of Thrones_ SPOILER--people getting stabbed and stuff-
    Really shows that government is a bloody scam. Even the "good" kings are fucking killers and fools.

  10. If you think Kenneth`s story is impressive,, three weeks-ago my girlfriend's half brother basically also brought home $8431 working a fourteen hour week in their apartment and they're friend's mother`s neighbour has been doing this for 6 months and got a cheque for more than $8431 parttime on there pc. the advice available here

    1. Kenneth's "story" was impressive for, like, 5 minutes. But then the plot went all squishy and the casting was HORRIBLE.

      So - no.

  11. Pro tip, if it's on TV it sucks ass.

    South Park doesn't count because I watch that on the internets.

    Other than that my TV is a 24/7 How It's Made marathon because that's the only thing that doesn't piss me off enough to change the channel.

    1. I need SPEED for motorcycle racing. Other than that, I've been like a crack addict searching for ONE GOOD SERIES! to watch.

      I, too, hit up History, Military, NatGeo, et al a lot. A LOT.

      Plus - some of Velocity. "Wheeler Dealers"? Yes, please.

    2. Someone's fedora and thick-frame glasses are on a little tight.

    3. I find it somewhat painful to watch sitcoms with laugh tracks, old or new. Community which is now in it's zombie season had the most innovative comedy ever on TV. Parallel universes? 10-layered conspiracy theories?

      30 Rock had was fantastic up until the last season or two. Parks and Rec is going strong. Archer, Robot Chicken, the first two seasons of Venture Bro's.

      And these are just some of the comedy which is what we mostly focus on. Game of Thrones is going to be followed closely, of course.

      I think TV is better than it has ever been and I think this is due to the insane amount of competition. Films, on the other hand, really gone down the shitter.

      1. Agree with your general sentiments (although Community and Parks and Rec have both fallen out of grace with me). Even going back to the better shows of the 90s, they just don't compare to the better shows of today (although you could argue The Simpsons and South Park have fallen since then). Shows like "It's Always Sunny" make laughtracked, network-hampered shows like "Seinfeld" seem kinda lame. Comedy, drama and action TV have been pushing the limits thanks to the content flexibility and commercial emergence of cable tv. The stuff AMC is doing now is truly raising the bar for quality programming as HBO did earlier in the decade.

  12. Cantor supports his thesis very well in his lecture series Commerce and Culture. It is available on iTunes U and if you have the time to listen comes highly recommended. I found him to be very funny, very intelligent, and very convincing.

    1. Yeah, that's a great series. Very easy listening and learning.

  13. My main critique of Walking Dead has emerged in season 3: why don't they just start making stuff, and thus reestablish the factors of production and division of labor, instead of just scurrying around like rats and shooting each other?

    These are conscious human beings against mindless zombies; why don't they just dig some big holes to lure the zombies into, then burn them and bulldoze the whole thing? Why aren't they welding steel forks onto semis and big tractors, then just driving around running all the mofos down? There are so many ways these people could be proactive about the business of destroying the zombies, but instead they cower and hide...which illustrates the deeper epistemics of the undoubtedly neo-liberal writers, who see man (themselves) as hopelessly depraved children lost "in a world they never made" and helpless without the government to protect them. That's the real narrative of Walking Dead: without the government to protect you and do your thinking for you, you're just a mindless zombie.

    Which is the premise of all the modern social sciences.

  14. Of course people writing and making these shows are statist fucks.

  15. I always find it funny that "contrarians" on the internet love the same things young male internet hipsters love.

    1. Awww... where did the bad young male internet hipster touch you?

      1. Wherever it was, he touched it before it was cool.

  16. Dude, Zombies are jsut cool liek that!

  17. Do we really need a book to know that Americans are stocking their bunkers to ward off a zombie apocolypse?
    In other news, the sun is hot.


  19. And fuck you, Brent Bozell...

  20. "develooping"? That doesn't even pass spell check.

  21. If you think Arthur`s story is impressive,, last week my old neighbour also made $8044 putting in fourty hours a month from their apartment and they're classmate's mom`s neighbour has done this for seven months and recieved a check for more than $8044 in their spare time from their computer. use the tips on this address...

  22. Gavin. I just agree... Arthur`s blog is impressive, yesterday I got a brand new Lotus Carlton after having made $5555 this last four weeks and over $10k last-month. this is definitely the nicest-job I've ever done. I started this 3 months ago and practically straight away started bringing in over $86, p/h. I work through this website,,

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.