Zombie apocalypse series Walking Dead is riding high on critical praise. But if history is any guide, the show is doomed to fail. Nobody has ever made a post-apocalyptic TV series work in the States.
In recent years, the post-apocalypse has served as the backdrop for doomed cult favorite shows like Jericho, the story of what happens to a small Kansas town after mysteriously-launched nukes take out every major American city. A soap opera about survival in the wake of total disaster, the show eventually turned to the politics of rebuilding the American nation. Tense and complicated, the show won the hearts of fans and critics, but the general public tuned out. Even a highly-organized fan campaign only got a tiny, truncated second season out of CBS.
What went wrong with Jericho? The same thing that seems to go wrong with other post-apocalypse stories. It's just hard to watch death and hopelessness week after week. Even if the show is about preventing the apocalypse, the way Sarah Connor Chronicles and Showtime's Odyssey 5 were, things just get too grim. Both series were about using time travel to prevent the end of the world, and included some flash-forwards to the death and destruction to come.
One post-apocalyptic series during the 2000s that managed to go the distance was the Battlestar Galactica reboot, though it's an unconventional post-apocalypse tale in many ways. First of all, it's a space opera that takes place deep in human prehistory; and second, it's about a civilizational diaspora rather than a collapse. Plus, the show managed to survive partly by finding a home on the Syfy channel, where it didn't need to garner the same kinds of ratings a network show like Jericho or Sarah Connor Chronicles did. One could say the same thing about mid-2000s Showtime series, Jeremiah, about a world where plague has wiped out all adults. It's unlikely BSG or Jeremiah would have survived even a full season on FOX - so indeed, these exceptions prove my earlier point about large audiences fleeing from grim futures in a serialized format.
This was a lesson that pop culture learned very well in the 1970s, which was probably the last time before the 2000s when post-apocalyptic shows were tried on a regular basis - always ending in failure. Some died for good reason, like the awful series based on Planet of the Apes and Logan's Run - both set in the far future when humans are enslaved by intelligent apes and intelligent supercomputers respectively. Neither series lasted even one season.
But there were also a plethora of original post-apocalyptic series in the 1970s, including the amazing young adult show Ark II, about a family wandering the polluted wastelands, encountering weird post-civilization groups and trying to maintain human decency in the face of it all. Only 15 episodes were ever made, though it was widely syndicated.
Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, tried repeatedly to get post-apocalyptic shows off the ground. One show, Genesis II, finally made it to air in 1973 as a TV movie. It was about Dylan, a 20th century scientist who goes into suspended animation - only to awaken in a 22nd century world where civilization has fallen. Roddenberry had planned out an entire season of shows, based on the idea that Dylan would join a group of "peacekeepers" who ride an underground tube system seeking out remnants of civilization and finding weird new pockets of post-human life. You can see why the idea was appealing: Post-apocalypse set design is cheap, and you can encounter "strange new life and civilizations" without ever leaving Earth.
None of those planned episodes were ever produced, though one episode later became a TV movie called Planet Earth, about a female-dominated world where men are slaves.
Another spinoff from Genesis II made it to television in the mid-70s as a movie called Strange New World, about three scientists coming back to Earth from a space mission, only to find that some kind of apocalypse has transformed the planet. Like Dylan in Genesis II, these scientists would have wandered from place to place, finding things like cities run by androids with human slaves - or a decaying city zoo, where a zookeeper tries to protect the surviving animals.
Only the British and Japanese ever seemed to get post-apocalyptic TV shows right. Both countries often produce miniseries, or straight-to-DVD series, which allow writers to show us a dark and terrible human future without having to linger there for years on end. Notably, the BBC produced some amazing miniseries in the early 1980s like Day of the Triffids, and Tripods (based on the incredible YA novels by John Christopher). Mid-70s BBC series The Survivors, about a weirdly civilized group of people rebuilding after a plague decimates the entire planet, lasted three seasons of 12 to 13 episodes each.
1980s Japanese anime series Fist of the North Star worked well, combining post-nuke holocaust with martial arts themes (sometimes in a slightly cheesy way).
Even long-running series Gundam is arguably apocalyptic, with its focus on war and post-human technology; it manages to escape grimness by showing us a world that hasn't been entirely decimated by war (and a meteor strike), though it's often on the brink of destruction.
The pattern we see emerging from these post-apocalyptic shows is that the only way to survive is either to make your show a miniseries with a set ending - or to focus on rebuilding civilization. And by "rebuilding," I mean there has to be a certain level of technology present - which we see in Gundam, and also in The Survivors, where disease has destroyed humans but not the environment. Maybe that's why BBC recently relaunched The Survivors as a new series. Of course, it was canceled after two short seasons. Still, it might last longer than Walking Dead.