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Why The Walking Dead finale will devour all else on TV this weekend

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes is shown in a scene from The Walking Dead.

Gene Page/AP

You know that The Walking Dead has become part of pop culture once the celebrities start getting zombified.

According to reports, this Sunday night's hugely-anticipated finale of AMC's gory and desperately intense zombie drama will include several commercials featuring back-from-the-dead versions of Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Emma Watson, Selena Gomez and Rebel Wilson.

The arguably A-list cluster of stars willingly donned funereal blue makeup, opaque contact lenses and various simulated facial flesh wounds for the TV spots in support of the upcoming MTV Movie Awards on April 14. Zombie Ferrell is not a pretty sight at all.

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It's not likely they had to beg any of them to do it; more probably each one's agent and publicist is doing backflips.

The Walking Dead is the current It Show on television. Somehow fitting in with the Great Depression/Recession/Whatever in recent years, and somehow feeling painfully in keeping with the United States' ongoing economic woes, AMC's profane American soap opera has viewers fully mesmerized, some to near-zombie state.

Both repugnant and comforting, The Walking Dead (Sunday, AMC at 9 p.m.) has become one long, particularly messy car accident from which viewers cannot look way. It's about uneasy people watching far more desperate people pushed to impossibly desperate extremes, always with a tiny glimmer of redemption in near distance. Is it by design or quirk of fate that the show's much-hyped finale falls on Easter Sunday, that reverent North American holiday in honour of chocolate eggs and the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

So intense, so horrifically, disgusting graphic, yet still so human, The Walking Dead fairly epitomizes the definition of a watercooler TV show. The show has about 1.5 million Twitter followers and counting. And watching each episode live on Sundays, not on PVR or any other techno-bastardized method of viewing, has become a rite of passage.

In the U.S., some media outlets are hyping a Sunday-night ratings showdown between AMC's Dead and HBO's epic-budget medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones, which is back for a third campaign and returning with no small measure of its own American media histrionics, including three Entertainment Weekly covers in one month.

And by some weird quirk of fate, the finale and the return are airing at the same time. There really is no ratings battle between the two shows, because each one has its achingly loyal viewing audience. In America this Sunday night, roughly five million people will watch Thrones, while around twice that number will watch the last chapter of The Walking Dead. And many, many people will search for the instructional CD that came with their PVR.

There are no available ratings for how many Canadians are watching The Walking Dead, though it's a safe estimate that this Sunday's finale will draw in the million-plus viewer range, or roughly seven times the viewing audience of The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos.

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Ratings, and general wincing acceptance of The Walking Dead into mainstream life, has increased during the current third season, which has ratcheted up the dramatic tension with a finale mindful of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly:

  • The Good: Survivalist sherriff and seemingly decent everyman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). In the past season, he became a new father and then a widow, and he is still the leader of the ever-shrinking group of survivors holing up in a dank Southern prison.
  • The Bad: The Governor (David Morrissey), the one-eyed vainglorious, Jim Jones-like leader of a considerably larger and much more aggressive group of survivors. The Governor has full designs on laying siege to Rick’s little group and exacting his particularly sadistic brand of revenge on the ninja-sword carrying Michonne (Danai Gurira), who is the reason he wears an eyepatch.
  • The Ugly: The seemingly ever-growing hordes of cadaverous flesh-eating zombies forever closing in on all sides.

And without fail, many people who have never even seen The Walking Dead will watch this Sunday's finale, simply to see what all the fuss about – and then seek out the first and second seasons to catch up on. The show virtually exists for back-to-back marathon viewing.

The Walking Dead is the third leg of AMC's attempt to fully entrance the available viewing audience with original, top-drawer drama on the premium cable tier of HBO and Showtime, but at the Wal-Mart-style price of basic cable. AMC's first volley was the much admired and wildly successful Mad Men, which returns for season six next Sunday night. The hand-off from zombie soap to award-winning period piece is complete.

And let's be clear, The Walking Dead is a soap opera, plain and simple. If you edited out the scenes of cranium-cleaving and eye-gouging and spilling of intestines, the show is a hit because viewers will always go for a good serialized storyline, whether it's a telenovela or primetime drama in which the bulk of the cast are reanimated dead people with a taste for human flesh.

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