Zombie apocalypse is a bipartisan issue — on TVs across the U.S., at least

Democrats and Republicans don't agree on much these days. "The Walking Dead" and "Stranger Things" are exceptions

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 6, 2019 3:00PM (EST)

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon in "The Walking Dead" (Gene Page/AMC)
Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon in "The Walking Dead" (Gene Page/AMC)

In these times of political tribalism, among the few things that unite Americans are our collective fandoms for “This Is Us,” “Stranger Things” and “The Walking Dead.”

Such are the findings of E-Poll Market Research, which released its 2019 list of top programs among viewers identifying as Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday, the same day as Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, also something of a collective viewing experience across many platforms.

Following that, and after the Democratic response delivered by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, there’s bound to continue to be a great deal of debate over our many political divisions.

As was true in 2016, the most recent time time the company shared its partisan-delineated data crunch, our mutual affection for some shows and our party-specific enjoyment of others tells us a lot about our culture in the present moment.

The starkest division along party lines is in the comedy department. Among Democrats, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” reigns supreme. That show features an inclusive police squad headed by a gay black captain, with an African American sergeant and two female Latinx cops, one a sergeant and the other a detective who came out as bisexual.

Republicans favor “Last Man Standing,” a Tim Allen vehicle about a politically conservative father contending with a house full of women, including one daughter who serves in the military and identifies as conservative, and another who is politically liberal and behaves like a moron.

Notably, “Last Man Standing” is the only broadcast comedy to make it to the list of favorite programs among Republicans. Democrats, meanwhile, enjoy “The Big Bang Theory” enough for it to make that party’s top five; it's 15th on the Republican list.

Where both parties find common ground is a general preference for dramas and specifically NBC’s “This Is Us,” which was beloved by Republicans specifically back in 2017 when Salon interviewed an E-Poll spokesman. Poll-takers from both sides of the political spectrum explain they find the program to be “emotionally involving” and “engaging.”

From there our divisions manifest by degrees.

Joining “This Is Us” and “Last Man Standing” in the top five broadcast TV favorites among Republicans are two medical dramas, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Resident,” and the cop procedural “Chicago P.D.”

Democrats, meanwhile, enjoy “Chicago Med” slightly more than Republicans — although it is the only other drama popular enough to make the top 10 on both party lists. But when it comes to crime-fighting heroes, blue voters prefer “The Flash,” according to E-Poll.

Among cable and streaming series, both parties can have a pleasant, tension free dinner conversation discussing theories and plot points from “The Walking Dead” and “Stranger Things,” although Republicans like “The Walking Dead” slightly more that then ‘80s-set “Stranger Things and Democrats are a touch more passionate about the Netflix series than AMC’s long-running zombie spectacle.

We can also peacefully agree on the continuing appeal of “Shameless” and the messy Gallagher clan and are like-minded in our enjoyment of History’s “Ancient Aliens” and “Fear the Walking Dead,” both entries on each side’s top 20.

According to E-Poll, Democrats look for shows that are “sexy and emotionally involving,” whatever that means. On the red side, 13 of the 20 cable programs score above 20% in family friendly designation; only four shows in the Democrat top 20 fit that descriptor.

Absent from either list is “Game of Thrones” which topped the list among Democrats in 2016.

And our collective preferences change with each passing year. In 2016-2017 an E-Poll spokesman told Salon that Republicans preferred CBS’s "Mom” and NBC’s "Superstore.” In that same period ABC's "Black-ish" and "Speechless," Fox's "Empire," and CBS' "MacGyver" rated highly among Democrats.

Since then, “Superstore” has won wide acclaim among critics for its depiction of issues affecting the working class, as seen through an inclusive team at a big box store. But it doesn’t appear on either the Democrats’ list of favorites or that of Republicans.

As with any poll these results are open to lots of interpretation and disagreement about the results and questions about the methods of data collection. But at the very least, the findings provide fodder for friendly conversations about why we love the shows that we do.

Explaining the appeal of Republican favorite “Fixer Upper” isn’t a heavy lift. The love affair for “Supernatural” among Democrats might take a bit more explaining, to be honest. But digging into our shared affection for shows such as “The Walking Dead” and “This Is Us” could make for illuminating conversations.

I have my suspicions as to why liberals specifically enjoy the series (so many of us are convinced the world is ending), and assumptions about its appeal among conservatives (the survivalist narrative has something to do with it, as well as its convenient visual metaphor of invasion by horde). But I would also love to sit down with fans from each party and experience each person’s interpretation of an episode.

The same would be true of “This Is Us,” and potentially less fraught. Everybody enjoys a tender experience even if we show that in different ways. But what if, in addition to that, we could discuss how each of us view pivotal narratives with a given hour? Maybe we’re all fascinated by “Stranger Things” for the same reasons. Or perhaps one side watches out of nostalgia for Ronald Reagan while the other yearns for what they view as an age defined by Steven Spielberg.

In any case, if someone could please break down the universal appeal of “Ancient Aliens” to me I’d greatly appreciate that, thanks much.

Shared television viewing experiences haven’t been commonplace for many years. We view and digest series on our own schedules and interpret their experiences in different ways, depending on who we are and how we feel about the world around us. We are watching a lot of series these days, but we also more likely than ever to experience them in separate places. That’s very much like our politics.

But if E-Poll’s findings for 2019, that favored genres on both broadcast lists reveal more parity than they did in 2016, that’s a whisper of optimism. It says that those searching for a way to close the yawning cultural divide might start with a friendly conversation about why we connect to the shows we love, and what that says on a fundamental level about the communal state of us — a small step, maybe, to mending a fractured U.S.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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