The Woking Dead?

I couldn’t be happier for the few remaining ex-colleagues and friends of mine who remain in charge of Sony TV, and I’m actually quite thrilled for many of the newbies that are just joining.   Nothing makes a new gig in the entertainment industry more enjoyable that the upbeat mood that the beginning of a phenomenon creates among executives and even the rank and file around the lot.   I joined Sony just after the original BREAKING BAD series completed its run on AMC, and I would hear story aftet story about how the environment that had been sullied by the scandal that released salary information via a hack had been turned around by the juggernaut of success the later seasons had after it was discovered  by so many new viewers on Netflix.   And although I’m not around for what is clearly becoming the next such phenomenon, I’m certain the mood continues to be more upbeat with each passing week as THE LAST OF US continues to grow in popularity.

Last week was, as fellow HBO colleague Larry David would say, “pretty, pretty, pretty good”.  As James Hibbard of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER reported yesterday, its rapid ascent into the upper echelons of pop culture zeitgeist is paying such dividends–it is actually now becoming so important to the HBO world that it is becoming enough of a priority to avoid becoming a sacrificial lamb:

The network will make its next episode of the acclaimed post-apocalyptic series available two days early to get ahead of Super Bowl LVII.

Episode five will be available on HBO Max and HBO On Demand starting this Friday, Feb. 10, at 9 a.m. ET. The linear telecast on the HBO cable network will still air on Sunday, Feb. 12, at 9 p.m. ET. This gets the latest adventure of Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) to viewers well ahead of the big game Sunday which has the Kansas City Chiefs vs. the Philadelphia Eagles.

The show has been on a creative and ratings roll, with its most recent third episode, “Long Long Time,” generating widespread praise for its portrayal of a gay couple’s relationship across 20 years after a deadly Cordyceps pandemic.

The episode continued the show’s ratings climb, bringing in 6.4 million cross-platform viewers, up from 5.7 million the previous week and 4.7 million for its Jan. 15 premiere. The show is averaging more than 15 million viewers across all platforms and has been renewed for a second season.

That relationship, capped off by a completely unexpected kiss between two popular actors more recently known for their comedic turns in HBO’s WHITE LOTUS, Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, set the internet ablaze with plaudits and cheers and has catapulted both the actors and the song that serves as the soundtrack for their emotional encounter into an entirely new level of popularity, particularly for Offerman, who is straight and married to comedienne Megan Mullally in real life.  As Sarah Lemire of reported:

Since the premiere of the episode on Sunday, Jan. 29, viewers have flooded social media with heartfelt messages, with some calling it one of the best episodes of television for 2023. “What a perfect and unexpected love story,” one viewer summarized on Twitter.

Even Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, weighed in, tweeting, “Episode 3 of Last of Us is unbelievably good story telling. I am in awe of @Nick_Offerman performance. Incredible.”

The 1970 Linda Ronstadt song, “Long Long Time,” which serves as Bill and Frank’s tender anthem in the show, has experienced an upsurge in popularity.

In the hours following the premiere of the episode, streams of the former Billboard hit shot up more than 4900 percent on Spotify, reminiscent of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” which returned to charts after its use in Season Four of “Stranger Things.”

So I’m more than a little pissed when I see and hear the kinds of reactions some of my less enlightened friends and social media contacts make when they note their perception is that this is all being driven by what they see as “wokeism” at its best. with yet another series being punctuated by same-sex kisses. and the LGTBQI+ audience and those sympathetic to them driving the upsurge, with progressive-leaning media all but ordering its followers to catch up and watch the series if they had not already.  Bill Simmons’ Ringerverse is devoting no less than three regular podcasts to the show.  Star Pedro Pascal hosted SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE this past weekend. endearing himself to a broader audience by literally breaking up in character during a live sketch that went off the rails.

Look, I know I’m not the poster child for tolerance myself.  I find my own HBO habits leaning more to the likes of Bill Maher, who detests wokeism and all that it stands for and has drawn the increasing ire of many of those who have celebrated THE LAST OF US of late.   Frankly, Maher’s tale of a University of Illinois-Chicago law professor who was suspended after he referenced in an exam the FIRST INITIALS of racial slurs as potential examples for lawsuits after intolerant students got their dander up about “being made to feel uncomfortable”, and was ordered to undergo sensitivity training and write several essays apologizing, resonated more with me personally than Offerman and Bartlett’s sharing of a tender kiss.

I’ve been a champion for letting facts speak more volumes than opinions, so when I try and explain how yet another show about zombies has become a Sunday night destination so soon after THE WALKING DEAD left the air, I look at the fact that the LAST OF US is based on a video game introduced a few years after TWD premiered, and yes, the facts bear out that the popularity of gaming is proportionately stronger among the LGBTQ community.  Don’t believe me?  Believe (if only this time) Nielsen:

Simulation games—those that span a super-category of immersive gameplay allowing users to simulate real world activities—inherently move at a different pace than role-playing, adventure and sports games, but they’re a go-to favorite among many players in a key gaming demographic: the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, Nielsen’s 2020 Games 360 Survey found that LGBTQ+ gamers are significantly more likely to play simulation games across all platforms than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts.

In addition to gravitating more frequently to simulation games, LGBTQ+ consumers are younger (33 vs. 44) and more likely to have a gaming system (54% vs. 44% [non-LGBTQ+ consumers]) than the general U.S. population. They also spend more money  on video games each month ($13.14 vs. $10.40) and amplify their experience along the way, as they’re much more likely to own a specialized headset for media/music than the general population (29% vs. 19%) and continue the conversation online via gaming social media platforms like Twitch and Discord.
And when we look at spending intent, Nielsen’s 2020 Games 360 Survey highlights how LGBTQ+ gamers spend more money than the general public across devices and services.
And you better believe anyone with all of that at their disposal is subscribing to HBO, leading social media conversations, and will deliver a whole lot of free publicity for HBO Max as it utilizes the anticipation of the early drop of the next episode on its platform as it struggles to gain subscribers in its holy war battle with the likes of Peacock and Paramount+SHOWTIME–not to mention convert the few remaining AMC+ subscribers who haven’t watched since THE WALKING DEAD ended its run.
Yes, it probably helps that HBO honcho Casey Bloys is openly gay.  As he noted in a 2020 interview, HBO has a deep history with LGTBQ-friendly content, dating back three decades to the acclaimed AND THE BAND PLAYED ON.  At least two of Bloys’ predecessors were also openly gay, as are several key Sony executives.  Many of the same snarkers that mock plotlines like the kiss ‘heard round the online world will make note of those “coincidences”.
But one doesn’t get to be as successful and as resillient as Bloys without some understanding and appreciation for facts.  And it’s my contention that facts like those above speak louder and prouder than any sadly misguided opinions from snarkers will.  And I, for one, applaud such passion.  This is far more than “not that there’s anything wrong with that”.  There’s a lot RIGHT about a business model with data this compellingly supporting the embracing of this audience sector.  The personal preferences of any executive, or actor, that acts upon it serves only to make them more aware of the upside, and kudos to all involved who have benefitted from it.
So huzzah and hurrah for anyone and everyone who is discovering this show, for whatever reason that may be.  Watch it with a loved one, of whatever gender your heart desires.  And, for G-d’s sake, live and think like a human being, not like a zombie.
Until next time…



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