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‘The Walking Dead’ premiere clobbers ratings, but sparks backlash for violence

(Spoiler alert: don’t read on unless you’ve watched the season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead.)

The Walking Dead’s season 7 premiere saw more than just two victims get clobbered — the episode also walloped the ratings for the evening, raking in 17 million viewers, overtaking everything else that was on TV on Sunday night, including football.

The episode received an 8.4 rating in the important 18-49 demographic and 10.5 million viewers among adults aged 25-54. Using the same metrics, this is essentially double the ratings of Empire (which received a 4.1 rating in the 18-49 demographic), the current ratings darling among younger viewers. What is more, 7.6 million people watched the special 90-minute talk show Talking Dead that aired immediately following the episode.

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This was not a record for the popular AMC show — the season five premiere brought in 17.28 million viewers who wanted to find out what happened to the characters after they were imprisoned in a train car, awaiting their literal roasting in Terminus. But it is pretty impressive for a series that is already in its seventh season and clearly still going strong. It may prove that the six-month cliffhanger worked, despite viewers’ anger over the long wait.

That said, the ratings-busting premiere also brought some negative attention, not just for the choice of the two victims (Abraham, played by Michael Cudlitz and Glenn, played by Steven Yeun), but for the extremely graphic way in which they were killed. Brutal deaths are not unconventional for primetime television series. But the scenes were straight out of a horror flick, causing viewers to cringe at the ferocious nature of the kills that showed Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) forcefully bludgeoning both men’s heads to a bloody pulp.

Sure, viewers have come to expect violence — what else, after all, could one presume to see in an apocalyptic show that centers around zombies? But some felt it was too violent, even for The Walking Dead. The Verge started a Walking Dead Quitter’s Club last year, protesting the show’s presumed manipulation of viewers, and said this episode was the nail in the coffin to convince many to follow through with the threat. Tim Winter, President of the Parents Television Council, told The Hollywood Reporter that the episode was “one of the most graphically violent shows we’ve ever seen on television,” noting he felt the depictions “crossed the line.” He called the graphic nature of the violence a “crutch for what used to be better storytelling.” Winter believes that the show needs a more restrictive rating than its TV-MA (Mature Audiences) designation.

With The Walking Dead already renewed for its eighth season, we will bet that each coming episode will be watched with more scrutiny. Whether those quitters follow through or give the series another chance, however, will be discovered as we keep an eye on the ratings through the rest of season 7.