EMMYS: AMC's 'The Walking Dead'

Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.

The Walking Dead is anything but. The AMC drama is to zombie entertainment what Krispy Kreme is to fried dough: an instant sensation. It broke from the gate in October 2010 and immediately established itself as the most-watched hour on cable, dwarfing the numbers of its esteemed AMC stablemates Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Killing. It earned a Golden Globe nomination for top drama series and landed four Emmy noms in 2011, winning for its prosthetic makeup.

And yet The Walking Dead arrived last fall needing to prove itself all over again. Why? Because in late July it parted company with its revered creator, exec producer and showrunner Frank Darabont, who was replaced by his head writer and second-in-command Glen Mazzara. Would it be the same show without the three-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker crafting the storylines, steering the ship and calling the shots? AMC held its breath, as did the legion of fans of the comic book/graphic novel series from Robert Kirkman on which the series is based.

Then the numbers came in: Nearly every week during both halves of its second season, The Walking Dead seemed to shatter demo ratings records for cable. The premiere in October averaged 7.3 million total viewers (up from 5.4 million the year before). That rose to 8.1 million for its midseason kickoff in February. By the time the finale rolled around in mid-March, the number soared to 9 million viewers, 6 million of them adults 18-49. It now ranks as the most-watched basic cable drama ever in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos and is No. 3 all-time in total viewers trailing only USA’s Monk and TNT’s The Closer.

So much for any chaos behind the scenes decimating the product on screen.

If the transition to the Mazzara era was shockingly smooth, however, that was hardly an accident. In choosing Darabont’s first lieutenant, AMC was putting its money on an unflappable alum of FX’s The Shield who quickly understood that staying the course was the best policy.

“The particular challenge when I became showrunner was to convince the cast and crew that we were still going to follow the plan that Frank and the writers and I had developed together,” Mazzara said. “It was really about fine-tuning what was already in the can. I realized we already had a good direction going and we should keep moving that way, not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Another test for Mazzara was walking the high wire between Walking Dead’s three competing elements: high-end character drama, graphic novel source material, and horror. “It’s a matter of always keeping those three in balance,” he believes. “I think by the end of Season 2, we were able to bring those things into better balance than we’d been able to before that. There were times, for instance, when the horror fans became frustrated. But I think we hit our stride during the last episodes of the season and found the right tone. And going forward to Season 3, I think the pacing will continue to be quicker than it had been during the first half of Season 2.”

Of course, every series endures growing pains of one sort or another, and the tonal evolution between showrunners is hardly surprising. What’s been perhaps less predictable is the way the Walking Dead audience has continued to propagate with the kind of speed a zombie could hardly dream of. Executive producer Gale Anne Hurd admits that the original expectation was that the show would strictly appeal to a genre audience.

“No one expected that we would actually become part of the pop culture dialogue to the extent that we have,” Hurd acknowledges, “and I think it’s happened because the fans who enjoyed the show became our biggest proponents. I give credit to the cast bringing these complex characters to life — no pun intended. I also honestly believe there’s something to the zeitgeist, maybe because it’s 2012 and we have a feeling the apocalypse is right around the corner. It’s much less unsettling to imagine a zombie apocalypse than a real one.”

It was helpful during the tumult of the second-season transition to have Kirkman on-hand not only as an exec producer but “a fully integrated creative voice on our show,” Mazzara adds. ”He’s very mindful of the fan base and the comic book audience.” He notes that the show’s upcoming Season 3 storylines are what Kirkman refers to as “the good stuff” with the introduction of the Michonne character and the casting of David Morrissey to play the Governor.

But for all the success of Walking Dead, does Mazzara ever feel like those in the creative community still tend to dismiss it as a mere zombie show? “Maybe, and that’s OK,” he says. “And The Shield was just a cop show. You can reduce any show down to a simple sentence. But let ’em do it. That keeps us hungry and keeps us working hard.”

Hurd admits she does occasionally feel like “the poor stepchild” at AMC, considering its trio of more critically praised dramas. “We’re popular but we’re not very pretty,” she offers. “At the same time, it’s nice to be on a network that so stands for quality.”

  1. This article seems to forget the first 3/4 of the second season, which was stuck on the farm asking questions like “Why go on living?” and “Where’s Sofie?” with very, very few zombies or action at all.

    While the last few episodes were fantastic, for me at least it didn’t erase the boredom of way too much script and obvious budget crunch from AMC for the season.

    I can only hope that with all the accolades building up for this show (and the coming zombie apocalypse in real life) that the purse strings are loosened a bit and these new characters and plots are “a little less talk and a lot more action”.

    1. I agree with BG as do a lot of die hard WD fans. We all know where the story is going, the graphic novels have been out for almost 10 years and yet the TV series is dragging its feet. No matter how much they change characters and small plot twists the main story is the same. TOO much time was spent on the farm due to the production trying to save money after slashing the budget by almost half because AMC overspent on Mad Men.

      Mad Men is steadily losing viewers and is soon to be another show where it rides its first season ratings into the ground and WD is suffering because of it. Who cares how many more cigarettes they smoked in the 60s, bring on the Prison and the Govnor.

  2. I still stuck with the show even though the season 2 pace was glacial and you noticed the budget was cut because they stayed on that farm forever. Also, the fans are right that Lori has been annoying and the “Where’s Carl?” plotlines really did become a narrative crutch. I completely gave up on “The Killing” which is shocking because I loved Season 1. Oh, and gave up on “Mad Men” as well — looking forward to that show ending so AMC can focus its dollars on TWD instead of that depressing snore-fest.

  3. Suggest people read the books. This is not a story about killing zombies. It is about the extent people will go to survive in a world which has succumbed to a horrible disaster & the extent people will go to survive & protect their loved ones. Trust is gone & the human threat becomes just as bad or worse than the undead.

    1. I think most people get that. Still doesn’t mean they have to do it all from the same porch, asking the same questions over and over.

  4. With Bernthal (Shane) gone, I guarantee that the beginning of the end has already happened for this show. Wait and see.

  5. Second season was horrible. The last episode was about the only episode worth watching. Played the game on xbox, and so far that story is 10 times more entertaining than the show…

    First season was great, they really dropped the ball with season two. Hopefully the prison will get it back on track.

  6. It sucked in the 2nd season, the only reason I watched it was to hope it would get better, it sort of did in the season finally. However, this year if it does not take on the tone of the first season, right out of the gate, I know it wont and I’l stop watching. Once again, a great product that was effed up by un-creative corporate suits of the 1%

  7. The first half of the season was what is known as character development, which is a tool that is used to give characters more depth. This makes the show more interesting and the characters more compelling. Actors love it as do critics, but the mindless with no attention span not so much.

    1. Oh, please, get off your high horse. Character development doesn’t require complete story inertia. That came about due to the budget, as anyone with a clue knows.

  8. I also didn’t really care for most of season 2, but the last couple of episodes – along with the Governer and prison storylines being introduced – give me enough hope that this show can really knock it out of the park going forward. What I don’t understand is why AMC insists on slashing the budget of pretty much the most successful basic cable series EVER in favour of the waning Mad Men. Yeah it’s critically acclaimed but it isn’t going to last much longer, and the way Matt Weiner played so dirty during negotiations really make you wonder why they wouldn’t plow their money into a huge young drama that creatively could be so much better if given the budget to it properly.

  9. I have to agree with most of the comments on here. I found the last three episodes of the season 2 to be the best of the season. They were on the farm way too long.

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