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And one to ruin them all - The Walking Dead

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The post-apocalyptic TV series The Walking Dead was almost an instant hit - the story of Rick Grimes and other people stuck in the middle of a zombie apocalypse brought millions of fans to the AMC channel. Until one thing happened. Yup, it’s another one bad idea that irreversibly ruined a good project.


And one to ruin them all - The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead, a series set during the zombie apocalypse in Georgia, was a mixture of drama, a bit of horror and some tough decisions people have to make while death is all around them. Would you keep your sanity intact, keep your humanity when every single person you meet might want to kill you or... that person is dead already and just wants to take a bite of your flesh? The first two seasons were well written, mostly based upon a comic book series also called The Walking Dead. The second one was a bit too long (13 episodes compared to 6 in season one), but with enough content to keep the audience interested.

From season 3, two things begin to happen. First, the seasons became longer (16 episodes instead of 13) which led to some of the subplots being unnecessarily inflated, episodes began to contain just fillers without much content. Second, the creators introduced the first real villain, the Governor, which marked a switch from just fighting for survival in a world full of zombies to also fighting with other survivors for what is left of that world.

While the Governor subplot was... meh, the series begun to gather a wider audience - the viewership jumped from 5-6 million to about 15 million for each episode, which was a huge gain. New characters, deaths of previous characters, new subplots and settings, all of it was appealing to the audience. At least the main storyline was interesting and involving, the one thing the creators were struggling with were the villains.

Since the series was based on comic books, the villains were always over-the-top, lacked clear motives, lacked background or spent far too much time on tirades explaining their evil plans. First there was Merle Dixon, who was a racist a-hole because... he just was. That’s it. Then was the Governor, who had some background thrown in, but still his motives for being evil were... questionable at best. He was trying to keep his people safe by being sadistic towards everyone, who opposed him. Then there was the Terminus fiasco - a group of people, who lured survivors to a train station just to kill and eat them. Why? It was never really explained, especially since they had a lot of other food available and every person they kill could potentially be infected with what turns people into zombies.

So what was the solution to break this slump? Introduction of a brand new insufferable douchebag! I meant brand-new villain, called Negan. Of course, Negan, like the previous villains in the series, was a one-dimensional, over-the-top character, who was lacking any depth or clear motivation. He had power over a group called Saviors because he was so charismatic and sadistic. I guess, because, again, it was never explained how he got to the top of that group. His plan, as he explained it in an 18-minutes long scene of insufferable tirade in the episode The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be, was to rob every single settlement of resources and use them to keep his group fed and safe.

To put it differently, Negan planned to survive by being so evil that all other survivors will pay him to leave them alone. The method he chose to achieve that goal was by being evil. His motivation for being evil was... congenital evilness, I guess. Yes, Negan was evil. That’s about it, the whole character. Basically, he was a clumsy copy of the Governor, but without the background and with a slight homo-erotic twist. While that plan of survival was only slightly worse than previous villains of the series, after all, he was completely dependent on other people for the survival of his group, for some reason, he was omniscient, omnipotent, had unlimited resources of people, ammo and fuel available at any moment and was always few steps ahead of any opponent.

The character of Negan was devised by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, creators of The Walking Dead comic books, so of course it was as subtle as a wrecking ball, but there was something else. The moment Negan was introduced into the series, he killed someone from the main cast. It was a huge cliffhanger at the end of the season because it was revealed at the beginning of the new season who that someone was. And it sort-of worked - while the average episodes in season 6 had about 12-13 million viewers, the season finale watched over 14 million and to watch how the cliffhanger was resolved at the beginning of season 7, over 17 million people switched on to AMC.

As it turned out, Negan killed two people, who were important part of the main cast, which was a bit of a shock to the audience, especially the brutality of the act. Finally, the gloves were off - The Walking Dead had its great villain, who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and kill-off main characters! How did the audience react? Let’s just say 5 out of 17 million, who watched that first episode of season 8, did not return for the second episode. What is more, soon the audience dropped to around 10 millions, which was way below the average of the previous season. Of course, after noticing that the character of Negan was perhaps a mistake, the creators quickly wrote him off. Nah, just kidding, he was promoted!

From just another villain, Negan became a main character and his subplot was extended for next season. Despite being, as I mentioned before, an insufferable douchebag, despite being a cartoonish character, despite trying to be evil by being evil to achieve being evil (with being slightly less evil in his spare time), Negan became the pivotal element of the whole series - nothing that was happening wasn’t involving him. In fact, he was so important that for 2 seasons the zombies pretty much disappeared from the equation - the conflict between Rick and Negan (which could have been solved by a single bullet several times) pushed the zombie apocalypse into the background.

From the moment Negan was introduced at the end of season 6, until his subplot was sort-of closed at the end of the season 8, the series lost about half of the audience (from 14-17 million viewers to 6-8 millions). Of course, after running the show to the ground, Scott M. Gimple, the showrunner at the time and author of some of the less successful episodes at the time (including the infamous 18-minutes long tirade by Negan), was immediately fired. No, of course he wasn’t, we’re talking about corporate management, after all. He was promoted!

Yup, after season 8 ended with the lowest viewership for a series finale since season 1, Scott M. Gimple was promoted to be the chief content officer for The Walking Dead television series franchise. The same franchise he worked so hard to disintegrate by not great ideas for the main series and creating several spin-offs, which also can hardly be called successes. He was a showrunner for The Walking Dead for 4 years, he took over from Glen Mazzara at the end of season 3, when on average over 10 million people were watching each episode of The Walking Dead. When Gimple moved to a greener pasture, the show was struggling to attract 7 million viewers. From that point, it was only downhill for the series, and currently less than 2 million are still watching The Walking Dead.

So what exactly went wrong? Was the sudden and drastic decline of The Walking Dead caused by the introduction of just one character, Negan? Was it down to the brutal killing of two characters from the main cast? Was it the fault of Scott M. Gimple and his creative decisions? The answer to those questions is... maybe. Or perhaps it was the sum of all three factors put together. Jeffrey Dean Morgan did a great job playing Negan, the problem was not with him. The character was way, way, way too over-the-top for the show, that’s for sure. Of course, it sounds silly, demanding realism in a show about zombies, but up to that point (apart from the obvious villains), the show kept some sort of restrain in the outlandish narration. It was kept down-to-earth, the characters were almost believable, they were sometimes complicated, had some depth and background. And then there was Negan, who was just a cartoonish idiot without any plan or reasoning.

Every show ends one day, there are no examples of TV series that would run forever and keep the same audience, but The Walking Dead was in a way unique. Just one decision of introducing a character that was sticking out like a sore thumb cut down the audience by about 15% overnight. That is impressive. But despite that clear signal that something went wrong, the creators did not stop to re-think that decision. No, I’m not an idiot, I know that episodes of TV series are filmed months in advance and the creators could not just change something straight away. But you would think that after losing 15% overnight and then another 15% throughout the rest of season 7, they would consider some other options. Nope, they just pushed on for the whole next season with the Negan plot, and they lost another 20% of the audience.

Oh, and there’s just one footnote - they didn’t even kill-off Negan at this point. No, he lived on in further seasons, this time trying to redeem himself for the past sins, which was not only out of character, but also put off some more viewers from returning to the show. Right now, the whole The Walking Dead franchise (main series plus spin-offs Fear the Walking Dead, World Beyond, Tales of the Walking Dead, Dead City and Daryl Dixon) could hardly enjoy more than 6 million viewers, which is comparable with the first season of the original series. It turned out that more low-quality material is not the same thing as one better quality show - who knew? Is it all down to the introduction of Negan (who, btw. is a main character in the Dead City spin-off) or was he just a symptom of a bigger problem with the show? Whatever the answer is, The Walking Dead is one of the examples of how one bad decision could ruin a great project if the creators fail to notice a mistake or ignore the feedback.



20-09-2023


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