A message to AMC: ‘The Walking Dead’ needs an end date

Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Originally posted Monday, February 25, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is starting to become a metaphor of its own concept: it’s the show that seems to be dead but keeps trundling on.

It has lost half its regular viewers since the beginning of season 7, an astonishingly rapid rate of decline for any long-running scripted show. It keeps hitting record lows in viewership. Its overnight numbers once regularly hit 12 to 14 million and are now below 5 million. Even counting DVR and on-demand usage. it’s clear fewer than 10 million viewers are now counted vs. 20 million at its peak.

“ER” didn’t lose viewers this rapidly. Nor did “Bonanza” or “The Simpsons” or “The Big Bang Theory” or “NCIS” any other show that went on for many years.

So what’s wrong?

Some reasons are well cited. There was the tiresome Negan/Rick war. Many tuned out after Negan killed Glenn in possibly the goriest, most painful death of the show. There are too many new characters nobody cares about (sorry Alden!) while too many older ones have died or left. (Bye Rick! Bye Carl! Morgan even went to a spin-off! And Maggie? Huh?)

There are literally 450-plus other scripted new shows to choose from plus all the old ones available via streaming.

But there is something deeper going on and it may have to do with a fundamental problem for this type of storytelling now that “The Walking Dead” is in its ninth season: there is no end date.

Back in 2007, "Lost" was meandering through season three and getting shellacked critically. That's when ABC and the creators made a super smart decision: creating an end date. Once they knew it would be over in 2010, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were able to design story lines that led somewhere, that gave viewers a chance to feel like there would be answers and closure for many of the beloved characters. Sure, not everyone loved the actual ending, but there was an ending.

Knowing that a story will end sharpens the creative process, enables producers to focus on the essence of the show and gives the key actors a guaranteed out if they’re starting to feel antsy.

“Game of Thrones,” “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” are examples of shows that saw ratings rise once a finale date was announced as people became aware that those show’s days were numbered.

“The Walking Dead” needs to do that soon or its numbers will simply keep dwindling. Already, many folks are reaching a point where they’re saying, “That’s still on?” Or “Let me check out ‘Russian Doll’ instead.”

Angela Kang, this season's show runner, has injected the show with better character depth and pacing. The time jump was helpful and the Whisperers, led by Samantha Morton's Alpha, are an intriguing foe. But it could be even better if everyone knew the show will fade to black, in, say, 2021.

The problem for AMC, of course, is that “The Walking Dead” remains by far its biggest cash cow.

Even after losing half its fans, "The Walking Dead" is still the top-rated cable show out there by a long shot. And no other AMC show comes close, not even its spin-off "Fear the Walking Dead." In 2017, AMC even purchased Riverwood Studios in Senoia, ensuring its commitment to shooting something there.

I am not sure how much viewer shrinkage will force AMC to move on but to make it a financial decision by an AMC suit as opposed to a creative decision by the producers is hardly the better option.

I am also aware the producers want to keep "The Walking Dead" universe alive. It already is and it doesn't need the original to survive as a brand. It can create more spin-offs. It has movies coming up starring Andrew Lincoln. It has video gamestoursconventionsaction figurescollectibles et. al.

"Law & Order" survives even with the original long gone, courtesy of "SVU." "Star Trek," the original, ran only three seasons and 50 years later, there's a CBS All Access "Star Trek" show starring a "Walking Dead" alum. James Bond and Star Wars will still be around long after George Lucas and Sean Connery pass on.

It’s time, AMC. Give Carol and Daryl (the last two originals) a shot to close this story out with dignity and a decent-sized audience. Nobody wants to see the show look like one of those walkers with its torso riven from its legs, its face a gnarled mess, the remains of an arm and hand grasping at air.

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