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Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

Can The Walking Dead still be The Walking Dead without The Walking Dead?

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Sep 10, 2020, 3:04 PM EDT (Updated)

After more than a decade, The Walking Dead is finally entering that mythical “next phase” the creative team behind the hit zombie series has been hyping for years. But can the franchise actually survive without the flagship series that turned it into water-cooler fodder and a full-fledged cultural phenomenon? Well, we’re about to find out.

It wasn’t quite as surprising as the comic’s unannounced finale (one of the gutsiest and most jaw-dropping surprises in modern comic history), but the small-screen version of The Walking Dead is officially coming to an end — it’ll just be shambling around for a couple years first. The flagship series will wrap after a super-sized 11th season, which is being split into two 12-episode runs to air in 2021 and 2022. But as AMC puts a bullet in the brain of the main series, the network is doubling down further on the franchise, green-lighting two new spinoff shows.

The first feels more like a true follow-up to the main series, and will focus on fan-favorite characters Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) as they continue on in the undead world established over the past decade or so. An untitled anthology series is also in the works, which will tell different stories about new and returning characters, with the flexibility to serve as both prequel or sequel tales.

Of course, these new series announcements are only the tip of the iceberg. AMC already has long-running spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead in its lineup, along with upcoming limited spinoff series The Walking Dead: World Beyond (which bows in October), plus a long-simmering trilogy of films that will track the adventures of the show’s former leading man Andrew Lincoln (Rick) after he was helicoptered off to parts unknown a couple of seasons ago.

So despite the looming cancellation, don’t be fooled — there will be more Walking Dead than ever on the airwaves over the next few years. The real question is whether fans will stick around to see where it goes once the show they’ve been watching for 12 years (at that point) is no longer a Sunday night staple on the schedule.

SO HERE'S THE PLAN

When it debuted 10 years ago, The Walking Dead organically grew into a cultural phenomenon, telling a story unlike anything that had ever been attempted on television. It was dark, it was ambitious, and it made no qualms about killing or writing off its A-list stars. Moments like Glenn’s death fake-out under a dumpster, then his real death at the hands of Negan, made for some of the biggest and most maddening moments in pop culture. But much like the comic it was based on, the story was always the saga of Rick Grimes. The series turned star Andrew Lincoln into a household name, and establish him as the patriarch of (for a time) the biggest TV show in the world.

But that was then, this is now.

Now, Rick has been gone from the show for a year or so — and the continued ratings slide makes it clear that fans aren’t stoked to watch a cast without Lincoln’s gravelly drawl calling the shots. The show has done its best to remain interesting, drawing from both the comic canon and original ideas to keep the narrative moving in Rick’s absence. But no abundance of new or remixed characters can make up for losing the ones we love.

One of the most interesting aspects of the cancellation is that there was, arguably, at least a few more seasons' worth of material to mine when looking at the comic. The show has yet to fully tackle the comic’s most ambitious and final arc (the introduction of a massive new community dubbed the Commonwealth), so it stands to reason that could be the story we’ll see in that super-sized 11th season. Or they’ll save some of that action for the spinoffs and anthology. Or, you know, maybe they’ll just do something else entirely.

As for the new spinoffs, they sound like pretty safe bets — at least as safe as the network could make given the circumstances. Daryl has been one of the show’s most popular characters since day one, and having him co-headline a spinoff with fellow fan favorite Carol is a good kind of fan service. Finding a story worth telling with the duo, and reasonably explaining why they’ve seemingly spun off from the group they’ve been with for a decade on the main show, is the real challenge here. But regardless — if there’s one character outside of Rick who can sustain the franchise, it’s Daryl. That said, he’s always worked best in the ensemble of a larger cast, so we don't yet know if that character can sustain a series with the spotlight squarely on him.

An anthology also makes a lot of sense, and it’s a concept the creative team has experimented with for a while now. They’ve done web shorts and one-off episodes that flirt with the anthology format, but now they’ll have the full freedom to visit different parts of the country, or the planet, to show how the apocalypse is playing out anywhere and everywhere. Leaving the door open to explore existing characters (i.e., something along the lines of the recent comic epilogue issue Negan Lives, perhaps?) is also smart — and could bring some buzz down the line.

CAN IT WORK?

Despite the revolving door of cast members over its decade run (seriously, just glance at that IMDb page — you’re guaranteed to find a dozen or more characters you’ve already forgotten existed), this show has thrived for so long because of the characters. Fans fell in love with Maggie and Glenn, and idolized Rick as the flawed hero out to do what’s right. They watched Daryl and Carol’s “will-they/won’t-they” dance time and time again. They watched Carl grow up, and watched Michonne slowly let down her walls and find a family.

It wasn’t the dead that made this show a hit — it was the living.

That remains true to this day, as The Walking Dead still leans heavily on those few remaining stars still sticking around, with characters like Michonne (who is also exiting the series), Daryl, and Carol getting a brunt of the focus in recent arcs. That spinoff will still have Daryl and Carol, but it won’t have the safety net of already being a hit series in the first place. Fans love them within the framework and ensemble of The Walking Dead, but will millions upon millions want to keep watching them trudge around the apocalypse for another several years alone? It’s easy to say the massiveness of the franchise will insulate it from failure, but it could be far from the first high-profile spinoff to fail. Remember Joey, the Friends spinoff after that series ended? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

There’s also the challenge of simply creating new, beloved characters from whole cloth. With a show that churns through bodies so quickly, fan favorites can be few and far between. Heck, I’ve watched The Walking Dead every week since Season 1 — and I’d be hard pressed to name two to three current regulars outside of the OG cast. Can they find a “new” Rick, or Carol, or Michonne with these spinoffs? Maybe, but if the past few seasons of The Walking Dead are any indication, it’s clearly easier said than done. Ironically enough, the Telltale Games’ Walking Dead video game run had some of the best success at creating new characters for the franchise. But at least that's a proof of concept that it's still possible to create some new fan favorites within this world.

That’s why an anthology format is arguably the most exciting, since you really can try anything when you’re not tied in to a location and specific characters. It’s why shows like The Twilight Zone, or Black Mirror, or American Horror Story are so great — you really never know what you’re going to get. But even that freedom is still beholden to a zombie apocalypse as the backdrop. There’s only so much you can do with that setup, and 10 years later, The Walking Dead has already played with a lot of those tropes. Not to mention the fact that everything from Z Nation to iZombie to Game of Thrones has been playing in that sandbox in the years since the original show blew our minds with the nightmare of a zombie-fied downtown Atlanta.

These days? The pressure is higher than ever to truly deliver something new.

THE NUMBERS GAME

It’s no secret The Walking Dead has taken a baseball bat to the head when compared to its ratings heights of 2013-2015, when the show frequently brought in 14-15 million viewers per episode. The numbers have been trending down the past few years, with the series still a major hit with 4-5 million viewers per episode — but a far cry from the days when Rick and the gang were fighting cannibals at Terminus in front of half the country (oh, simpler times).

Turn to the only current companion series, Fear the Walking Dead, and you can start to see why going all in on spinoffs could be risky. Despite pulling in 10 million viewers during its buzzy 2015 debut during the height of Walking Dead mania, Fear only averaged around 1.5 million viewers during its most recent 2019 season. Not bad at all compared to the TV landscape in general, but still a long way down from when the franchise was at its peak — and that’s even after some more overt crossovers and character sharing with the mothership series (not to mention the fact that Fear is often a really good show!).

So what does that mean for future spinoffs and anthologies? We can probably learn some lessons from Fear’s modest success. The OG series is obviously the strongest performer because it was a monster, unprecedented hit on its own. The franchise remains a draw, but Fear has proven that a mass majority of fans won’t follow anything and everything with “Walking Dead” slapped in the title. The real test case for the next era will be World Beyond. If it does gangbusters, with no direct tether to the main franchise, it means folks are still jonesing for more from this apocalypse. If not? It could be a long few years.

It’s rare for a show’s ratings to increase after several years on air, but knowing an endgame is coming for The Walking Dead could renew interest for at least fans who have drifted away the past few seasons. It’s not incredibly likely (just going off TV ratings trends in general), but possible. Even if that “ending” is only setting up more spinoffs and movies. But hey, it’s all about the marketing spin. If fans do ramp back in, it could be a nice launchpad for the new projects. If not, the network could have a whole lineup of low-ish-watched shows in the same range as Fear in a couple of years, with no Walking Dead standout left to lead the charts — and at that point, you might be looking for a panic button because the golden goose is gone.

Put simply, this is a massive gamble for a franchise that has been one of the biggest things in pop culture for a decade. If these spinoffs can’t grow and expand the franchise, the apocalypse could be over (well, you know what we mean).

... and if that happens The Walking Dead might really be, well, dead.

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