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Hollywood is facing serious franchise fatigue. How ‘The Walking Dead’ bucked the trend

Greg Braxton – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Love means never having to say you’re sorry — even if you’re a katana-wielding survivor of the zombie apocalypse desperately searching for your kidnapped husband.

That sentiment is the beating heart of “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live,” the latest entry in AMC’s “The Walking Dead” franchise. Although there is plenty of the gnarly gore that was a trademark of the original series, which premiered in 2010, the new spinoff’s main focus is the more intimate romance between Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and the fierce warrior Michonne (Danai Gurira).

The return of “Richonne” is the event that “The Walking Dead” faithful have been craving since Lincoln left the series in 2018, followed by Gurira in 2020. While “The Walking Dead” remained a solid performer for the network until its series finale in 2022, the absence of the two beloved characters was among the factors that caused a chunk of the audience that had made “The Walking Dead” a pop-culture phenomenon to drift away in its later seasons.

Since then, AMC has launched a fleet of spinoffs featuring mainstays from the “mother ship,” including crossbowman Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) and onetime villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) — with results that executives say are promising.

But the real test of the effort to create a “Walking Dead” cinematic universe is “The Ones Who Live.” While the relentless action will put Richonne to the test as the couple battle zombies and human evildoers, the drama also raises a key question for the franchise: More than a decade after it upended television, is there still enough love for “The Walking Dead” to sustain multiple concurrent series?

Complicating matters is the timing. Just as the further expansion of “The Walking Dead” franchise is underway, with “The Ones Who Live,” “Dead City” and “Daryl Dixon,” similar endeavors, such as the “Star Wars” and Marvel franchises, are witnessing signs of fan fatigue.

So far, at least, “The Ones Who Live” appears to have bucked the trend, with the first two episodes topping the charts for cable dramas this season in key demographics. The Feb. 25 premiere attracted a combined total of 3 million viewers across multiple showings on AMC, streaming platform AMC+ and simulcasts on other networks. (On AMC alone, the debut drew 1.3 million viewers, with Episode 2 bringing in 1.4 million. The series premiere is also the most-watched episode ever on AMC+.)

By contrast, the premieres of two previous spinoffs, “Dead City” and “Daryl Dixon,” attracted 1 million and 851,000 viewers, respectively, according to Nielsen.

The forces behind “The Walking Dead” universe are thrilled with the initial reception and are preparing for a future with a permanent “Walking Dead” footprint.

“I really do believe that ‘The Walking Dead’ in one form or another can absolutely keep going and going and going,” said Scott M. Gimple, the franchise’s chief content officer.

Added Dan McDermott, president of entertainment and AMC Studios: “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of ‘The Walking Dead’ to AMC and AMC Studios. We don’t want to drive this into the ground, but we honestly believe we can tell stories indefinitely into the future, with all kinds of stories and different genres. If we’re smart and sensitive and creative, this is a multigenerational IP.”

McDermott pointed out that although the popularity of the original series softened in its later seasons, “The Walking Dead” was “the biggest and most successful show in the history of cable television. Forty-eight of the top 50 scripted [episodes] on cable television of all time were ‘Walking Dead’ [episodes]. It’s such a big part of so many viewers’ lives.”

“The Walking Dead” was in many ways revolutionary. An adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, the series set new standards for graphic violence on cable TV with hordes of flesh-munching zombies and vicious thugs.

“When Robert Kirkman was pitching this comic years ago, he pitched it as the zombie movie that would never end,” Gimple said.

But as the series continued, its momentum slowed. Some fans complained that the show relied too much on what they called torture porn. Others said they were turned off by the brutality.

Losing two central characters didn’t help. Lincoln left to spend more time with his family in England. When last seen, a seriously wounded Grimes was in the clutches of the evil Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) being transported away in a mysterious helicopter.

Gurira, who also has a key role in Marvel’s “Black Panther” films, left the series to pursue other interests, including playwriting. Michonne’s departure was prompted by a clue about Grimes’ whereabouts.

But Gimple and McDermott argue that the decline in viewership was more a function of changes in the way audiences consume television, particularly with the onslaught of streaming services, than creative shortcomings.

“The whole landscape of television has changed in the last seven or eight years,” McDermott said. “We can’t live in the past or focus on the past. What we need to focus on is telling engaging stories for the still-significant and sizable fan base that follows these characters and loves these shows.”

Added Gimple: “The world changed. TV and movies changed so much. There was the pandemic. The bottom line is that ‘The Walking Dead’ transitioned into that new landscape and has become a vibrant part of it.”

Part of the strategy is slowing down the flow of “Walking Dead” fare, an approach that has also been signaled by Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige in response to that brand’s recent struggles. During 2019 and 2020, in its heyday, AMC was producing 42 hours annually of the franchise between the original show, “Fear the Walking Dead,” “The Walking Dead: World Beyond” and other projects. Now, the network produces 12 new episodes annually.

Another plan is to color outside the usual “Walking Dead” box, Gimple said.

“With these latest shows, it’s about taking these classic characters and putting them in new contexts,” he said. “We’re being more experimental. We’re putting forward the basic story values that Robert established in the comic — larger-than-life characters next to everyday folks — in really big situations that have real emotion. It’s not simply zombies or having shows with a bunch of walkers. It’s a brand of zombie storytelling. It gives us a way to keep going.”

In the new series, a despondent Grimes is a captive in a bleak metropolis ruled by a military police force called the Civic Republic Military, or CRM. A horrific crash brings him back together with Michonne, whom he has not seen since his capture. And although they are overjoyed to be reunited, their relationship becomes rocky when she tries to persuade him to run away.

Lincoln and Gurira are creators of the series along with Gimple. Grimes’ return was originally planned as a movie, but the project evolved as talks among the trio went along.

Said Gimple: “When the storytelling turned into something that we would all do together, it became exciting very, very quickly, and it became, ‘Oh, yeah, this is the way we were meant to do this.'”

No decision has been made yet about a second season — “anything can happen,” Gimple said — and it remains unclear whether fan interest in the franchise is capable of surmounting the structural challenges facing basic cable in the long run, especially as AMC lacks a streaming partner with the scale of Hulu, like competitor FX has.

But no matter what happens to Richonne, Gimple is upbeat about the future of “The Walking Dead” universe, in part because no network, streaming platform or franchise property can survive long in this market without the kind of experimentation “The Ones Who Live” represents. “Who knows what the next reinvention of the media landscape will be?” he said. “But I truly believe ‘The Walking Dead’ can absolutely be a part of it.”

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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