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Will 'Walking Dead' Run Downhill?
October 24, 2016  | By David Hinckley  | 7 comments


As Walking Dead fans start to exhale after Sunday night’s brutal season 7 opener, here’s an incidental random thought: It may also have been the moment at which the show’s viewership peaked.

Or, to put it another way, it did something that worked so well it may never be able to do anything quite that effective again.

Specifically, it may never again create extended suspense as powerful as giving fans six months to guess whose head the evil Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) pounded into gazpacho with his trusty baseball bat Lucille.

For anyone who somehow missed it, AMC’s The Walking Dead ended season 6 last spring with Negan capturing most of the warriors with whom we have lived for six seasons.  

Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Glenn (Steven Yeun), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Carl (Chandler Riggs), Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and others were forced to kneel in a semi-circle, surrounded by Negan’s band of psycho killers.

In the last scene of season 6, Negan killed one of the kneelers.

We did not see whom, giving us instead a classic TV cliffhanger. Fans got six months to debate and argue their choice(s), encouraged by creators who love teasing the fan base and savor misdirection as much as zombies enjoy chowing down on a fresh human.

True, the Walking Dead comic books sometimes point to where the TV show is going. And sometimes they don’t.

The Walking Dead has played the cliffhanger card frequently. But this summer’s was the tour de force, a clear-cut situation in which at least one major character was going to be mopped up with a sponge.

As a way of keeping the show in the conversation over summer vacation, it worked brilliantly. It also very likely brought new eyeballs to the show, or lured old ones back. Season six averaged 13.15 million viewers, down from 14.4 million season five, and obviously, the producers would love to get the number back up.

We should stress here that The Walking Dead is in no danger. It’s as embedded in popular culture as pepperoni pizza, and if it lost half its viewers tomorrow, it would still be a gift from the gods to its fans and to AMC.

Still, there are certain laws of TV viewership that even The Walking Dead can’t reverse.

After a certain number of seasons, viewership for even the hottest show declines. Check with the producers of Desperate Housewives or American Idol.

So Sunday night’s Walking Dead episode was, among other things, a statement that the show still has creative energy and can still slam the viewer with Negan-like power.

The clearest TV antecedent to this Walking Dead cliffhanger was the November 1980 episode of CBS’s Dallas in which we learned who shot Larry Hagman’s conniving J.R. Ewing.

CBS had strung viewers along for months before it aired the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode, which remains the gold standard for generating buzz with a cliffhanger. The previous season of Dallas had averaged 19 million viewers. “Who Shot J.R.?” drew 83 million.  

Television is more fragmented now, and The Walking Dead appeals more to a niche. Still, it’s instructive to remember what happened next with Dallas.

Powered by the cliffhanger, Dallas averaged 27.6 million viewers for the 1980-81 season. The next two years it dropped to 23.2 million and then 20.5 million.

It stayed in the top 10 until 1985-86 and lasted until 1991, so no one needs to throw a bake sale for the Dallas team.

But after “Who Shot J.R.?” it was a gradual downhill drift, both in viewers and buzz – partly, you have to think, because nothing that happened after that episode struck as strong a chord.

Fairly or unfairly, all TV shows compete against their earlier selves. Around the fifth or sixth season, it’s inevitable to hear, “I like it, but it’s not as good as season 2.”

That’s what The Walking Dead could be walking into. “It’s good, but not as good as the Negan episode.”

The Walking Dead might also lose some non-core viewers from the sheer brutality of Sunday night’s episode, which at times did to humans what it had previously mostly done to zombies.

On the other hand, there also won’t be a mass exodus over to Poldark on PBS. The Walking Dead has gotten graphic before. It has proven its durability. Its fans are fanatics in a good way, and it has the entrenched comic book series to draw on and reinforce.

Still, when they write the history, Sunday’s episode might well go down as the peak.

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Sorry. I've watched every season of this very gory show. Sunday's episode was torture porn, pure and simple. I feel sick and wish I could unwatch what I saw. The show runner, Gimble, has lost touch with what made the original show and comics great. I feel sorry for people who have become so benumbed to realistic violence. Art elevates us, this episode made me want to take a shower. I won't be back because, like the ISIS decapitation videos, there are some things I don't need to see. Imagining them is bad enough.
Oct 26, 2016   |  Reply
Michael F
Screw the zombie apocalypse. I am going back to the wit and wisdom of Bob's Burgers.
Oct 26, 2016   |  Reply
I've watched TWD from day 1 and intend to finish it no matter how bad or good the acting, writing, story, etc. is. Yes, the first 1-3 seasons were better. The prevailing opinion is Darabont's & Mazzera's exits lowered TWD's quality. I recently read that AMC okayed season 8. We should probably end at 8.

Creators of shows like Mad Men, Haven, Breaking Bad, O. Black, B. Galactica (2000s), the British Office, Lost, etc. know when to end. TWD's powers-that-be need to end TWD soon............

TWD's other baddies (Dawn, the Governor, Gareth, Joe the Claimer, Merle Dixon, Shane) were better written. Yes, Negan is one-dimensional. But that's the writers' fault and why they need to end TWD. TWD's writers are becoming lazy. They know fans like me will watch with bad or good writing.
Oct 25, 2016   |  Reply
First of all thank you for the no spoilers about victims I had a friend you commented on something I wrote 24 hours before episode and she told me without a warned so yeah I "unfriended" her. That being said it was awful but worth the wait and done perfectly. Now that I have had time to morn I want to watch again because I know I missed something amongst my tears. I don't want the show to ever end.
Oct 25, 2016   |  Reply
Mark Isenberg
I am one of the few going back to Poldark till its run is over. Not because it has no comparable dramatic violence but like Dickens stories,this has less manipulation of the viewer in telling the stories of a hero and his love and survival.
Oct 25, 2016   |  Reply
If the rest of season seven is anything like the opener, then the show sadly, has reached its zenith of creativity and probably its mass appeal. I agree with Alex, it crossed a line from depictions of violence to outright vicious, unnecessary, over the top gore. Almost as bad and very disappointing is that sad sack of a human, Negan, whose character is nothing more than a shallow brute. I wonder if his lack of depth, limited vocabulary, and even more limited imagination is by design or a reflection of poor writing by the show's staff. I prefer a bad guy that I can sympathise with or has some redeemable quality, something that draws me in. Negan has nothing going for him. His wired baseball bat has more personality. I'm hopeful that the rest of this season retains the creativity of past ones.
Oct 25, 2016   |  Reply
Alex S.
You reminded me of something here: the bad guy one can sympathize with or who has some redeemable quality. That would be the Governor (David Morrissey), wouldn't it? He was most certainly a bad guy, but he did what he did — spoiler warning, for those who are 2-3 seasons behind — out of love for his young daughter, who he kept going in the lock-up closet because he couldn't bear to part with her, and he honestly believed he could eventually "save" her. He was a brute, but you could understand his motivation. I've often heard actors say the only way they can play a bad guy believably is if he has some redeeming quality, so that from the actor's point-of-view the character is not a bad guy at all but rather misunderstood. Not so, alas, anymore with TWD.
Oct 25, 2016
Alex S.
Crossed a line for me, I'm afraid. For me, this is no longer a conversation about entertainment or storytelling — or ratings, or whether the show has peaked or not. As an admirer of TWD from the beginning, when Frank Darabont was involved, and even through the Glen Mazzara years, I found much to admire. Any goodwill I had evaporated last night, though. I saw an hour of TV that was cheap sensationalism in its worst form, a squalid grab for ratings, no more and no less — a cheap, nasty parlor trick, manipulative and cynical to a fault. Shakespeare may be steeped in violence, but it's violence that tells us about the human condition: self-sacrifice, dying for a cause greater than oneself, atoning for past sins, etc. etc. This was simply an exercise in nihilism — the movie Saw, scaled down for the small screen and simplified for viewers raised on a steady diet of reality-TV, noisy game shows and dumbcoms. But, hey, that's me. I could be wrong.
Oct 25, 2016   |  Reply
You're not wrong. I agree with all your saying.
Oct 25, 2016
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