Has The Walking Dead gone brain dead? Fans and critics are sweating the possibility now that Frank Darabont will no longer serve as showrunner of AMC’s hit adaptation of the Robert Kirkman zombie comic. Veteran TV scribe Glen Mazarra (Crash) will succeed Darabont as the drama’s major domo. Theories abound for Darabont’s abrupt departure, from frustration with the exhausting grind of making TV to budget concerns. Regardless, the news has made Walking Dead fandom rather uneasy. One entertainment blogger and fan – in an addendum to a recently posted essay ruminating on the drama’s long-term viability — said: “I think this adds some murkiness to the future and the direction of the show.” Wrote critic Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com: “I’m a big believer in creative continuity on shows — though at least Robert Kirkman, who writes The Walking Dead comic, is still on staff — and at first glance this certainly doesn’t seem like great news for season 2. But there are too many unknown variables here to say for sure.”
What seems certain is that The Walking Dead, just days after a triumphant appearance at Comic-Con, has suddenly acquired a PR problem that will frame the experience of watching (and critiquing) the series when it returns on Oct. 15. Even if Darabont has walked away from with the second season already mapped out and most of the episodes plotted (it’s believed the writing staff have been at work since the spring), his absence could impact the way the show is perceived. The Oscar-nominated director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile brought with him an aura of prestige that helped position The Walking Dead as something more sophisticated and broadly appealing than just a creepshow for horror geeks and comic book fanboys. I, for one, bought into the sell that Darabont’s involvement made the show a Must Watch. I attribute the quality of the first set of episodes to him, and I was looking forward to seeing a full season of Frank. Knowing that Darabont won’t be there quality-controlling every episode of the forthcoming season will definitely impact the way I watch the show. I also wonder about — and worry about — the actors when things like this happen. Do they lose confidence and enthusiasm when they lose the storytelling talent that drew them to a show? Will their disappointment get in the way of doing their jobs? I also feel the grand project that is The Walking Dead has been put at risk. Like Sepinwall, I like creative continuity over time. I like the idea — the lie, perhaps — of a TV series as an expression of a singular authorial vision. Regime change shakes my faith and reminds me that TV is artfully constructed product, not art.
Still, there are many reasons to remain optimistic. The risk I speak of can be managed, perhaps easily. I don’t think the tone and style that Darabont developed for the series is beyond replication by other writers and directors. And unlike Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men or Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, the vision for The Walking Dead isn’t locked up inside Darabont’s head. It’s actually on paper, in Kirkman’s comics, a deep and rich treasure trove of ideas, characters, and stories that the TV series has barely begun to exploit. There’s also hope that Darabont may continue to work on future seasons of the show in some meaningful capacity, perhaps as a creative consultant and/or director of the occasional episode — assuming, of course, that The Walking Dead can survive the season to come.
Bottom line: I will be watching. But what about you, fellow Walking Deadheads? Are you worried for the future of the show?