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How ‘The Walking Dead’ zombie franchise hits the reset button, and plans first crossover

CLOSEHow 'The Walking Dead' zombie franchise hits the reset button, and plans first crossover

Stars of “The Walking Dead” – including Norman Reedus and Josh McDermitt – reveal how they unwind after intense scenes. (March 10) AP

Ready, Reset, Go!

As AMC’s The Walking Dead closes Season 8 and companion Fear the Walking Dead opens its fourth (Sunday, 9 ET), both shows face substantial change.

Dead concludes its two-season “All-Out War” story, while Fear moves to a new setting in Texas and adds four major characters, including the original series’ Morgan (Lennie James) in a first-time (and permanent) crossover.

The reinventions come as Dead faces the strongest headwinds of its eight-season run, a significant audience drop with recent weekly viewer numbers not seen since Season 2. February’s return of 8.3 million same-day viewers was down nearly 4 million from a year earlier. 

There’s also been fan backlash over the deaths of popular characters, especially Carl and Glenn, and criticism of bat-wielding “War” villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). On Rotten Tomatoes, Season 8 has a 74% freshness rating, up from a series-low 60% last season, although critics remain.

Despite the declines, Dead still averages about 10 million viewers an episode, counting three-day delayed viewing, and remains TV’s No. 1 scripted drama with young adults. With Fear (a healthy 3.6 million viewer average in three-day viewing for Season 3), the franchise accounts for AMC’s two most-watched shows. They’re not going away anytime soon. 

“The comic books (Dead is based on) are still going (and) and the original show is quite a bit behind. … There’s no imminent end date being discussed,” says AMC programming chief David Madden. 

That Dead still averages more than 4 million viewers a week among younger viewers marks “a pretty amazing achievement for any show,” he says. 

Sunday’s Dead marks a larger pivot than the end of “War,” a long-running battle pitting Rick Grimes and his survivors against Negan and his Saviors, says Scott M. Gimple, who with Sunday’s finale, hands over day-to-day oversight of Dead to a new executive producer as he takes over as chief content officer for Dead‘s TV universe. 

“This is a conclusion … in some ways of issues and stories that have spanned eight seasons,” Gimple says. “Season 9 will be such a new world (and) new show in so many ways.” (He wouldn’t talk specifics, but in the comics, Rick imprisons Negan at the end of “All-Out War” and the story then jumps ahead a couple of years.)

Gimple won’t reveal potential departures.

But the recent death of Rick’s son, Carl (Chandler Riggs) caused a fan outcry.

“It’s very difficult to have any death on the show and to lose working with Chandler every day is not a treat,” Gimple says. “I’m satisfied with the story we told and I think this weekend, people will see the story in its entirety.”    

Cast changes are inevitable in long-running, ensemble shows, Madden says. (He hopes to “have something positive to announce soon” regarding Lauren Cohan, who plays Hilltop leader Maggie and is not signed for next season.). 

As for Negan, “I’m a fan of the comic and this (story) parallels the comic in many ways. There are some big differences and there will be moving forward,” he says. “This is a show that has lived in the world of Twitter. It’s something you check in on and it’s interesting, but there can be so much praise and criticism for the same things. … Anybody’s opinion is valid, as long as they watch the show.”

Fear, which gets two new executive producers, is reinvented for Season 4, moving far enough ahead from the dam explosion that closed last season that it syncs with Dead‘s timeline to accommodate Morgan’s arrival. 

The main characters are back, but prominent new additions include Jenna Elfman as skilled loner Naomi; Maggie Grace as curious, resourceful Althea; and Garret Dillahunt as John, a gentle soul searching for someone he’s lost.

Morgan’s transition will link Sunday’s episodes and, AMC hopes, invite viewers of higher-rated Dead to try Fear.  

The crossover is “incredibly significant. It’s really the first time we’ve done this. We’re starting Morgan where we left him emotionally and physically,” Gimple says. “And one very important thing: Viewers don’t need to have seen the first three seasons of Fear… before they watch the fourth. They can come into it just as Morgan did.”

Madden sees more Dead projects in the future. “We’re really focusing on this merger of the The Walking DeadFear the Walking Dead universe. But once we feel that’s been fully achieved, I think you’ll see some other opportunities explored.”

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