"What do you want me to do about it?"
"They're scared. They're on a zombie show. They are all really easy to kill off." That amazing quote is from The Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters’s fascinating investigation into the departure of Frank Darabont from The Walking Dead, an abrupt and unexpected parting-of-the-ways that Darabont has yet to publicly comment upon. “They” in this instance refers to The Walking Dead's cast, currently well into shooting the second season of the hit horror drama. Masters writes that Darabont was fired just three days after he appeared at a Comic-Con panel. On the Atlanta set, the cast was “summoned to a lunch meeting with AMC VP Scripted Programming Ben Davis,” who told them Darabont was out. Why? "This isn't working,” he said.
And “this” is this instance in all probability refers to money. Unlike HBO, which has a production budget in the 10-figures, AMC is a cash-poor basic cable entity that, against all odds, has three of the most talked-about series on the air: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. Earlier this year, a public battle with Matthew Weiner resulted in a $30 million payday for the Mad Men series creator, meaning a lot less money for the other shows. That meant slashing. Walking Dead saw its per-episode budget cut by $650,000, while the network tried—unsuccessfully—to reduce the Breaking Bad Season 6 order from thirteen episodes to six.
But Mad Men, a cultural phenomenon and critical darling, is a relative flop compared to Walking Dead, pulling in 2.3 million viewers per episode versus the 5-to-6 million Walking Dead regularly drew. Even Breaking Bad eclipses Mad Men’s ratings, with an average 4.3 million viewers per episode. It’s as if AMC sent its eldest child to Harvard, then turned to its other two capable kids and said, “Sorry, guys, looks like it’s community college for you.”
Unlike Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC owns The Walking Dead outright. When it tried to screw over BrBa, studio Sony responded by shopping the show to FX; as if by magic, AMC came up with the dough for a full-season order. But full ownership gives the network final say over all staffing and budgetary considerations—so bye, bye, Darabont. The network has chosen to replace him with Glen Mazzara, a veteran of The Shield on FX and later HawthoRNe on TNT. Also still on board are Walking Dead comic creator Robert Kirkman and effects man Greg Nicotero. And the Season 2 trailer screened at Comic-Con impressed everyone, including us. But Darabont was still in charge when that footage was shot. So how will his departure affect the quality of the series? The network certainly doesn’t seem to be worried. Yet the thought of a season of Mad Men without Weiner behind the wheel is virtually unthinkable. We probably won’t know until we’re already well into the second season of Walking Dead, which premieres on October 16.
Read THR's in-depth investigation here.