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Why people stopped watching The Walking Dead

When AMC's The Walking Dead first premiered on Halloween night 2010, it felt as if the world stopped turning and television lovers across the globe turned into zombies themselves — ones hungry for more episodes of the groundbreaking post-apocalyptic horror series. And those who didn't immediately jump on the Walking Dead bandwagon got more enough peripheral exposure to feel like they were already in on the fandom. All anyone could chat about at the work watercooler was what crazy, amazing, and/or insane thing happened to Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) the night before. The gripping action of the series, adapted from the popular comic books by Robert Kirkman, helped shoot The Walking Dead into the upper echelon of television, sitting amongst prestige picks of the era like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men

In the years since, however, things have taken a drastic and disheartening turn. Ratings were on a steady incline from the first season through its fifth, when it hit an all-time high of an average 14.38 million watchers on AMC, but viewership thereafter started slipping ... and slipping ... and slipping. Now, over halfway into its eighth season, The Walking Dead has dipped to its lowest ratings since its freshman season — pulling in just 6.8 million viewers (down from the 11.44 million who tuned in to the season eight premiere) for episode 10. 

This all begs the question: Why have people stopped watching The Walking Dead? Spoilers are ahead.

A difficult investment

If the central narrative and core characters of a television series are its bread, subplots and secondary characters are its peanut butter and jelly. Together, they make a delicious product perfect for consumption at any time of day or night. But when the PB comes across more like BS and the jelly just doesn't jam, you're left with a sour taste in your mouth.

Over the years, The Walking Dead introduced a slew of characters many found uninteresting and even unnecessary to the overall story. As examples, viewers are quick to point to Emily Kinney's Beth Greene, the half-sister of Lauren Cohan's Maggie Greene and the girl who ricocheted from a blonde songbird to a suicidal teen to a caretaker to a corpse; Seth Gilliam's Gabriel Stokes, the priest who seems to do little more than sit on a high horse and repeatedly backstab his brethren; and Michael Traynor's Nicholas, who tries to kill Steven Yeun's Glenn Rhee but eventually commits suicide.

Rather than fleshing out any fresh faces (like Ann Mahoney's Olivia, Andrew J. West's Gareth, and IronE Singleton's T-Dog) to their full potential, the series' writers left them underdeveloped, often killing them off before viewers could care about them. It's not to say that the ensemble cast isn't talented or worthy of recognition; it's simply that they historically haven't been treated with the same attention as the main bunch, and thus, fans had a difficult time investing energy and emotion into them. It isn't difficult to see how this may have made it easier for viewers to stop watching The Walking Dead.

It wanted to play Cupid

We all know how a bad romance can kill a good story. (Heck, the trope has grown so hackneyed, it's practically become a parody of itself in modern pop culture.) Though generally associated with action films (how many women are we supposed to believe love the weapon-wielding Lotharios of almost every one of Dwayne Johnson's movies?), the "token love interest" bit has spread far enough to sink its teeth into The Walking Dead. Quick and confusing flings that were awkward at best and forced at worst had plenty of viewers feeling less lovesick and more sick of love.

Remember Jessie Anderson's (Alexandra Breckenridge) rendezvous with Rick? It sparked up and fizzled out in a flash. The same can be said for Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira): Though the two are still together as of season eight, the fire between them just isn't there for some fans. Many have pegged the couple has having absolutely "no sexual chemistry," and whose relationship "came out of the blue" and is "completely uncomfortable and unnatural." Abraham Ford's (Michael Cudlitz) relationship with Sasha Williams (Sonequa Martin-Green) was also — ahem — short-lived.

Instead of feeling warm fuzzies over the loving looks characters were shooting one another, fans started rolling their eyes at the nonessential pair-ups. What's worse is that the dalliances didn't simply die out and the show move on; the writers would often punctuate the relationship with an actual death of one of the two involved, perhaps as a means to create emotional depth but ultimately failing to do so. The Walking Dead clearly got lost in love, and eventually, people stopped watching.

Negan's introduction was a turning point

In general, villains are supposed to be disliked. Sure, antagonists with complex pasts and big bads who were once small and vulnerable offer some zest to the traditional hero/hoodlum binary. Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Negan is not one of those characters. 

The sarcastic, sinister Negan is terrifying to the core, a one-to-one impression of the ceaselessly sinful villain depicted in the Walking Dead comics. From the moment he sauntered in, viewers knew a new brand of trouble had come to town — and the hype to see more of him was real.

But then he slaughtered two fan-favorite characters in an unnecessarily cruel fashion, and fans backed away. Negan coming into the picture and disrupting the world of The Walking Dead directly led to the deaths of Glenn and Abraham — which were not only violent, visceral, and incredibly hellish to stomach, but were also the final straw for a lot of viewers. The Verge's weekly column "The Walking Dead Quitter's Club," which bet on the likelihood of its two writers never watching the show again, closed up shop for good after Negan's literal double whammy. Fans cried out on social media that their hearts had been broken, critics claimed Negan was "ruiningThe Walking Dead, and viewership dropped from 17 million in the Negan-focused season seven premiere to 10.4 million just a month later.

Heart of darkness

The Walking Dead has always hit hard with misery, gore, and all things grim — and that's to be expected from a series of its genre: sliced-up limbs, open wounds, decomposing corpses, blood, and guts are the stock stuff of a post-apocalyptic horror show. Violence and viscera are just the name of the game! But after Negan and his not-so-merry band of Saviors came to town, The Walking Dead experienced a dramatic shift in tone. No longer did it feel like a cautionary tale, a series exploring the intricacies of existence and the darkness of human nature; it became something that takes pleasure in causing pain, transforming into physical and emotional "torture porn." 

Such brutality can be brushed aside when it's justified and balanced with some beautiful moments, but when an already-dark series zeroes in on just how sociopathic its central villain is (the season seven marketing promised that Negan, Lucille, and the Saviors' reign of terror was "just getting started"), the cynical attitude and malevolent tone proves too much to take. And even though showrunners said they'd tone down the violence after the season seven opener, a good chunk of fans had already stopped watching.

Beaten down

Seeing characters you hold dear face unimaginable hardships, struggle to take on their biggest fears, sink to their personal rock bottoms, and experience the very things that they hoped never would isn't easy. When you watch them do that for years on end before squaring up to an ultimate evil, it's near impossible to bear.

Through the first six seasons of The Walking Dead, Rick and his coalition took on foe after bloody foe and came out the other side as headstrong heroes. When season seven rolled around, the group fell to its knees, squashed under Negan's boot. Rick, Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), and Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) faded into shadows of their former selves, losing their edge under the Saviors' domination. Rick went from confident leader to paranoid follower; Carol lost her fire to fight back; and Daryl, long considered the biggest badass in The Walking Dead, became the subject of vicious torture

This type of pummeling is part of how it's supposed to go down in order for the series to have a satisfying climax and resolution, and the adored trio will rise up and find themselves again eventually, but the brutal and demoralizing build-up isn't enjoyable and — as the ratings can attest — was simply too difficult for some viewers to endure.

Won't get fooled again

Unless you're on a rollercoaster at Six Flags, getting thrown in unexpected directions via twists, turns, yanks, and whip-arounds isn't fun. Some Walking Dead viewers feel the showrunners missed that memo.

The series' creatives made a divisive move in season six when they crafted a plot purposely meant to trick everyone into believing that Glenn had been eaten alive by zombies. Using sneaky camera angles and close-up shots, the minds behind the show fooled viewers directly, making it appear that Glenn's guts really were getting pulled out of his body as he screamed in agony — when in reality, it was a corpse whose insides were spilling everywhere and Glenn was just near it. (He escaped the zombie encounter by squirming his way under a dumpster.) The "gotcha!" moment has been called a "cheap ... parlour trick" and "a blatant dutch oven to fans who put up with so much already" that goes against "the entire ethos of the show: when death used to be final."

Something similar happened in the penultimate episode of season six, when Daryl seemingly died after being shot, his blood speckling the screen. Of course, it was all just deliberate misdirection. The Walking Dead pulled one over on viewers the very next episode by showing Negan smashing someone's skull in, but not revealing who it was — thus leaving the audience completely dumfounded and forcing them to find out who the real victim was by watching the following season.

It started feeling like TV clickbait

Gassing up the greatness of a show to get people to tune in is what showbiz is all about, but when shameless promotion turns somewhat shameful, expect fans to drop like flies. In the past, The Walking Dead showrunners have gone on record to tease what's to come in new seasons of the series, saying that certain things will "shock" and surprise fans and that they won't believe what happens next. For some fans at home, the episodes often didn't live up to the promised chaos and coolness.

To make matters worse, writers also started using major moments — like the previously discussed catastrophes designed to send characters into a tailspin of turmoil — for pure shock value rather than as a way to actually move the plot. Abraham and Glenn's murders and the multiple fake-out deaths are the epitome of this troubled method of storytelling, which hints that The Walking Dead will do anything to keep viewers coming back, including and especially stringing them along and shaking them to the core week after week.

It stopped being about the walking dead

A zombie show that goes from big-scale onslaughts in nearly every episode to only a smattering of attacks per season? There's a problem here. As seasons have passed, the presence of the walking dead has waned, replaced by humans who magically pop up to deflect any zombie threats and draw attention back to themselves, causing fans to question where the flesh-hungry creatures are and where the waves of new people came from. (Really, why haven't they all encountered each other before?)

More than that, it's hard to decide what The Walking Dead is even about anymore. In its infancy, the series was the pinnacle of what post-apocalyptic storytelling should look and feel like, and there was a clear central focus: Rick and the gang needed to outsmart the zombies and survive long enough to see a world without them roaming about, and they would sacrifice things they loved to accomplish that. Now, the crew is almost exclusively threatened by insane human villains, and the premise that the show once held — fighting the titular walking dead — has all but vanished.

Things got repetitive and boring

Keeping things fresh from season to season is imperative for a show to stay afloat. The Walking Dead succeeded on that front in its first few years on the air, placing emphasis on its characters and their growth into their new world and away from the one they once knew. Early seasons saw Glenn proving himself, Rick learning to be a truly good leader, and Carol gaining strength and self-confidence. Once they reached a certain point in their development, however, the characters started to become flat and their stories stagnant. 

It's now fairly easy to predict what each will do and how each episode will play out: 1) Rick and co. will find a safe place to stay, then all hell will break loose; 2) Someone will get attacked or go haywire and die, and the group will mourn (usually for a surprisingly short amount of time); and 3) They'll survive that trauma, only to have basically the same thing to happen again in a different location with new people to take the place of the fallen ones.

These repetitive plots were tolerable at first, but fans now feel the show has "never been so dull." Simply put, The Walking Dead should be teeming with capriciousness, not putting people to sleep.

It's been on too long

Bigger isn't always better, and that rings true for The Walking Dead. The show's first season was a short and sweet six episodes, just enough time to tell the story. But since the early days of The Walking Dead, the show has grown in size, increasing by more than double for a 13-episode second season and maintaining a 16-episode count thereafter. Each new bundle of episodes also got split into two halves after the first season: everything up to and including the midseason finale, then everything including and after the midseason premiere.

To put it in perspective, since season three premiered in 2012, fans have been consuming three times the amount of content they did when The Walking Dead first aired. Since season two kicked off the year prior, they've been forced to sit for months on the sidelines waiting for the back half of each season to air. Unfortunately, this all has resulted in tons of frustrating filler material. And with apparently no end in sight for the Walking Dead franchise, as it was recently picked up for a ninth season and has multiple spinoffs in the works, things could end up dragging on forever.

There are better zombie shows out there

When a series gets too grim, puts its characters in positions they ostensibly have no way of surviving, and leaves little hope for a bright future or a concrete finale, it's only natural that viewers stray to see if the grass is greener on the other side of the genre. After exploring an array of zombie-centric offerings, plenty of once-devout Walking Dead fans made the switch to series like the CW's iZombie and Syfy's Z-Nation and are having a markedly better time — which they should be, because zombies are supposed to be at least a little fun when they're not completely frightening. The Walking Dead has always been more about emotionally affecting drama than the more lighthearted or action-oriented entries in the genre, but as the success of those shows can attest, a better balance could have gone a long way toward hanging onto the longtime fans who've stopped watching.

Could this have been avoided?

They say that hindsight is 20/20, and we can speculate that AMC's view of its past is getting clearer as The Walking Dead's ratings drop. For all the choices the series' team made that may have led fans to bail on the show, there's one that, had it not been carried out, might have prevented declining viewership.

AMC hired three-time Oscar nominee Frank Darabont (the director behind The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist) as the original showrunner for The Walking Dead, but after just one season, the network kicked him to the curb for reasons that Darabont himself has claimed were "concocted." A lot factored into AMC's decision to fire Darabont, like the network claiming he never had "directors tone meetings" and its mention of an alleged "personal rift" between he and series co-creator Robert Kirkman, but we can't help but wonder how different the show would be — and how dedicated an audience it would have — if he was still at the helm.