The Walking Dead debuted on Halloween Day 2010, exactly ten years ago today. It has since become one of the longest-running dramas on television and remains the most popular show on cable television, a decade on. The show itself has gone through dozens of characters, four showrunners, and spawned two spin-offs (so far). It’s also helped to launch the careers of dozens of actors (there have been over 40 series regulars) and inspired a lot of people to name their babies Negan. Over the last decade, the AMC series has also revolutionized television.
Famously, the series — which had originally envisioned casting Thomas Jane in the Rick Grimes role — was shopped around to a number of networks in the late aughts, but they all passed, including HBO. However, NBC (the network that had first dibs on in it) entertained the idea of picking up the series but asked the show’s original showrunner, Frank Darabont, if he could do it without zombies. When Darabont insisted on zombies in his zombie show, NBC came back and asked him if it could be a procedural where the two leads would “solve a zombie crime of the week” (ironically, years later, a show called iZombie would do just that).
Eventually, AMC (a network with two nascent dramas in Breaking Bad and Mad Men) picked up The Walking Dead, which has completely transformed the network over the years, for better or worse (given the network’s output in recent years, it’s basically become The Walking Dead channel with that one Breaking Bad spin-off). In fact, before the pandemic arrived, AMC had scheduled 40 back-to-back Sundays with programming from The Walking Dead universe, which is not only the most dominant television series of the last decade, but it has also been put in a position to play savior, to try and prop up cable as it slowly gives way to the streaming wars.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that The Walking Dead was television’s first major horror show, either (True Blood and Vampire Diaries both preceded The Walking Dead), but it certainly brought the horror genre into the television mainstream. At its peak, The Walking Dead was being watched by nearly 20 million viewers a week, on par with shows like American Idol and twice more popular even than The Office at its ratings peak on NBC. The ratings explosion of The Walking Dead, in fact, inspired a number of other zombie shows, some great (The Returned), some funny (Santa Clarita Diet), some socially conscious (In the Flesh), procedural (iZombie), historical (The Kingdom), terrifying (Black Summer), and thoroughly mediocre (Z Nation).
It wasn’t just zombie shows, either. If the The Walking Dead didn’t outright inspire horror shows like American Horror Story, Grimm, and Bates Motel, etc., it at least signaled to the networks that horror shows like those had a potential audience. Moreover, while The Walking Dead wasn’t the first comic series turned into a television show (there were scores of animated series, and live-action superhero series), and while it wasn’t the first live-action horror series turned into a television show (that was Swamp Thing in the ’90s), The Walking Dead certainly opened up the possibilities and gave rise to serialized live-action shows based on comics like The Boys and Preacher and Watchmen, among many, many others.
Don’t forget The Talking Dead, too. There’d been after-shows for reality programs on networks like Bravo before The Walking Dead, but The Talking Dead was the first of its kind: a show to discuss the scripted show that just aired, featuring celebrity fans of the show, cast members, writers, and directors. Others have endeavored to create their own after-shows, but nothing has been quite as successful as Chris Hardwick’s series.
It’s worth mentioning the show’s diversity, too. While The Walking Dead got some criticism early on for killing off its Black characters, by midway through the series run, The Walking Dead was being singled out as one of the most diverse series on television. People of color were still being killed off, but that’s only because they made up such a large percentage of the cast that there was no other choice. More recently, the series has grown even more diverse behind the camera, in the writers’ room, in the director’s chair, and in showrunner Angela Kang, who also brought the series back from its creative lows in seasons seven and eight. She is now poised to end the series in 2022 on a creative high note.
The Walking Dead may not have been the most critically acclaimed series of the decade — there were a few seasons where Emmy noms were considered, and it did receive a Golden Globe nod for Best Drama — but it was the most popular, as well as one of the most innovative, diverse, and groundbreaking shows of the last 10 years. It may not be what it once was, but a decade in and with the end in sight, The Walking Dead will go out as one of the defining shows of the 21st century.