Why 'The Walking Dead' is Better Off Without Frank Darabont

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The Academy Award-nominated director is leaving the show in the hands of someone who actually understands television

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AMC's series The Walking Dead had a first season that was packed with the typical zombie drama: guns fired, heads blown off, people infected. But in the time between its first season finale and the upcoming premiere of its second season, the real drama on The Walking Dead has gone on off-camera.

The latest behind-the-scenes news on The Walking Dead came Tuesday, when Deadline reported that creator and executive producer Frank Darabont would step down from his role as showrunner on the hit series. Thursday, AMC released a frustratingly obtuse statement that both confirmed Darabont's departure and reassured viewers that The Walking Dead's second season will still premiere as scheduled on October 16th.

Though showrunners regularly come and go, it's rare for one as high-profile as Darabont—whose directing credits include The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile—to leave a series, and to do it so suddenly. It was less than a week ago that series creator Robert Kirkman praised Darabont as a man who "came along and never went away" during the series' development. Darabont himself has repeatedly expressed his own enthusiasm about working on the second season of the series. It's not yet clear why Darabont decided to step down as showrunner. But his departure will undoubtedly change the tone, scope, and direction of the series as it goes into its second season.

And that's exactly why it's the best thing that could have happened to The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead was last year's breakout TV hit. It earned dozens of glowing critical reviews, netted AMC its best-ever ratings, and - perhaps most significantly - became the most-viewed basic cable drama series of all time in the coveted 18-49 age demographic.

It has also, unexpectedly, become the lynchpin of AMC's original drama lineup. Fellow freshman series The Killing alienated its viewers with a disappointing season finale. Mad Men's fifth season premiere was delayed until 2012. Hell on Wheels, a period drama that debuts later this year, remains an unknown quantity. Breaking Bad carries significant critical cache—and earned series-best ratings with its season 4 premiere—but lacks The Walking Dead's broader appeal. Now more than ever, AMC needs The Walking Dead to bolster its newly-earned reputation as the channel for viewers who want quality dramatic television.

When I reviewed The Walking Dead series premiere last October, I gave Frank Darabont the majority of the credit for the series' stunning pilot episode, "Days Gone Bye." The two-hour premiere episode is one of the best pilots I've ever seen. From the opening scene of "Days Gone Bye", Darabont's meticulous direction imbues the post-apocalyptic world with a texture and scope that rivals anything seen in a movie theater.

But the rest of the series' first season—while generally entertaining—never came close to the quality of "Days Gone Bye." And just as Darabont deserves much of the credit for the series' initial success, he deserves much of the blame for the series' later failures. Darabont wroteThe Walking Dead's disappointing second episode, " Guts," which featured the series' biggest (and most irritating) deviation from the original comic books: the introduction of cartoonish villain Merle Dixon. And Darabont co-wrote the season finale, " TS-19"—another silly departure from the comics, and another misstep for the fledgling television series.

To be fair, Darabont deserves a lot of credit for getting The Walking Dead onto television at all. After discovering the comic series in 2005, he spent five years working on adapting and producing The Walking Dead. Three of the show's major actors—Jeffrey DeMunn, Laurie Holden, and Melissa McBride—appeared in Darabont's 2007 adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist, and it's a fairly safe bet that Darabont had a hand in recruiting them for their roles on The Walking Dead. Just by being attached to The Walking Dead, Darabont gave it extra credibility; early promotional posters advertised the series as "from the director of The Shawshank Redemption."

Ironically enough, the advertisement speaks to Darabont's biggest hurdle: He's a film director. "Days Gone Bye" was so effective because Darabont directed it like a movie, with a length and a production design to match. But Darabont has never worked in television before, and when it came time to turn his two-hour pilot into an ongoing series, he faltered. The Walking Dead has always needed a television-savvy hand to guide it. And fortunately for AMC, newly appointed showrunner Glen Mazzara is much more qualified than Darabont for the job.

Though Mazarra has written and produced a number of TV shows (including Life, Crash, and HawthoRNe), his most relevant experience for The Walking Dead is the time he spent as a writer, story editor, and producer on FX's The Shield. The Walking Dead could learn a lot from The Shield, which successfully maintained a compelling, gritty, morally ambiguous tone for seven seasons. And there's also ample evidence that Mazzara understands exactly what makes The Walking Dead tick; outside of "Days Gone Bye," the first season's best episode by far was "Wildfire" - the only episode written by Mazzara.

The Walking Dead is a good show that should be a great show. All the elements are there: a compelling premise, terrific source material, a strong cast, and a loyal fanbase. With a truly experienced showrunner like Mazzara bringing it all together, there's no reason The Walking Dead shouldn't be one of the best dramas on television.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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