By Ed Diokno
Views from the Edge
Photo by Gage Skidmore from Wikimedia Creative Commons
I’m looking forward to the next season of The Walking Dead, but I’m worried about its future.
Angela Kang, a Korean American, has been named showrunner of The Walking Dead, one of televisions most popular and iconic shows.
What worries me is a new study published by the American Psychological Association that found Asian Americans are more than twice as likely to be hired as CEOs when a company is struggling, possibly setting them up for failure. Kang, is certain that won’t be the fate of The Walking Dead.
The show’s ratings have fallen precipitously since a few years ago. Drastic cast changes will force the plot to depart from the comic book foundation and changes behind the scene signal the show is seeking to regain the spark that made it one of the highest rated shows on American TV.
“I’m so humbled by the opportunity to work on a show that’s been such a juggernaut and that is so beloved by millions of fans around the world,” she said at an AMC event in New York.
That’s exactly why Asian Americans are hired when the odds are against their success. With the responsibility of seeking a turnaround, the Asian American bosses will work harder and sacrifice more in order to succeed.
Starting as a writer, Kang has been working on the show since its second season. She has written some of the show’s most memorable episodes. She is one of the up and coming Asian Americans who has toiled behind the scenes and are coming into their own in positions of greater influence as showrunners, directors and producers.
“I’ve been asked on a panel before, ‘When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did you always know that you wanted to do this?’ Honestly, when I was a kid, I didn’t think this was a job that I could have. There was nobody like me,” said Kang, who is of Korean descent. “I didn’t think there were women or Asian women running a show. That wasn’t a thing. Now, there are so many women who are showrunners and that’s exciting because it means that the next generation can look and go, ‘Hey, of course this is a job I can have.'”
She has a huge task in front of her.
Fans of the show and the comics that it is based on, have been outspoken about former showrunner, Scott Gimple, often blaming him for the direction the show had taken with large changes from the comic, including the death of Carl, one of the main characters and who had been with the show since it began. We watched Carl grow from the worshipping 10-year old, into a cold killer and as he died, a seeker of peace.
The death of beloved Carl, which did not occur in the comics, enraged fans and perhaps is one of the factors for this past season’s viewership dip to its lowest ratings since season one. Fan threads have asked whether or not it was time for the show to part ways with Gimple. A petition was made asking for Gimple’s removal from the show.
Producers won’t say if fan displeasure at Gimple was the reason that he was promoted “up” to Chief Content Officer for both Walking Dead and its spinoff Fear, which has been awarded its fourth season after killing off all but two the major characters that began the show.
In addition, Kang has to deal with the pending departures of two of its main characters, Maggie Rhee played by Lauren Cohen (widow of the now-deceased beloved and Asian American Glenn Rhee played by Steven Yuen), and the central lead, Rick Grimes, played by British actor Andrew Lincoln. When both these characters leave the show, it would be another major departure from the original material testing the rabid fanbase’s tolerance.
With all this turmoil in front and behind the camera what can we expect for Season 9 with Kang at the helm?
Let’s start with AMC’s synopsis for season 9:
“Now, we see our survivors a year and a half after the end of the war, rebuilding civilization under Rick’s steadfast leadership. It is a time of relative peace among the communities as they work together, looking to the past to forge the future, but the world they knew is rapidly changing as man-made structures continue to degrade, and nature takes over, changing the landscape and creating new challenges for our survivors.
As time passes, the communities confront unexpected obstacles, danger, and of course, walkers, but nothing quite prepares them for the formidable force they are about to encounter, which threatens the very idea of civilization that our survivors have worked so hard to build.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Kang looks at the story possibilities opening up as a result of Lincoln’s departure.”As our characters navigate ‘a Rick-less world,’ we get to see who they become in the aftermath of that,” she said.
“We’re seeing Maggie struggle with leadership as well,” she told THR. “They’re all finding that it’s no longer a world where Rick is just the leader and they all do what he says. They all have their own opinions. They all have their own ways of going about things. Sometimes they’re very much in lockstep with each other. Sometimes they’re in conflict. Once Rick is gone, the world changes again for them. A lot of those stories are very rich. What those actors are bringing to those roles is so incredible. We’re getting to dive into some of the other things happening. As our characters navigate ‘a Rick-less world,’ we get to see who they become in the aftermath of that.”
“It’s new. It’s fresh. It’s very powerful,” series star Norman Reedus said at a press conference ahead of the premiere. “We’ve always known that the women were a powerful force on the show, but for the last couple years we’ve gone on this journey of this man versus this man. The stories seem more complicated this year, more emotional. And it’s nice to see Danai (Gurira) step up, Melissa (McBride) step up, Lauren (Cohan) has some really good stuff. The new cast of women are really killing it this year.”
One storyline we’re looking forward to is the one involving the likeable punster Jerry, as portrayed by Cooper Andrews, a Samoan American. Based on the trailers, it looks like a love interest will develop between King Ezekiel’s right-hand man and Muslim American Nadine, who was introduced last season.
“I was excited about it … just to know that Jerry isn’t just shadowing Ezekiel all the time,” Andrews told Insider of his relationship with Nabila, who is played by Nadine Marissa. “It just kind of proves that this life that we’re viewing is more than just trying to survive. It’s also my first on-screen kiss.”
He quickly added, “I was like, ‘I hope I don’t suck at this.'”
Since the gruesome death of Glenn, who we thought was the only AAPi to survive the zombie apocalypse, Walking Dead has diversified the survivors adding Siddiq played by Avi Nash in last year and in season 7 introduced Cyndie played by Korean American actress Sydney Park. She reappeared last year in the epic battle against the Saviors.
Now that Kang is in a more influential position, let’s hope she can write in some more AAPI representation.
She’s brought in more writers and directors of color, for example.
“In searching for writers and directors, I was first and foremost looking for exceptional talent and a strong point of view, and I found that in spades with our new collaborators this season,” Kang told Indiewire.
“We are a show with a global audience and we are proud to be building upon our record of diversity and inclusion both in front of and behind the camera. Much like the characters in the show, having people from different backgrounds working together and bringing in fresh perspectives and skill-sets only makes us stronger as a team.”
As a result, the new people and new perspectives have injected a spark of energy in the show, which after eight seasons, critics say, was coasting.
Kang and the new story elements have everyone, including the crew, “more excited than I’ve seen them in years,” says Reedus. “We have a bunch of cool sh*t going on.”
Gurira tells Indiewire, “I’m really enjoying what I’m getting to do in Season 9. I’m really finding it really exhilarating in ways I don’t expect. As an artist, that’s what you hope for.”
How Kang fares in her new position may affect the careers of other Asian Americans who are waiting in the wings to move into more prominent positions in Hollywood. Right now, Asian Americans are enjoying an unprecedented visibility in the entertainment industry and it’s about time. But the trend towards representation and inclusion could just as easily reverse itself if one project falls short of expectations or one showrunner fails to turn around a product with the odds stacked against it.
The Walking Dead still has a lot going for it. Let’s hope that Kang can find the right formula to give the series new life.
The Walking Dead’s Season 9 premiere airs tonight (Sunday, Oct. 7) on AMC at 9 p.m. EDT.
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