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The Legacy of Diversity on ‘The Walking Dead’

The AMC series, which aired the midseason finale of its 11th and final season on Sunday night, has been one of the more popular shows on cable since its debut in 2010. It’s also helped pave the path to a new generation of shows that embraced diversity in an even deeper way—both on screen and behind the camera.

AMC/Ringer illustration

In “Acheron: Part I,” the premiere episode of the 11th and final season of The Walking Dead, a group of survivors on an expedition from Alexandria, Virginia, seek shelter during a dark and stormy night by descending into a Washington Metro station. You can guess how that goes: It’s a zombie show, so enclosed spaces such as pitch-black, subterranean tunnels tend to make for frightening commutes. As chilling as the undead fare evaders that lurk below, though, is a nod to more human horrors, in the form of a flyer from the D.C. Transit Authority that the camera captures lying on the subway platform. “AMERICA DOESN’T TOLERATE RACISM,” the stained and tattered message says. “Stay calm. Together we will prevail.”

AMC

In The Walking Dead’s timeline, America definitely didn’t prevail. And the flyer, a relic from the fall of civilization that the series skipped past in its first season, hints at one reason why: A crisis can exacerbate old divisions. Showrunner and executive producer Angela Kang, who cowrote the episode with co–executive producer Jim Barnes, says they included the flyer as a topical allusion to the anti-Asian incidents and worsened racial inequities that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus struck the States as they were working on “Acheron: Part I,” and the desolation of Los Angeles reminded them of The Walking Dead’s postapocalyptic cityscapes. “We were seeing a lot of images that looked like things that we’d done on our show,” Kang says. Barnes drove around the city snapping photos of the real-world dystopia, and on one of his sojourns, he saw a sign that looked like the one they’d add to “Acheron: Part I.”

“That was just something that we took and said, ‘That’s a real type of a sign that was up in a real American city, as the pandemic’s raging and people are turning on each other,’” Kang says. “‘And so, let’s just put something like that in there.’ As an Asian American woman and a Black man writing the premiere of The Walking Dead, it does have a significance to us. But it’s based on the fact that these are the real things that America’s grappling with as well, because this season very much has to do with America and trying to reclaim what America was.”

Explicit depictions of or references to racism are rare on The Walking Dead, which made the sign as arresting in its own way as any ghoulish, suppurating creature crafted by producer, director, and special-effects monster-maker Greg Nicotero. The world of The Walking Dead isn’t entirely post-racial, and its survivors certainly aren’t any more highly evolved than those of the actual America, but one curious upside of society disintegrating due to a zombie outbreak is that the series’ protagonists seem more accepting of anyone in their settlements who isn’t trying to feed on their flesh, regardless of color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. “We’re talking about an apocalyptic situation, and as more and more years pass, the differences that were so prominent in the old world start to fade,” says Sherry Thomas, one of The Walking Dead’s casting directors.

Kang, who joined The Walking Dead’s writing staff in Season 2 and ascended to producer in Season 3, executive producer in Season 5, and showrunner in Season 9, says, “There’s not always overt racism or sexism, but I would say that there’s what we’d call microaggressions built into parts of the show, or subtle hints of these things.” She notes that later in the two-part premiere, there’s a distinct difference between the way that three Black, Latina, and Asian characters, Ezekiel (Khary Payton), Princess (Paola Lázaro), and Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), respond to being placed in police custody at a larger community and the way cis white man Eugene (Josh McDermitt) does. “We have had diversity in the writers’ room,” Kang says, “so these things do exist in the show. It’s just that a lot of times we’re not saying, ‘And here’s the scene where we’re dealing with racism.’”

In some respects, The Walking Dead has been dealing with racism all along—not in its fictional fractured America, but in our own. The Walking Dead, which went on hiatus after Sunday’s eighth episode of the season and will conclude with 16 more next year, premiered on AMC 11 years ago this month, at a time when diversity in scripted-cable casts was less of a focus than it’s belatedly become industry-wide. “In recent years we’ve seen, really, a renaissance in TV with respect to diversity,” says professor Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, who as director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies has helped author the annual Hollywood Diversity Report since 2014. “The numbers over the last four years or so have moved in a direction that I don’t think most people would have predicted, say, 10 years ago. We’ve in some cases approached proportionate representation of people of color among certain types of TV roles.”

The Walking Dead, which for more than a decade has been one of the most-watched shows on TV, increasingly incorporated and promoted diverse characters as the series rose to prominence, consciously steered away from racial stereotypes, and helped serve as a springboard to stardom for several actors of color, helping pave the path to a new generation of shows that embraced diversity in an even deeper way. “It was never among the most diverse shows on TV,” Hunt says. “There are shows that are more diverse in the ‘mainstream.’ But what’s unique about The Walking Dead is that it has a large cast, it’s respectably diverse, and it happened to be the highest-rated show on television, or at least on cable, through the early part of its run. So in that sense, I think it’s notable. Because some of the other shows that were more diverse ... didn’t have anywhere near the ratings that The Walking Dead had.”

In the past, Hunt continues, “there was this sort of conventional wisdom that it’s going to cost us something to add diversity, that we’re going to lose audience, so it’s not going to be as attractive.” By demonstrating that diversity and popularity can coincide (and that the former can help lead to the latter), Hunt says, The Walking Dead “models what is possible and what television, in many ways, should look like given the demographics of the audience.”

The authors of the Hollywood Diversity Report have documented the demographics of TV casts from the 2011-12 through the 2018-19 seasons. (The ninth installment, on the 2019-20 season, is due out later this month.) Their data analyzed the top eight credited actors in a show to determine a “minority cast share.” Series with a minority cast share of less than 11 percent have consistently represented a plurality of scripted cable shows, albeit to a dramatically decreasing degree of late.

UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report

The Walking Dead has always exceeded that low (but disconcertingly common) bar, though its own rates have risen along with those of the industry. According to UCLA’s research, the series fell into the 11-20 bucket during its first two seasons, but since Season 3 it has maintained minority cast shares in the 21-30 percent or 31-40 percent categories. The current season features series staples such as Christian Serratos (Rosita), Seth Gilliam (Gabriel), Payton, and Cooper Andrews (Jerry), as well as more recent arrivals in recurring roles, including Lázaro, Matsuura, Nadia Hilker (Magna), Lauren Ridloff (Connie), Angel Theory (Kelly), and Kevin Carroll (Virgil). In its past three seasons, The Walking Dead has also featured 50 percent female casts, slightly outstripping the industry standard.

UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report

“From the very first episode, TWD has championed all aspects of what we are now calling diversity—the new term for an old war,” says Lennie James, who has played Morgan Jones, one of the franchise’s most resilient survivors, dating back to the series premiere of The Walking Dead. James’s character crossed over into Fear the Walking Dead in the spinoff’s fourth season, and he and another prominent Black character, Colman Domingo’s Victor Strand, face off in the poster for the forthcoming Season 7. “Alongside its spinoffs,” James adds in the statement relayed by AMC, “the show has redefined what genre TV can and should look like, and I am proud to have had a part in that legacy.”

That legacy flows in large part from Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comics, which ran from 2003 to 2019 and provided much of the narrative framework for the TV version. On both page and screen, The Walking Dead owes a deep debt to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead film franchise, which often featured Black actors as leads or major characters, including Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, Ken Foree in Dawn of the Dead, and Terry Alexander in Day of the Dead (which Nicotero worked on as makeup effects guru Tom Savini’s assistant). “The horror movie trope usually is that the Black guy gets killed,” says Kirkman, who has executive-produced and written for the TV adaptation of his 193-issue series. “But in those Romero movies, it was like, the Black guy is the most capable character. And that was a tradition that I wanted to uphold as a tribute to George Romero, and also just as an acknowledgement of something that the zombie genre does that’s kind of cool.” That desire resulted in the introductions of commanding Black characters like Tyreese and Michonne, who would be played by Chad L. Coleman and Danai Gurira, respectively, on TV.

As Kirkman wrote in response to a reader letter in issue no. 177, the increasing diversity of Walking Dead characters throughout the comics reflected his own education and maturation, which he says stemmed from exposure to people from differing backgrounds via reader mail and interactions at conventions. “From a very early time, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m talking to tons of people of color who are really loving these characters,” Kirkman recalls. “And as a dumb white guy from Kentucky who started The Walking Dead at age 23, I get to interact with people who talk about how meaningful this is for them. … So what started as possibly a dumb thing that I did just to pay tribute to some cool movies I enjoyed, you really start to recognize just how meaningful it is for people. And I think that’s when, in my 20s, I started really noticing, ‘OK, every action hero of the ’80s is a white guy, and every cartoon I enjoyed growing up is full of white people.’ … You start to really recognize [that] for many, many generations of people, pop culture was giving them this message that, ‘Hey, this isn’t for you.’”

To send a different message with The Walking Dead, Kirkman consciously curbed his more myopic, parochial impulses. “As a white male, every character I come up with just in my initial thoughts tends to be white male,” he says. “The first thing that pops in is the archetype that’s based on me, because that is the main center of my experience. And once you acknowledge that, that’s when you have to go, ‘Oh, OK. There’s actually a tiny bit of effort that needs to be put into thinking about who’s underrepresented in this comic book and who can be better represented.’ And then that actually makes a character richer and more interesting, because it starts to dictate certain aspects of their background, and it helps out with character traits and things that make characters unique.”

That need for differentiation is particularly important on a series such as The Walking Dead, whose huge ensemble casts and somewhat well-worn story arcs make diversity a practical concern as well as a matter of principle. “It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do,” Kirkman continues. “I think it is also a recipe for success, and I think more and more people are recognizing that. We make products to reach the widest audience possible. So you need to do things that speak to the widest portion of the audience possible.”

Few audiences were wider than The Walking Dead’s at the peak of its pre-cord-cutting popularity. The series averaged more than 10 million weekly viewers from seasons 3 through 7, peaking at more than 14 million in Season 5. Its linear ratings have since sunk precipitously, though that decline reflects changing viewing habits as much as the audience’s flagging interest level.

The Walking Dead’s cratering linear ratings.
STVPlus

The Walking Dead’s Season 6 finale cliff-hanger and ultraviolent start to Season 7 alienated fans, but The Hollywood Reporter noted last year that the series’ ratings still stood “far above all other scripted shows on cable.” Variety reported after the Season 11 premiere that The Walking Dead remained the no. 1 cable drama, marking its 12th consecutive year occupying that perch, and the flagship show and spinoffs Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: World Beyond give AMC three of the top 10 cable dramas in the 18-49 demographic. Variety also observed that new episodes of the original series appearing on AMC Plus a week ahead of their cable debut has helped drive subscriptions to the network’s streaming service, and non-Nielsen measurements have pegged The Walking Dead as one of the most in-demand streaming series, suggesting that an audience has discovered its back catalog on Netflix.

Anyone embarking on a binge of The Walking Dead’s 160-plus episodes will witness a sped-up expansion in the number and depth of the show’s characters of color. “It was understood very early on that any characters that are of color should maintain their ethnicity when they move from the comic to the show,” Kirkman says. “And my personal rule was if they’re white, anything goes—let’s cast the best actor. And if we end up with fewer white people in the show, I think we’ll be OK.” Kang, who stresses the importance of specifically casting for actors from diverse backgrounds or emphasizing that certain parts are open to all ethnicities, says, “The idea of inclusion has been very important to us. … When you’re doing a show that is about America and the fall of America, I think we all have felt a responsibility to do our best to show many different people, because otherwise you’re saying the world only belongs to a certain type of person.”

The Walking Dead casting directors Sherry Thomas, Sharon Bialy, and Gohar Gazazyan, all of whom had worked together before joining the series from the start, say the network and creators emphasized diversity from the start. “We’ve always advocated for and prioritized equity and inclusion in our process, but definitely years ago, I think we met with more resistance and less eagerness to make that a priority,” Gazazyan says, adding, “We used to hear things that horrified us at the time just as they do now, which is, ‘Oh, we need a white actor in this role to make this a mainstream hit.’ And I think shows like The Walking Dead have showed people that is absolutely not true.” Bialy echoes, “If you cast a Black actor, you never heard from the creatives or AMC, ‘Well, you already have one, so that’s enough.’ And we have heard that in other places.” (Insecure’s Issa Rae recently recalled hearing something similar in reference to her show.)

Early on, though, the series drew deserved criticism for the writing of its Black male characters, as well as what seemed to be a pattern in which a Black man would debut only after another died. Morgan disappears after the pilot, not to return until Season 3; the initially underdeveloped T-Dog (IronE Singleton) dies in Season 3, soon after Oscar (Vincent Ward) shows up; Tyreese arrives in the same episode in which Oscar dies. In Season 5, Tyreese, Lawrence Gilliard Jr.’s Bob, and Noah (Tyler James Williams) all bite it—or, rather, get bitten—removing two of the series’ three alums from The Wire. (“It became a joke, don’t bring any more guys in from The Wire,” Thomas says of The Walking Dead’s affinity for the HBO show.) Until Season 3, the on-screen franchise’s most compelling Black character may have been Lee Everett, the co-protagonist of the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead video game.

At the time, executive producers Gale Ann Hurd and Scott M. Gimple pointed out (not inaccurately) that a lot of characters get killed on The Walking Dead, and that some of the show’s Black characters, including T-Dog and Bob, either hadn’t existed or hadn’t been Black in the comics. (Other Black characters, such as Morgan and Tyreese’s sister Sasha, who was played by Sonequa Martin-Green, were also greatly expanded from the comics or created for TV.) But the perception persisted that the early seasons of The Walking Dead and Fear hadn’t done right by some of their Black characters. It didn’t help that the series (which is shot in Georgia) took place in or near Atlanta for the first four-plus seasons, which accentuated any shortfall in Black characters. “We do have to acknowledge that it’s set in Georgia, and therefore the demographics still aren’t accurately representing real life, because there would be way more African Americans in the show,” Kirkman says.

These critiques weren’t lost on the creators of the series. “Without breaking some of the trust of the writers’ room, I’ll say that sometimes conversations about those things happened in the room as well,” Kang acknowledges. “In the time that we’ve been writing the show, because it’s spanned so many years, I think there’s just been an evolution and some thought about how to handle diversity in-show.”

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, who wrote about the show’s handling of diversity both before and after its course correction, says, “I think Michonne was a real turning point.” Although Danai Gurira’s katana-wielding character briefly appears in the second-season finale, she’s silent and hostile for much of Season 3, still suffering from the effects of PTSD. Eventually, she blossoms into a well-rounded leader and lover who was listed second in the credits by the time Gurira left the show. “These weren’t just peripheral characters like T-Dog,” Deggans says. “These were characters that had significant story lines. They had lots of scenes. They were integral to the progress of the show.”

According to one estimate of cumulative character screen time, white characters held the top five positions as of early Season 3; by early Season 6, Michonne and Glenn Rhee had taken two of those slots. Glenn, one of the series’ most popular characters, underwent a dramatic metamorphosis of his own, growing from pizza-delivering sidekick to action hero and romantic lead. “I think Glenn was significant to many, many people who watch the show,” Kang says. “And what was really beautiful is that it was this rare time when people who are not of an Asian American background were looking at this character and just thinking, ‘That’s the everyman in this story.’”

Steven Yeun, who played Glenn from Season 1 until his exit in the Season 7 premiere, later recalled that his character’s costume and characterization were somewhat stereotypical at first. And Kang remembers then-producer Sang Kyu Kim pushing for a more fully realized role for Glenn during Season 3. “One of the things that he really was standing strong for [was that] there’s this stereotype about Asian males being weak and not sexual, and we have to be extra mindful of that,” Kang says. “Because it’s not enough to just say, ‘Well, any character that would be in that role we would write it that way.’ It’s like, yes, but when there’s such a pervasive stereotype, you just have to handle it a little bit more carefully.”

When Kang was growing up, she says, “I didn’t really see people like me doing either the job I have or even just being on television. And so it’s very personal to feel like there’s a variety of people that you can see on TV.” Prior to Glenn’s evolution, she wondered, “Is that ever going to happen, where the Asian American character is not just the sidekick, and not just the silly comic relief? But you can see that person as a hero, and they’re strong, and they are on par with all the other characters around them?” Glenn became that character, which Kang says “was really deeply meaningful for me as a Korean American.”

Gimple, who now serves as the franchise’s chief content officer, presided over the series’ double down on diversity, and Kang has helped restore the storytelling after the doldrums of Seasons 7 and 8. Aside from a few smaller-scale, mid-pandemic episodes tacked on to Season 10, the series’ IMDb user ratings have returned to roughly pre-Negan levels.

RatinGraph

The presence of Kang, who was the first woman writer on the show and who says The Walking Dead has long maintained a 50-50 male-female split in the writers’ room, has likely also helped foster continued attention to diversifying both behind and in front of the camera. “One of the things we found,” Hunt shares, “is that when the writers’ room is led by a showrunner of color, or by a woman showrunner, the entire room tends to be more diverse, and the story lines tend to consider issues and topics that aren’t as commonly considered if the showrunner is a white male.”

UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report

Kang confirms, “I do think that that makes a difference, when people go, ‘Hey, listen, let’s not just hire the same people that you’ve known for the last however many years,’ because now problems with diversity get baked in from years ago. You’ve got to go out and seek people actively. … We work really hard to try to diversify our directing lineups, and I’m still not really satisfied.” Six of the first eight episodes this season were written or cowritten by women, and four were written or cowritten by Black or Asian women (including LaToya Morgan and producer Vivian Tse). “We’re looking at things in different ways all the time and going, ‘Does our balance feel like we’re showing enough of America?’” Kang says.

UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report

It’s difficult to identify a segment of the population that The Walking Dead and/or its spinoffs haven’t represented in some way. Two-season spinoff World Beyond is fronted by biracial actresses Aliyah Royale and Alexa Mansour and gender-fluid actor Nico Tortorella. The Walking Dead has included several LGBTQ characters, and Kang mentions upcoming appearances by a trans character and multiple Native American characters. (Indigenous Canadian actor Michael Greyeyes had a 10-episode arc on Season 3 of Fear.) The franchise has also given prominent parts to actors with disabilities. Daryl Mitchell, who uses a wheelchair, plays Wendell on Fear the Walking Dead, and Ridloff and Theory, who are deaf and hearing-impaired, respectively, joined The Walking Dead on Season 9.

“Long before I joined the cast, I was a fan of the show because I found bits of myself in that story, simply because of the diversity among the survivors,” Ridloff says via AMC. “I found characters to connect with and to live vicariously [through] in the apocalypse. I never dreamed that I would join the show as deaf survivor Connie, and that was such a game changer. I know that many people wonder how a person with a disability would survive the apocalypse, and what they would do if they came across such a person during the apocalypse. TWD offers them different ideas, all of them authentic and inspiring.”

In the comics, Connie isn’t deaf, and Kelly is a man. Kang doesn’t feel bound by those precedents. “I’m proud that we’re making a show that’s in this genre space, that is as diverse as it is,” she says. “Because I think a lot of shows say, ‘Well, the source material is like this,’ or the time period, or whatever. ‘Realistically … ’ And I’m like, it’s a fake world. You can make the choices that you want to make.” However, when a fleeting glimpse of a flyer on a made-up Metro station is as close as the show typically comes to directly commenting on race or discrimination, it’s fair to wonder why The Walking Dead doesn’t go further, as other zombie fiction has.

“When I and other critics were criticizing The Walking Dead for its lack of characters of color, we weren’t just criticizing the idea that there were just one or two non-white people in the cast,” Deggans says. “We were criticizing the idea that the lives of people of color were not reflected in the show.” Deggans continues, “I am glad to see that The Walking Dead has much more racial diversity on it. ... But when you have characters of color who don’t really reflect what it means to be a person of color, that diversity only goes so far.”

Bialy describes the series as “such a story of survival, and what choices do you make? And I think every single race, religion can relate to that, what they would do. So in that sense, it speaks to everybody.” But maybe speaking to everybody makes it more difficult to address anybody in particular. In a way, The Walking Dead portrays a racial utopia within a zombie dystopia—a hellscape where, happily, discrimination is mostly solved. All it took to wipe away America’s original sin was the collapse of law and order and huge hordes of reanimated corpses. “When it’s humans against the dead,” Kang says, “certain aspects of society sometimes stay the same, and in other ways are completely turned upside down, and certain divisions seem almost petty.”

Granted, this isn’t a series that strictly abides by the rules of the world we know, and its deviations needn’t be a bad thing; as Fear’s Rubén Blades said last year, “One of the interesting things about The Walking Dead universe and Fear the Walking Dead is that the new reality destroyed the usual controls and stereotypes about power and who holds it.” Given the divisive events of the past year and a half, though, the series’ racial harmony seems like almost as much of a stretch as the walkers themselves. “I’m not saying I’m jonesing to see a racist character on The Walking Dead,” Deggans says. “I’m just saying, this is Atlanta. You’re gonna see Black people, and you’re gonna see racists. So where are they? Maybe they all got turned into zombies.”

The Walking Dead once dabbled in those themes. Merle Dixon, Daryl’s older brother, was an inveterate racist who freely spouted slurs (as was Jeremiah Otto on the third season of Fear), and even early Daryl made remarks that would likely get him canceled today. In the Season 5 episode “Forget,” Aaron says that he and his boyfriend Eric have encountered homophobia both before and after the apocalypse, and that they’re still treated as outsiders in Alexandria because they’re gay. And in the second episode of Season 2, “Bloodletting,” T-Dog confides to Dale, “I’m the one Black guy. You realize how precarious that makes my situation? I’m talking about two good ol’ boy cowboy sheriffs and a redneck whose brother cut off his own hand because I dropped a key. Who in that scenario do you think is going to be the first to get lynched?”

For the most part, though, the series has stuck to a part-aspirational, part-Pollyannish zone where, as Deggans observes, Ezekiel and Carol and Rick and Michonne have interracial romances without any apparent racist blowback. “It’s not about separating people, and it’s not about having some sort of big drama based around people’s ethnic differences,” Deggans says. “But people’s whole selves come to something, and part of that is their racial culture. And to not articulate that in the show, it’s an element of storytelling that the show has constantly fallen short on. … It’s almost like they feel like the zombie threat or the Big Bad moment is such a pressing issue, nobody has time to worry about these other things. But the way people work is that when they’re under pressure, that’s when those differences come out.”

In other words, while The Walking Dead may have been set in and around Atlanta, it never resembled Atlanta. It’s more of a very visible bridge from the previous prestige-TV era of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad to the one of Atlanta, Watchmen, and Reservation Dogs. “Hollywood goes through stages,” Deggans says. “Part of it starts with the occasional character, and then you get more diversity. But sometimes those non-white characters act just like white people. And then the next stage is characters of color who are fully characters of color, where they’re not defined by their race, but you recognize their race and culture in who they are, what they do, and how they talk and what they remember. And I think The Walking Dead never quite made that leap.” (The same could be said of the comics.)

From a diversity and representation standpoint, then, the series’ most lasting legacy may be providing a platform for the previously low-profile talents who used the series as a launching pad. As Gazazyan says, “Opportunity begets opportunity,” and the actors whose big breaks came on The Walking Dead have made the most of them. When Yeun left the series, he called landing a role in The Walking Dead “a massive blessing,” but he also reflected that he “hadn’t taken the time for myself to understand who I was and maybe my voice and what I wanted to say,” because his character “was always kind of in service to this larger narrative.” Yeun concluded, “I think I want to try the other side,” and he has, becoming the first Asian American actor to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Minari.

Yeun is also voicing a superhero in another Kirkman adaptation, Invincible (which features more diverse characters than the comics). Martin-Green became the first Black woman to play the lead role in a Star Trek series, Discovery. Gurira is starring in Marvel movies and landing overall development deals, and she was going to graduate to showrunner of HBO’s Americanah before the pandemic interfered. Serratos, who figuratively filled Michonne’s shoes by slicing and dicing walkers with a sword in The Walking Dead’s most recent episode, just played Tejano singer Selena in Netflix’s Selena: The Series. Ridloff will be the next to make the Marvel movie jump, in November’s Eternals. All of these actors might have rocketed their way to projects like these without The Walking Dead’s gravity assist, but there’s no way to know.

As those breakout faces of the franchise become bigger stars and curate (or create) their own projects, others—Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes), Norman Reedus (Daryl), and Melissa McBride (Carol)—are mostly lingering within the self-perpetuating Walking Dead universe. Lincoln, who seemingly hasn’t been busy since he exited the series three years ago, is still supposedly scheduled to reprise his role as Rick in a trilogy of films, while Reedus and McBride will headline a Daryl and Carol spinoff series that’s slated for 2023. Kang, who will serve as showrunner of that series, says the diversity of its cast has been an “active point of conversation” between her and Gimple, because they “don’t want to move backwards on the legacy of the show.”

The Walking Dead’s dramatic performances have been overshadowed by its titular, lurching swarms; the series has received 11 Emmy nominations for prosthetic makeup or visual effects and none for acting. But part of its legacy, at least, is its history of character diversity and powerful, boundary-breaking roles. “People see [The Walking Dead] as a genre show and a zombie show, but I think at the end of the day, [it’s a] character drama,” Gazazyan says. “It’s so much about our humanity, which I think is why it’s so important that we have tried to show what humanity is in all its various forms.” Hunt adds that “in the distant past, there was this concern about the overrepresentation of African Americans in comedy, and the lack of human, humane portrayals in drama.” The Walking Dead helped the industry leave that past further behind, and by becoming a cultural phenomenon, it reinforced the finding that, as Hunt says, “diversity actually seems to sell.”

UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report

The rapid rise of streaming has accelerated this sea change, because streaming networks aren’t burdened by ratings in the same way that cable and broadcast networks are. They’re selling to subscribers, which gives them incentive to cater to portions of the population that Hollywood once overlooked. But for all the headway in cast diversity on TV and in movies (at least in some respects), Hunt says that “not nearly enough progress” has been made behind the camera on TV, that “not as much progress at all” has occurred behind the camera in film, and that “there isn’t a lot of change” in executive suites, which are “still overwhelmingly white and male.” The ideal outcome, then, is not just an entertainment industry where more casts of major mainstream properties look like The Walking Dead’s, but one in which, as the creator of the comics says, “White Robert Kirkman doesn’t have to inspire the next white person to [foreground diverse characters], because the diversity behind the camera, the diversity in the actual production of things, is expanding exponentially year after year.”

Thanks to Jessica Wolf of UCLA for research assistance.

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