By any standard, AMC’s zombie drama, The Walking Dead, is a success; by cable-TV standards, it’s a record-breaker and a paradigm shift—proof that basic cable can produce genuine hits that draw nearly 9 million viewers per episode and not just critical darlings like the same network’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And yet for anyone following the show’s dismal reviews or the crisis that culminated in the firing of its creator, Frank Darabont, this past July, it looks like a project bent on self-sabotage. Fortunately, Darabont’s replacement as showrunner knows how to handle stress. Glen Mazzara, whose voice betrays his Queens roots, began his career as a New York hospital administrator before breaking into TV. “Tight schedules, people with different agendas, tight budgets,” he says, rattling off the parallels. “And you’re always waiting for a cardiac arrest.” Lately he’s been trotting out a more dramatic professional analogy. “I’m the guy in The Hurt Locker,” Mazzara says. “I get sent in in the suit to try to defuse things.”
The source of last summer’s explosion is still murky. A cavalcade of theories followed in its wake: Darabont couldn’t get along with AMC’s head of original programming, Joel Stillerman; he tried to shoehorn his film sensibility (he directed The Shawshank Redemption) into a TV mold; one of his directors turned in unusable footage on a crucial episode; he railed against rumored budget cuts. Mazzara confirms a post-Darabont scramble to clean up a ragged second-season premiere, but he and an AMC spokesperson deny any belt-tightening. “I’ve been nickel-and-dimed by studios before,” he says. “They have not nickel-and-dimed this show.” Darabont refused to comment for this story, but three months before his dismissal, he appeared at a showrunners roundtable and complained about AMC’s attitude toward its shows: “There’s an asset that has proved to be quite a valuable asset. Why are you trying to gut the budget? It doesn’t make business sense to me.”
Whatever the case, the crisis of confidence among cast and crew was very real. Mazzara seems to have conquered it, but the public jury won’t be in until February 12. That’s when the show returns from its mid-second-season hiatus and when viewers get to see the first episode made entirely on Mazzara’s watch.
Mazzara thought twice about taking the job. He had always functioned best as a right-hand man who “comes in in a nonthreatening way to help a showrunner attain his vision.” His No. 2 gig on The Shield went better than stints running cable duds Hawthorne and Crash. He was replaced on the latter, “so I know that it’s a very painful thing to lose a show.” And he would always be thought of as The Walking Dead’s replacement chief. “Here was the third instance where I was signing on to execute someone else’s vision, and what if it didn’t go right? It could have killed my career.”
Mazzara flew to Atlanta to sweet-talk the actors—most of them deeply devoted to Darabont—in the middle of a sweltering midsummer shoot. “He just said, ‘I was very happy where I was at,’ ” says the show’s Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl, a hick with a crossbow and a heart of gold. “He wasn’t the bad guy in the situation, and he wanted to let us know that.” Or, as Mazzara insists to me, “I am not an auteur—I am not. Okay?”
But Mazzara couldn’t sweet-talk a blogosphere teeming with flesh-hungry fanboys. They had eaten up the premise of The Walking Dead, based on a beloved comic by Robert Kirkman: A small-town cop leads an enclave of zombie-apocalypse survivors outside Atlanta, battling not just the undead but their own darker human impulses. Yet many bristled at the leaden dialogue and improbable twists that plagued the first season. Between seasons, Darabont axed most of the writing team and brought on the author of its best episode, Mazzara, as executive producer in charge of hiring a new staff. Mission unaccomplished: The first half of the second season was savaged for lumbering along, zombielike, almost entirely within the confines of a single farm. Since Darabont had already been let go (having signed off on that first half), fans were tempted to blame Mazzara.
It’s on this point that Mazzara’s auteur ego rears its head. “The fans,” he says, “don’t understand what’s mine, what’s Frank’s, what needed to be done to improve the show.” As an example, he brings up the show’s recent confession by policeman Rick’s wife, Lori, that she’d slept with his best friend, Shane. Darabont thought it was too much plot development, Mazzara says—even though viewers had known about the affair since the series premiere. Mazzara chalks it up to Darabont’s film mentality. “Frank’s storytelling is told with the entire picture in mind—which works on a feature,” he says. “Having worked in episodic TV for a long time, I realize that the audience gets hungry for stuff and cannot be too far ahead of the characters. Otherwise they feel the characters are stupid or not worth their time.” With Darabont gone, he put the scene in.
Mazzara’s goal, moving forward, “is to accelerate and then figure out more story.” His second-half opener features a tense standoff, new characters, and the promise of broader horizons. “I feel that the show has been a little insular,” he says. “I want to widen it. All of a sudden the outside world starts encroaching on our farm. And now there’s the suspense of, who’s out there? Are they coming? And all the interpersonal dynamics of the group are at loggerheads over this new threat.”
The writers have already moved on to season three, which AMC recently expanded to sixteen episodes. That’s exactly where Mazzara wants to be. “If you want to know who I am,” he says, “I hate when a show I’m working on is broadcast. I’m dreading when the show comes back on. I’m sure people will like it, but I don’t like the spotlight, and I can’t wait for the last one to run so I can get back to work.”
The Walking Dead
Sundays, 9 p.m.