“That episode is going to require some recovery and therapy,” said a happily stimulated Chris Hardwick during the opening moments of last week’s edition of “Talking Dead,” the live AMC talk show telecast every Sunday following new episodes of “The Walking Dead.” As was undoubtedly true of millions of viewers, agreeable host Hardwick was so worked up over events in last week’s senses-shattering show -- the penultimate episode of “Walking Dead’s” sophomore season -- that he could barely contain himself.
“Walking Dead” viewers know the many reasons for Hardwick’s giddy overload. While everyone was still recovering from the untimely evisceration of Dale one week earlier, hero turned dangerously flawed hot-head Shane murdered Randall, the bad guy who had been trying to convince anyone who would listen that he was now good. Then Daryl and Glen were attacked by Zombie Randall and ended him once and for all. Meanwhile, Shane was fatally stabbed by Rick, his former best friend and now another good guy gone bad. Minutes later Rick’s increasingly creepy son Carl gunned down Zombie Shane before the freshly made walker could attack his dad.
And there was more! Seconds after Zombie Shane dropped, a horde of ravenous zombies appeared in the distance, storming Hershel’s farm, which has been a safe haven for most of the series’ characters this season. So much was going on it was easy to forget that the terrifying appearances of Zombie Randall and Zombie Shane provided longtime viewers with critical new information about the zombie-making process: Humans need not be bitten by zombies to return as the walking dead. All they need do is die.
Hardwick’s guests last week -- “Chuck” star Zachary Levi and “Walking Dead” co-star Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie -- were similarly agitated. “I have no idea,” Levi excitedly stated about the possible ramifications of the zombie transformation revelation. “Is it like some airborne thing that originally started making everybody zombies and it somehow seeped into their blood in some way?”
This is exactly the kind of excited conversation that my friends and I and millions of other “Walking Dead” viewers have every week following the show, and that’s why “Talking Dead” represents yet another genius move by the programmers at AMC. What could make more sense than a live show following a hot series in which celebrity guests rant, rave and obsess over what they (and the home viewer) have just watched?
It would seem that “Talking Dead” owes a small debt to the success of Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” the infectiously entertaining nightly live talk show in which the network’s programming guru Andy Cohen merrily chats with celebrity guests, mostly about Bravo programming. Both shows encourage instant interaction with their viewers via the usual means: calling, texting, tweeting, Facebook posting, emailing, etc. Also, they both offer online after-shows. The big difference between the two, other than frequency and duration, is that while the conversation on “WWHL” can be wide-ranging (and sometimes very personal), the talk on “Talking Dead” is all geek, all the time, and almost exclusively devoted to the zombie show that is the reason for its existence. As such it may be the first-ever talk show on which guests don’t have to worry about promoting something or deflecting private questions. They’re just there to get their nerd on.
As I noted here in January when writing about “Watch What Happens Live,” it seems to me that one way for basic cable networks to hold or build their audience is to embrace the live-talk model whenever possible. Such shows are cheap to produce compared to almost any other programming you care to name, they extend the connection between a network brand and its viewers, and they perpetually promote the network’s product. Accordingly, while I’m not sure if AMC should attempt to do the same thing for other series on its roster that also generate a ton of talk -- especially “Mad Men” and “The Killing” – I think it might be worth a try. (Imagine a “Mad Men Cocktail Hour.”)
“Comic Book Men” star and executive producer Kevin Smith said it best when he appeared on “Talking Dead” two weeks ago. “This cracks the code, man,” he declared. “I think there should always be a program right after [a show] where people who look like me talk about it!”
My one complaint with “Talking Dead” has been its scheduling. AMC has run it live at midnight on the East Coast, a full two hours after each new episode of “Walking Dead” ends. (“Comic Book Men” and a repeat of “Walking Dead” have been telecast between the two.) That just won’t do. “Talking Dead” should directly follow “Walking Dead.” Fortunately it will do exactly that on Sunday, when both shows present their season finales.
“You’re going to have a lot of crap to sort through,” Hardwick teased last week of this Sunday’s “Walking Dead,” which is certain to be a breath-taker. “We’re going to get through this together!” In terms of establishing a deep connection with its viewers, could a network ask for anything more?