‘Walking Dead’ diversity often overshadowed by rating success

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Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) in 'The Walking Dead'

Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) in 'The Walking Dead'

The season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead drew a record 12.4 million viewers Sunday night – 8.1 million in the key 18-49 age demographic – sealing it as the top-rated show on television and demonstrating how a diverse cast can hold its own successfully on screen.

While the cable drama has faced criticism in the past for its purported underwhelming portrayal of black roles, the most recent season featured two standout African-American leads in the addition of characters Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman).

Both parts supplemented other minor black roles and matured as the season progressed. They are expected to grow more influential in the series’ future.

Furthermore, as one of the series’ regular directors Ernest Dickerson (who is African-American) indicates, the drama has set itself apart from others as a champion of diversity both on-screen and behind the camera.

“A lot of problems other shows have had, even shows I’ve done in the past, were that African-American characters were underwritten; they didn’t know how to write for them,” Dickerson, who has directed seven episodes of The Walking Dead including the past two finales, tells theGrio. “But I don’t think that’s a problem here. I think we do better than a lot of other shows. A lot of other shows don’t have African-Americans as major characters. They might be background. We [also] have a very diverse crew…We’ve had assistant directors of color. We’ve had people of color in all departments. There are a lot of black folks on the set.”

What a difference a third season makes

Now in its third installment, the first two seasons of The Walking Dead primarily featured one African-American principal, a vulnerable, self-determinative character named T-Dog (IronE Singleton) who gets killed off in the early part of season three. His death sparked various rebukes from viewers, who knocked the show for killing and replacing its few black characters one by one, rather than spending time with their development. T-Dog was deemed a passive player, who was cut short from the script when he could have been a driver of the narrative.

Yet, as Dickerson points out, the storyline follows the graphic novel series relatively closely, and accordingly, it introduces the more overriding black characters of Michonne and Tyreese later in the plot.

“T-Dog was not in the books at all, he was purely an invention of the writers in the first season,” Dickerson explains. “I know people were complaining about T-Dog not having anything to do in the second season, but see, I knew that eventually Michonne was gonna show up…Unfortunately, I think sometimes his part was underwritten, but now we have Michonne and Tyreese, and I think they’re going to grow into the next season.”

Dickerson believes the cast, in its entirely, represents the gamut of races, and all are killed off equally.

Walking Dead‘s diversity has detractors

Others are skeptical. Prior to this season’s conclusion, viewers joked that the show had a policy towards allocation of African-American characters, and that their contributions to the plot were subsequently limited.

Writer C.A. Huggins tweeted in December, “#WalkingDead always keeps a black guy on reserve in case current cat gets killed. They pull the next brotha off the bench.”

Similarly, Eric Deggans, TV critic for the Tampa Bay Times, voiced his mid-season grievances in a piece titled, “Does ‘The Walking Dead’ have quota for number of black characters?” Deggans pointed to Tyreese’s appearance on the show shortly after the death of Oscar, a black prison inmate. Oscar had previously been introduced following the demise of T-Dog.

Adding to the discrepancy, none of these characters had been completely fleshed out at the time of their expiration, and were additionally panned as “problematic.”

Deggans admits, nevertheless, the situation improved in the latter part of season three.