AMC continues to mine “The Walking Dead” to death. It has been nearly 13 years since the original series first aired, and yet none of its three spin-offs — soon to be four, plus an additional two in the works — have recaptured the magic of those early Rick Grimes-led seasons. After “The Last of Us” revived the prestige zombie genre with impressive quality and creativity earlier this year, AMC’s insistence on franchising continues to dilute the zombie drama du jour.
The latest spin-off, created and written by “The Walking Dead” producing veteran Eli Jorné, is not likely to convert any new fans. For viewers still slugging through the eighth season of “Fear the Walking Dead,” there are enough horror thrills in the six-episode season of “The Walking Dead: Dead City” to keep you watching and even raise an eyebrow, particularly if you’re already invested in the rich dynamic between Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) — a tense relationship that picks up where “The Walking Dead” left off.
This may be the franchise’s best spin-off yet. The problem is that the bar is so low that unless you’re a “Walking Dead” die-hard, you’ll likely skip this one too.
The series begins with Maggie recruiting Negan on the outskirts of New York after her son Hershell (Logan Kim) is taken hostage in Manhattan by a maniacal crony from Negan’s days as the leader of the Sanctuary’s Saviors from the original series.
As we know from “The Walking Dead,” Negan is still haunted by his violent dictator-like past, and “Dead City” has adequate exposition to get you up to speed to his more reformed present. Negan is unafraid to tap into his more violent proclivities when under pressure of survival, and Dean Morgan still imbues the role with his trademark snarky one-liners and a flash of comedic relief as he and Maggie navigate Manhattan together.
Cohan is also in top form as Maggie, a character hardened by years of loss and unfairly shafted in the last few seasons of “The Walking Dead.” After returning from a multi-season hiatus, Maggie got lost through the cracks of a large, relatively newer ensemble cast and some convoluted world-building. Luckily, “Dead City” extracts the more memorable aspects of her “Walking Dead” arc — her unforgiving anger toward Negan.
Both Dean Morgan and Cohan sell the hell out of this transactional relationship, and the show leans on their shared history to provide the bulk of the emotional depth throughout the season.
The Croat, played by Emmy-winning actor Željko Ivanek (“Damages”) is the season’s villain and the leader of a Manhattan-dwelling faction. Ivanek does what he can with some cliché writing, too familiar to anyone who has watched the rotating cast of villains over the years on this universe. It is a shame the show waits until the end of the season to introduce an always phenomenal Lisa Emery (“Ozark”), but her role certainly sets up future seasons if “Dead City” is renewed beyond its first.
Some of the most exciting episodes of “The Walking Dead” take place in Atlanta’s city environments. “Dead City” makes the most out of its Manhattan setting by showcasing some fun ziplining between building rooftops and thriving cockroaches. We also get to learn a little bit about how New Yorkers (Karina Ortiz and Jonathan Higginbotham) survived the apocalypse after the military tried to quarantine the island by destroying all points of access through bridges and tunnels.
With only six episodes that are fairly propulsive, it’s hard not to feel like “Dead City’s” version of Manhattan is extremely small. Characters jet from one location to the next (seemingly without ever getting lost), and some New York streets stretch the limits of believability: where are all the overgrown plants?
In pursuit of Negan through Manhattan is Marshal Perlie Armstrong as one of the better developed characters of the season, with the help of a strong performance by Gaius Charles. He is employed by New Babylon, a federation of states attempting to rebuild a violently-enforced, lawful society. His chase brings urgency to Negan and Maggie’s hostage rescue but with more depth than the standard bounty hunter fare.
Negan is also accompanied by Ginny (Mahina Napoleon), a young girl who is too traumatized by life in the apocalypse to speak. Without dialogue, it’s hard to invest anything in poor Ginny, and her actions come across as random and convenient for the sake of a plot wrinkle.
Overall, the show is certainly darker, grittier and even gorier than its predecessors. But those thrills are hampered by a story that feels too predictable to anyone who still watches the franchise. Not to mention the insistence on pulling more story from the carcass of the Saviors, which certainly provides narrative ease, but is a tiring return to an arc that took so long to get resolved on “The Walking Dead” — and that previously led many viewers to drop off in frustration (ratings declined significantly after Season 7).
Other elements feel so “Walking Dead” that AI might start to take over script writing duties: a cultish faction of violent kill-or-be-killed survivors with a peculiar aesthetic and strange customs, nameless grunts with guns who follow their leader without question, inconvenient zombie hordes, and a handful of new characters who are only given enough generic backstory for you to somewhat care when they inevitably get killed off.
It’s a formula “Fear the Walking Dead” has been stuck on for years, every season feeling like a recycling of previous story structures despite compelling performances by the central cast. “Dead City’s” saving grace for viewers will likely be the investment in Maggie and Negan’s knotty relationship, a testament to the chemistry between both actors and a careful excavation of their shared history.
Six episodes provides a well-paced story and is low commitment for a franchise that pushed its luck with 16-episode seasons, so there’s no huge loss tuning in. But don’t expect “Dead City” to move the needle forward on the broader progress of the show’s mythology (what happened to the variant zombies who could throw rocks in the last season of “The Walking Dead?”), or reanimate the corpse of a franchise that you wish AMC would gently put to rest.
“The Walking Dead: Dead City” premieres Sunday, June 18, on AMC.