TV’s Aftershow Phenomenon: From ‘Talking Dead’ to ‘After the Thrones’

'Talking Dead' to 'After the Thrones':
Courtesy of AMC

In a recent episode of “Talking Dead,” AMC’s comparatively tidy aftershow for its bloody hit series “The Walking Dead,” Greg Raiewski joined two of the show’s stars and host Chris Hardwick to handle the show’s weekly task: break down the episode that just aired, offer analysis and predictions and have a great time doing it.

High school teacher Raiewski was antsy. His legs bounced up and down, and he seemed inexperienced on-camera, but the audience ate it up. As Hardwick pointed out, he’s “handsome,” with a look that would fit right in as a resident of Alexandria. Raiewski is a “Walking Dead” fan — the ultimate fan. He won a contest in which viewers submitted short videos for a chance to meet their heroes, sit on the couch and get in on the conversation.

Raiewski sums up why aftershows are cropping up all over television, even scripted shows. “Talking Dead” exec producer Brandon Monk says the superfan exemplifies what the creators “hoped the show would be.” He’s symbolic of this moment in television of networks trying to understand their audience, and those fans in turn wanting more from their favorite shows.

“Talking Dead” launched in 2011, along with “The Walking Dead” season two premiere. Its success spawned the net’s “Talking Bad” (“Breaking Bad”), “Talking Saul” (“Better Call Saul”) and “Talking Preacher” (“Preacher”), all of which aired in a more limited capacity.

MTV launched “Wolf Watch” (“Teen Wolf”) in 2014, and this year “After the Black” (“Orphan Black”) and “After the Thrones” (“Game of Thrones”) added similar formats. And while the trend in naming conventions leaves something to be desired (SEO, branding, sure, whatever), the low-budget phenomenon with high potential for lead-in viewership is worth observing.

When “Talking Dead” was conceived, Monk says Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live” was its model, having premiered in 2009 featuring host Andy Cohen and a rotating cast of Bravo personalities and other celebrities. The concept of built-in extra programming for reality shows has been a popular one starting with MTV in the mid-2000s, extending all the way to recent additions to ABC’s “The Bachelor” and “Top Gear” on BBC America. So it only makes sense that scripted shows would ultimately find a way to keep the party going as well.

Andy Greenwald, a longtime critic and co-host of “After the Thrones,” says that the rise of the aftershow isn’t a shocker. “It’s not that surprising to me that people are rabid and passionate about the shows that they love, and want to engage with them as much as possible, and talk about them as much as possible. It feels like a logical extension.”

BBC America president Sarah Barnett echoes Greenwald’s point, a recurring theme among programs that are adding aftershows: their fanbases are hungry for more information. “I am consistently overwhelmed not just by the depth, but the level of intensity of the fans,” Barnett says.

BBC America’s “Orphan Black” recently added its aftershow for the fourth season, which premiered in April. The show may not compare to the weekly viewership of “Game of Thrones” or “Walking Dead,” but the network seeks to connect with and energize the already enthusiastic fans (called the Clone Club). “Orphan Black” also posts impressive live-plus-three numbers (averaging a gain of 176% over same day viewership through the first four episodes of this season), which take into account fans who DVR the show to watch later. Barnett calls those ratings for “Orphan Black,” “bonkers high. It’s off the scale.”

The exec says that adding the aftershow is the product of listening and reacting to what their audience wants. “We really want to practice what so many networks preach,” she says. “This isn’t about the live-same-day (audience), this is about the time-shifting. This is about people really caring about our shows. And we understand that our audience is at the forefront of new ways of consuming content. We’re fools if we think we can persuade them to watch in a way that we want them to watch. We have to follow and embrace the way they want to watch.”

“The Walking Dead” also has an unusually passionate fanbase. But Monk says aftershow creators still felt pressure to deliver a captivating product. “You’re competing with sleep on Sunday nights,” Monk says. “What are you going to do to make it worth their while so they stay up a little bit longer before they go to work the next day?”

For Monk and the show’s other exec producers Michael Davies and Jen Kelly Patton, “[‘Talking Dead’] had to talk to the fans directly, and it had to keep moving. It had to be an authentic conversation.”

One way to keep the audience tuned in was to give them information that they couldn’t get anywhere else. “We desperately wanted to get as much insider information from the producers and the actors as possible,” Monk says, but in the beginning they resorted to notable fans, like comedians Patton Oswalt and Aisha Tyler, in lieu of the cast and creators. “And they were just giving their opinions. I think the audience really loved that they could see themselves in those fans.”

The model has been mirrored in almost every aftershow — two or more people sitting on a couch, having an engaging conversation. Some shows like “Talking Dead” include more bonus content and special guests, but others, like “After the Thrones,” have a very bare-bones approach. It’s like hanging out with your best friends, except smarter and funnier.

The rise of quality television has brought with it excellent criticism — the past two Pulitzer prizes for criticism were awarded to television critics — but Greenwald says he and his co-host, Chris Ryan, have never received a note or a comment about being critical either way. “I think it’s a fundamentally different exercise,” he says. “Chris and I bring critical eyes to everything that we do. But this show is very objectively not an act of criticism.” He says the format is more or less ripped straight from the “Watch the Thrones” podcast the two used to host for the now-defunct Grantland.

Ryan says the show is about taking an energetic and intelligent approach to the series, but not necessarily being a scholar. “I am categorically stating that there are people who know more about ‘Game of Thrones’ than me and Andy. But we provide people with a good place to get that electricity that you feel after the show satisfied.”

Greenwald adds that the potential for scholarship in the source material is the reason their show is sustainable. “People talk about the need for a second-screen experience, but I don’t think two screens is enough for ‘Game of Thrones,’” he says. “It’s the rare show that deserves and supports this much chatter.”

While there may only be so many shows that can support the format effectively, Barnett says, that shouldn’t stop the trend from continuing. “I’m sure it will morph and probably grow and mushroom and maybe be overdone in some ways, but actually evolve. I think [the aftershow format] has a bright and interesting future.”

And Monk agrees, adding that aftershows are a revolutionary way to open up the conversation in a way that other talk show formats can’t. “It’s just a wonderful space to talk about how artful their performances are without having to cram it into the last question on a talk show,” he says. “You want to have a space where you can talk about your favorite thing, so there’s always going to be a place for an aftershow. What it becomes will be very interesting.”