Zombies done right. That’s what I think of when describing The Walking Dead on AMC. I’ve seen too many of the bad zombie low budget flicks on basic cable at late hours (although I think the best zombie film ever made was Shaun of The Dead), so I was originally turned off by the idea of a TV series. After seeing this high quality production, my mind has easily changed.
I got my early Halloween present last week, receiving a two-episode preview and full color promotional kit for season two of The Walking Dead. I first met this great cast and top notch set of producers at Comic-Con in July during the press session for the show. I’ve never met a more enthusiastic and dedicated group of people when it comes to their project. They are like one big family, putting in all sorts of crazy hours in the sweltering heat of Atlanta for their craft. So what drives them to do more than an average TV show?
“There’s nothing television about what we’re doing,” said co-executive producer Greg Nicotero. “Every episode is a movie. No one treats it like TV. We’re doing things on TV that they don’t even do in movies that often anymore. I’ve often said it’s mini movies we’re making.”
Also in the room was then-showrunner and creator Frank Darabont. He may have stepped down as showrunner five days later, but his influence and impact is still very much seen in every aspect of this show. All the cast members were signing his praises.
“I don’t think it’s an accident when it comes to Frank. He didn’t just cast people, he vetted them,” said Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Lori Grimes. “I know he called up folks that he worked with. There’s such a thing as good actors that are no good to work with. I think he was very careful to assemble. I think it really matters to him to create a culture on the set that encourages everyone to do their best work as opposed to a place where egos are nurtured to the point where everyone is competing with one another. It makes such an enormous difference.”
Co-star Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes) couldn’t agree more. “When we go to work, it doesn’t get any better than this. In my limited experience it doesn’t. I’ve never been on a set that’s felt so safe, so exciting, and so energized.”
“[Frank] works with the best people, he works with really nice people, people that you can get along with, good human beings,” said cast member Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale Horvath). “That combination of talent and decent personality, of course I want to be there.”
What about the hard work and all those grueling hours in the heat?
“I kind of feel like a boy,” said Laurie Holden (Andrea). “It’s the strangest thing to go to work and work really hard and get bruises. Sometimes you get really hurt. You walk away and you’re like ‘Yeah, that was a really good day.’ It’s like a good day at the office. It’s almost like if you didn’t get those bruises fighting the zombies than you didn’t really earn it.”
Frank Darabont is still listed prominently in the credits in season two and the first two episodes certainly don’t reflect his absence. So what is it like having 13 episodes to tell the story this time as opposed to the six in season one? Turns out not a lot is going to change.
“I thought, ‘Oh boy, we’ll have 13 this season I won’t feel like we’ll have to compress narrative so much like we did in the first six,’” said Darabont. “There’s so many great layers to the ideas that we were dealing with. I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll have twice as much.’ It’s the same thing. We’re still doing the exact same thing.”
Season One: A Big Success
Season one was wildly successful, going on to become the number one rated show on AMC. The season finale drew six million viewers and four million in the 18-49 demographic after the premiere drew 5.3 million, the most watched premiere on AMC.
The show has drawn many critical accolades, and even recently won the Creative Arts Emmy this year for Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Series. All the credit for that, though, goes to Greg Nicotero, the FX master who was brought onto this project by close friend and frequent collaborator Frank Darabont. The goal is to make each zombie their own.
“When we have one of our big zombie days they bring in ten people at a time and you literally look at them and go, ‘Okay, I’ll be right back,’” said Nicotero. “And you go in the back trailer and you grab all the pieces and put it together. A lot of them is attributed to the artists on my crew because every person that comes in is a fresh canvas and we can take the same face three different days and make them look three different ways.”
All this success has been rather gratifying for those involved. The Walking Dead is an adaptation of the popular graphic novel series of the same name created by Robert Kirkman (who is executive producer on the show now). There were years of frustration and rejection by the bigger networks before this show came to be on AMC.
“It happened early on, like 2005,” said Kirkman. “Frank [Darabont] got in touch with my manager and called me on the phone and was like, ‘Hey I read your comic and I think it’d make a good TV show.’ We ended up talking to NBC for a while and it almost got into pilot order at NBC then it fell apart.”
Darabont certainly remembered that encounter with NBC. “Hollywood is a fantastically frustrating place because there are entire cadres of people to say no, especially if you’re trying to pitch something that’s outside their wheelhouse of thought. They all pay lip service to ‘we want something new, different,’ but, like NBC, as soon as you hand it to them they go, ‘We can’t do this. This is not something we understand.’”
Kirkman admitted that he thought the project was dead, and was perfectly happy to sit in Kentucky and work on his comic series. Still, Darabont wouldn’t give up. “Frank always stayed in the mix. I’d see him every year at Comic-Con and he’d say ‘Buddy, we’re going to do this show, don’t you worry, I’m going to do it.’ I’d be like ‘It’s been three years, you don’t have to tell me this. I appreciate you still talking to me but it’s not going to happen.’”
So how did the show work its way to AMC? Enter Gale Anne Hurd (executive producer) who, after reading the comic book, believed it would be perfect for a TV show. She found out her dear friend Frank Darabont owned the rights and had heard about his frustrations with NBC and getting the project sold elsewhere. She decided to help. “As they know, don’t say no to me, I will make it happen. At the same time we’d been having discussions with AMC and they said they wanted a genre show. It turned out to be a perfect marriage with a network that makes Mad Men to now making zombies.”
I had to smile at the idea of Jon Hamm as a zombie. I think he’d make an awesome one.
Season two will kick off this Sunday, October 16, at 9 pm on AMC.
Everything picks up right where season one left off, with the survivors leaving Atlanta after the standoff at the CDC. The road to Fort Bragg is 120 some miles, and the path there will not be easy. Episode one delivers some unexpected surprises, as a tense search for someone gone missing happens. Episode two brings some team members to an unexpected safe haven, the Hershel farm.
The new characters introduced are all part of the Hershel farm. Hershel is played by veteran actor Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood, Pearl Harbor, CSI, Dead Man Walking). His daughter is played by Lauren Cohan (Supernatural, Vampire Diaries, Chuck), who is no stranger to genre shows. Pruitt Taylor Vance is Otis, Jane McNeil is Patricia, Otis’s girlfriend, Emily Kinney is Hershel’s youngest daughter Beth, and James Allen McCune is Jimmy, Beth’s boyfriend.
The character of Hershel is captivating from the word go, treating a crisis that strikes with calm and reverence. He’s a rock in this environment of madness. He is a man of faith, and everyone’s faith is tested well in these two episodes. He tells Rick, “Mankind’s been fighting plagues form the start. We get our behinds kicked a while, then we bounce back.” That’s something the embattled sheriff has a hard time believing.
“What Lies Ahead” and “Bloodletting” are two captivating hours of television. The pace is often breathtakingly slow, suspenseful, and very intense, for the Walkers are often nearby. There’s a satisfying amount of zombie skull-bashing happening and one scene even has a nice, gross zombie autopsy. There’s plenty of tension among the group, and loyalties are questioned multiple times. Each episode ends on a cliffhanger, and even with the preview, I was screaming at the end, "When will I get to see episode three?"
The following is the official cast list and character descriptions as provided by AMC. They give a great description of where each character’s head space is for the first few episodes. Everyone is indeed struggling with more than the enemy outside the group.
ANDREW LINCOLN (Rick Grimes)
With the group dynamic shattered by one of Rick’s decisions, he feels the weight of the responsibility to keep the group safe and together. Everyone is creating different loyalties, becoming more fragmented. It is one immediate crisis after another. Breakable, Rick does not get any breaks, with the exception of a farm owner named Hershel. But it is not the break it appears to be.
JON BERNTHAL (Shane Walsh)
The reality of his situation now that Rick is back sets in. Still in love with Lori and Carl, Shane is conflicted about whether he should stay or leave the group. The torment leads to unusual behavior and self-distancing, ridding himself of human emotion no longer useful in this un-human world. He begins to question Rick’s decisions and starts to take matters into his own hands.
SARAH WAYNE CALLIES (Lori Grimes)
Each time Lori loosens her tight grip on her family, they suffer greatly. She starts to question the value of life, all the while, keeping a life-changing secret from Rick, who has a secret of his own. She is tormented by the presence of Shane, yet can’t sever a tie to one of the few people left who knew, and has memories of, her previous life before the apocalypse.
LAURIE HOLDEN (Andrea)
Still suicidal, Andrea is full of grief and guilt that her sister was attacked before her very eyes. She is also raging mad at Dale for taking her choice to die gracefully away from her. She only fled the CDC with Dale so his death would not be at her hands as well. Without forgiveness, she gradually accepts she must live in this world, but it will be on her terms, period.
JEFFREY DEMUNN (Dale)
Dale keeps his cards close to his vest, knowing he has more control over each situation than he lets on. Yet Dale struggles with the distance Andrea puts between them because of her anger at him for saving her life at the CDC. Having lost his wife, Dale did not want to lose the one person who got him to care again. He tries to come to terms with the fact that Andrea’s choice to stay or go was not his decision to make.
STEVEN YEUN (Glenn)
Always the optimist with an insatiable desire to be valued by all, Glenn exudes hope, but just how much can he internalize? He slowly becomes more and more aware he is being taken for granted, only being asked to help when others do not want the menial or maniacal task. Then he meets Maggie, Hershel’s daughter, and his world is changed again. While still driven by his moral compass, his priorities shift. He is no longer content to be in the background, but he is not quite sure if he’s ready to be in the spotlight.
CHANDLER RIGGS (Carl Grimes)
Carl feels the pressure his father Rick is under and wants to be brave, while still a child. He is confused as to why Shane is treating him differently. He sees the group breaking apart and wants to step up to protect his family and disappearing extended family.
NORMAN REEDUS (Daryl Dixon)
Still volatile over how Merle was left for dead, Daryl is on a road of self-discovery now that he is out of his big brother’s shadow. He’s a tracker. He’s observant. And he is fully capable of surviving on his own. However, he is appreciating the concept of family from afar, perhaps for the first time in his life. He slowly starts to develop individual relationships, all the while fighting his instinct to be distant, yet feeding his need for emotional connection like a child.
ROBERT ‘IronE’ SINGLETON (T-Dog)
Struggling with the guilt of leaving Merle behind on the rooftop, T- Dog feels the need to continually prove his worth to the group. But he is rendered useless and vulnerable. Finding new found trust in Dale, T-Dog confides in him and discloses a better plan for survival.
MELISSA McBRIDE (Carol)
With the death of her abusive husband Ed, Carol finds additional inner strength and some peace of mind that the main threat to her and her daughter Sophia now only comes from outside the group. But her nightmare is just beginning.
MADISON LINTZ (Sophia)
The daughter of Carol and the now deceased Ed, Sophia further withdraws. She takes solace in her friendship with Carl. They are truly each other’s best friends. Worried her mother will be the next one to die, Sophia becomes un-nerved as the Walkers appear to organize.
Watch the 90-minute premiere of season two of The Walking Dead on AMC October 16, 2011 at 9 pm, kicking off AMC’s Fearfest. Six one-hour episodes will air in the weeks following. The final episodes of the season begin on Sunday, February 12 at 9pm.
All photos are courtesy of AMC.