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Returning characters revive 'The Walking Dead' in 'The Ones Who Live'

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes on <em>The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live.</em>
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live.

Nestled in a Burbank office filled with comic books, framed movie posters, Walking Dead memorabilia and a life-size replica of Han Solo frozen in Carbonite looming over his desk, Scott Gimple knows what some of you are thinking.

As Chief Content Officer of the Walking Dead franchise and showrunner for its newest spinoff series, The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live, Gimple realizes some folks – like the critic from NPR who came to quiz him on the new show – understand several people who watched the original zombie drama have stopped keeping up with it all.

Scott Gimple appearing on the TV show <em>Talking Dead</em> in 2016.
Jordin Althaus / AMC
Scott Gimple appearing on the TV show Talking Dead in 2016.

And even though The Ones Who Live is centered on two of the show's most popular characters – husband and wife team Rick Grimes and Michonne – many of us skeptics wonder: Will a new audience show up for the latest iteration of a franchise nearly 14 years old?

"Well, things change," says Gimple, who has the air of a mild-mannered comics nerd. "There was a short moment in the culture [where people reacted to] Taylor Swift; they would roll their eyes and [say she's] singing about her ex-boyfriend again. Then people kind of understood what she was doing. ... I'm not saying anybody's rolling their eyes at us, but I'm saying if you're around long enough, things go in cycles."

Moving from film to TV series

Though it debuted Sunday as a TV program, The Ones Who Live was originally planned as a series of films back when Andrew Lincoln, who plays earnest hero Rick Grimes, left the mothership show in 2018. Danai Gurira, a co-star in the Black Panther movies who plays sword-wielding warrior Michonne, departed in 2020 from the show, which wrapped up in 2022.

"Scott Gimple and I had an exit strategy [for me] from season four or five," says Lincoln, who spoke to me with Gurira in a longer interview that will air in an upcoming episode of KCRW's show The Business. He didn't actually leave The Walking Dead until its ninth season, worn down by months spent shooting the show far away from his family in England.

"I could tell he was near the end of his time on the show...but I also knew he loved it, and he loved working with the people," Gimple says. "So I started to talk to him, saying...you can go, but that doesn't mean we have to be done telling stories. We can tell stories in a way that fits with the life you need to lead. And that's what happened."

Rick Grimes had always been the earnest, beating heart of The Walking Dead series, as he fell in love with Michonne and they led a band of survivors. Onscreen, Rick was shown blowing up a bridge to save his friends and family, leaving them to believe he died, though Michonne eventually went searching for him.

He was whisked away in a mysterious black helicopter, leaving open the question of when and how he might resurface — and what else it might reveal about The Walking Dead's post-apocalyptic universe when he returned. But a changing industry meant that, by the time they could create something to continue the story, doing it as a movie wasn't in the cards.

"We realized after COVID and a few delays that actually the best way to deliver this was a love story with, you know, the love of [his] life," Lincoln adds. "And it felt better and more satisfying to do it over six hours rather than two [in a movie]."

Creating a spin off for a changed industry

A "walker" from the series <em>The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live.</em>
A "walker" from the series The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live.

What's changed for The Walking Dead and AMC is that the audience for traditional cable channels has plummeted as the TV industry turns toward streaming. According to The Hollywood Reporter, The Walking Dead hit its ratings highwith the debut of its fifth season in 2014, which drew more than 17 million viewers. In contrast, the show's 90-minute finale in 2022 drew just over 3 million viewers, though it set viewership records for AMC's streaming service, according to a release from the company.

Suggest to AMC executives that a number of fans may have just given up on watching the original show over its run, and they note the two spinoff series Dead City and Daryl Dixon were among cable's top performers in key demographics during 2023.

"I think the nature of television has changed so much over the years that those numbers from 2014, 2015, I don't know if they exist anywhere anymore," Gurira says. "It's still actually a very successful franchise within its realm...It kind of keep proving itself worthy to keep being explored."

The Ones Who Live accomplishes that by leaping ahead years from Rick's fateful moment on the bridge. It turns out he was brought to a secret city that hides its existence by making sure visitors never leave. Inside the walls, people live free from the violence and horror of a world ravaged by flesh-eating "walkers" (no one really uses the word zombie in the Walking Dead universe).

But they're protected by an army of sorts called the Civic Republic Military, which goes to brutal lengths to keep their secrets. For a long time, Rick, desperate to return to Michonne, keeps trying – and failing – to escape.

In <em>The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live</em>, Terry O'Quinn plays Beale, the Major General of the Civic Republic Military.
In The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live, Terry O'Quinn plays Beale, the Major General of the Civic Republic Military.

"It gets more complex when the question is, 'Who will you become to save someone you love or something you love?'" Gimple says. "That's when people, I think, are even more apt to sacrifice their humanity."

Working with his stars to shape the story

Gimple worked closely with his stars, Lincoln and Gurira, to create the story and edit episodes after they filmed. Both stars also serve as executive producers and are listed as co-creators of the show with Gimple. Gurira, a Tony-nominated playwright, wrote the series' fourth episode.

Helping with editing required Lincoln to do something he hadn't done in 30 years as an actor: watch footage of his own performances.

"It wasn't the most pleasant of experiences," Lincoln says, chuckling. (I reminded him when I interviewed him publicly for a panel on the show convened by Smithsonian Associates in 2016; he covered his eyes and ears as clips from the program played.)

"I watched it with one eye closed and sort of felt a bit queasy," he adds. "And then I was able to do one scene with both eyes. And eventually, it was the strength of the other performances that I was able to tune into and get some objective perspective on the thing."

Gimple says learning to watch his own performances ultimately seemed to be good for Lincoln. "In the process, he was able to get some separation between Andy and Rick," the showrunner adds. "He was watching Rick. And when that was locked, we were off and running because he made major contributions."

Gimple was a showrunner for the original series for several seasons before becoming Chief Content Officer in 2018. Though one spin off, Fear the Walking Dead, was already going by then, he's shepherded five other spinoffs of the show, which now are an important part of AMC's strategy, including two other series which have taken popular characters from the original and placed them in new locations: The Walking Dead: Dead City (New York) and The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon (France).

Dan McDermott, president of entertainment for AMC Networks and AMC Studios, compares The Walking Dead universe to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the fictional worlds containing the Star Trek and Star Wars TV shows and films. He referenced Robert Kirkman, co-creator of the graphic novel on which the TV shows are based, who also serves as an executive producer on the original series.

Our job, as stewards of this universe, is: How do we continue to tell stories in this universe that don't feel repetitive, redundant, overdone and can be ... revolutionary.

"The way Robert Kirkman designed this story from the beginning was it's a walker apocalypse that never ends," McDermott adds, noting AMC is also hoping to build a similar network of programs around characters and stories created by novelists Anne Rice and Tony Hillerman. "Our job, as stewards of this universe, is: How do we continue to tell stories in this universe that don't feel repetitive, redundant, overdone and can be ... revolutionary."

Critics may say the franchise has struggled with exactly what McDermott wants to avoid. But it's obvious AMC has a lot riding on the success of the Walking Dead spinoffs, especially The Ones Who Live, which brings together two characters fans have been waiting years to see together onscreen again.

Regardless of what skeptics may say, it is also true that The Walking Dead is arguably one of the most successful franchises in cable TV history, outlasting more acclaimed AMC shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

"There's a certain timelessness to TV now," Gimple says. "Back in the past, you would have a shelf of DVDs [with episodes of TV shows]. We're now trying to fill up that virtual shelf, both for people who love the show and maybe for people who, you know, stumbled into that corner of the house and...pulled one down. And, hopefully, they will want to keep pulling them down."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.