Walking Dead still very much alive

Main characters in The Walking Dead that are favourites with fans are played by Steven Yeun (left), Andrew Lincoln (above left) and Norman Reedus (above right).
Main characters in The Walking Dead that are favourites with fans are played by Steven Yeun (left), Andrew Lincoln (above left) and Norman Reedus (above right).PHOTOS: FOX INTERNATIONAL CHANNELS
Main characters in The Walking Dead that are favourites with fans are played by Steven Yeun (right), Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus. -- PHOTO: FOX INTERNATIONAL CHANNELS
Main characters in The Walking Dead that are favourites with fans are played by Steven Yeun (right), Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus. -- PHOTO: FOX INTERNATIONAL CHANNELS

Producer of hit series on zombies says adding and removing characters keep story on top

One reason for the enduring popularity of The Walking Dead is that it has rarely, if ever, been just about fighting zombies.

And as Rick and his band of plucky fellow survivors return for a fifth season after being decimated and driven from their home by a rival group, only to walk straight into a trap set by another, the show is clearly not done making the point that human beings are often more dangerous than flesh-eating ghouls.

The new season premieres in Singapore today on Fox (StarHub TV Channel 505, SingTel mio TV Channel 330).

But while the series is still a ratings juggernaut in the United States - where it is the top-rated show in cable-television history and the current No. 1 in the key 18-to-49 demographic - just how much longer can it keep tormenting its characters and entertaining its fans?

Speaking to Life! at a press breakfast in San Diego earlier this year, star Andrew Lincoln and executive producers Scott Gimple, Gale Ann Hurd and Greg Nicotero were confident that their horror drama still has plenty of steam left.

Lincoln, the 41-year-old Briton who plays Rick, reveals that Season 5 will start with a bang, featuring the biggest action sequence the show has ever attempted, as well as continuing to add shades and depth to each of the characters and their arcs.

Yet the actor, previously best known for the 2003 romantic-comedy film Love Actually, cracks a couple of jokes about the way his character ended the last season, when he was forced to kill a man by sinking his teeth into the guy's neck and ripping out his jugular.

The gruesome scene, which saw Rick effectively borrow from the zombie playbook in order to save his group's lives, was one of the "gnarliest things I've ever had to do", he admits, but notes that the show takes care to build a foundation for these moments so they never feel gratuitous.

As for whether the popular series will ever hit a "jump the shark" point - in other words, start declining in quality by doing outrageous things to sustain interest, a reference to a scene in the 1970s sitcom Happy Days when a character jumps over a shark while water-skiing - showrunner Gimple tells Life! it would be hard for this to happen because of the quality of its source material.

Robert Kirkman's ongoing graphic-novel series of the same name is so well-paced and written, he explains.

"I've been a fan of the comic books since before there was a TV show. It's an amazing story that we take moments from and try to marry and remix them. I'm up to date with the comic and I love what I'm reading, so I think we have years and years of stuff to do. There's a long list of stuff to get to - some horrible situations, even some tender stuff. So yeah, I'm not worried about jumping the shark because I don't think the comic has."

At the same time, he clarifies that even though the comic books are still being written, the TV series - which has slightly different characters and plotlines - will not be completely open-ended.

"There is an emotional end-game. We're trying to stay with the comics thematically, and we know where all these characters are ending. But we can be a little flexible with some of the circumstances - we take that story and change it around. Things happen to characters in the comic that don't happen to characters in the show, and that helps us in achieving the emotional end-game."

If Gimple and the rest fail with this or any aspect of the show, they can expect to hear about it from the legions of The Walking Dead enthusiasts. According to the ListenFirst Digital Audience Rating metric of engagement on digital platforms from Facebook and Wikipedia, the show's fans have made it the No. 1 most buzzed-about TV series on the planet, with more than 30 million Facebook fans and 2.7 million Twitter followers.

The producers admit that this increases the pressure on them to do well, but swear that it does not make them any less willing to potentially kill off major or popular characters such as Rick and Daryl, who is played by fan favourite Norman Reedus.

Nicotero, who also directs the show and heads its award-winning make-up and special effects department, says the series must constantly evolve to stay on top, and that one of the ways it does this is by adding and removing characters.

He explains: "We have the same DNA and building blocks that we use, and when one character goes or another one comes in, it's like we're using those building blocks and building a new animal. So our show evolves - it isn't the same show that it was in Season 1."

So, despite the killing off of core characters such as Shane (Jon Bernthal) or Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), "our DNA consistently builds a great show".

"We strive to build a perfect animal, and we've been really successful at, each season, introducing another version of our perfect animal."

Perhaps more importantly, as Gimple points out, there are no bigger fans than the people who actually work on The Walking Dead: "The biggest fans of the show are us because we love making it and we are desperate for it to be as good as we can be."

Thus, even when it comes time to get rid of a character, the team strives to make it as good a death as possible for the sake of the performer who has played him.

"The pressure is to do right by them with an amazing story, and to do right by the fans so that we're not just doing, you know, shock. I love that pressure. We have to be reverential to the story that we've done, we're not just doing parlour tricks."

So if and when another beloved character does say goodbye, "it's going to be part of a great story".

stlife@sph.com.sg

The Walking Dead Season 5 debuts on Fox (StarHub TV Channel 505, SingTel mio TV Channel 330) today at 9pm.