AMC's breakout zombie thriller is turning fans into total 'Dead'heads

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The cable network that Mad Men and Breaking Bad brought to life with Emmy trophies and pop culture buzz has gone totally dead — and it couldn’t be happier. The Walking Dead — a zombie gorefest — meets — poignant survival drama that’s part 28 Days Later, part Lost — is the surprise hit of the fall TV season. The Halloween-night premiere bagged 5.3 million viewers, beating the recent Mad Men season finale by nearly 3 million. After the second installment held strong with 4.7 million viewers on Nov. 7, AMC greenlit a 13-episode season 2. ”It’s remarkable,” marvels AMC’s president and general manager Charlie Collier about the show’s record-breaking performance. ”That wasn’t the stated goal,” he adds with a laugh, ”but we’re happy to miss on our projections.”

Adapted by director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) from an acclaimed comic-book series by writer Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead tells the story of Rick Grimes (British thesp Andrew Lincoln), a Southern lawman who awakens from a coma to discover that mankind has gone to brain-gobbling rot from a zombie plague. He suspects his wife, Lori (Prison Break‘s Sarah Wayne Callies), and young son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), are alive, and he’s right — except that Lori is now romantically involved with his best friend and partner, Shane (Eastwick‘s Jon Bernthal), who leads a ragtag band of other survivors. Like the comic, the show is powerful for its horror thrills and its smart, often dark examination of how humans act when society falls apart. ”It’s more about the characters than the zombies,” says Darabont. ”This is about a group of people who are forced to survive together, be a family together, and endure very, very difficult circumstances.”

Which is not to say the show doesn’t indulge its genre — or the creative freedoms of cable TV. See: the series’ first true watercooler moment, in which Rick fooled the undead ”walkers” into thinking he was one of them by slathering himself with the entrails of a hacked-up zombie. Lincoln recalls that the cast, crew, and producers assumed much of the scene wouldn’t see the light of day until an R-rated DVD set. Nope. ”Have you seen Breaking Bad? They don’t seem constrained by much,” he notes. ”AMC has been good to its word.”

Darabont first approached Kirkman about bringing The Walking Dead to TV in 2005, two years after the comic’s launch. The filmmaker wrote a pilot for NBC, but the Peacock passed. The project toiled in limbo until last year, when movie producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator) helped set up the series at AMC, which signed on for six episodes. AMC launched the show by wooing the geeks at Comic-Con and producing ads that emphasized visual sophistication and its breakout star, Lincoln, best known in the U.S. for his role in Love Actually. Though the network is now committed to a second season, production plans are still unclear. When will it resume filming? When will it air, and paired with what show? (Mad Men? Breaking Bad? The low-rated Rubicon, whose future will be decided soon?) Will Darabont keep running the show? In the meantime, no one is more thrilled — or shocked — by The Walking Dead‘s success than its comic-book creator. ”I knew the show was good, but I didn’t expect it to be huge,” says Kirkman. ”Honestly, I was just hoping not to embarrass ourselves or the network.” (Additional reporting by Clark Collis and Dan Snierson)

More Must-See Shows on AMC
Our TV guru Ken Tucker gives a rundown of the network’s other gems
Mad Men
The show that made AMC’s original programming essential viewing, Mad Men has won Emmys, made suave star Jon Hamm a household name, and offered us a glimpse of an era and a workplace (1960s advertising agencies) we didn’t even know we craved.

Breaking Bad
A show about a chemistry teacher who hooks up with a petty thug to make meth: These are our heroes? Yes, when they’re richly portrayed by Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul.

Rubicon
James Badge Dale leads a group of intelligence analysts in a low-key thriller. Not AMC’s biggest hit, but still an engrossing puzzle.

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