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Much-anticipated new season of ‘The Walking Dead’ begins Sunday

By Rick Bentley, The Fresno Bee –

LOS ANGELES — Whether it’s for the grizzly metaphor for the fight for life after an apocalyptic event, the gruesome battles that are bloody enough to make Sweeney Todd smile or the astronomical success of the graphic comic novels by Robert Kirkman, “The Walking Dead” has become the most-watched drama in basic cable history after only two seasons.

Season three begins tonight with the survivors taking refuge from the zombie-infested world in a prison. At the same time, they must deal with the realities of what seems to be an idyllic community under the jurisdiction of a man known as The Governor.

As with the first two seasons, those are just major story points. This year will again be filled with the angst and agony that comes with the group trying to hang on to the last bits of humanity in the face of such a foreboding future.

On the surface, the AMC series looks to be a standard horror tale of a handful of survivors looking for a sanctuary from the relentless wave of zombies — known as walkers — that follow their every step. Closer examination reveals the slow-walking ghouls are a metaphor for any number of medical, financial or political catastrophes that loom large in the real world.

The show is about dealing with life in the face of a cataclysmic crisis.

To tell that story, the series redefines television by throwing out conventions such as protecting its major stars or avoiding violence with children. Three major characters died in the second season, including the group’s youngest member, Sophia (Madison Lintz), who was shot in the head after being turned into a zombie.

Part of being so different, explains executive producer Gale Anne Hurd, is that a lot of the people behind the scenes come from film or comic book worlds.

“We didn’t know what rules we were breaking. We were just looking for what were the best stories we could tell through these characters inspired by this Eisner-winning comic book and not really how does television normally do it,” Hurd says.

Executive producer Glen Mazzara had one mantra from the start: This would not be a typical zombie show. He says that came naturally because the original work by Kirkman was so exciting that typical television writing would not do justice to the source material.

The decision to be different has given the cast — many veterans of TV, film and stage work — new avenues to work and play.

“People keep talking about this new Golden Age of television,” says Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Lori Grimes. “I think what serialized cable dramas have given us is the opportunity to not simply tell the same story with slightly different words and costumes each week.

“What’s happening in television right now is people are mining the ability of storytellers to tell a long-form story that goes from A-Z and to trust that an audience will follow that.”

Kirkman compares the appeal of the show to what has driven the comic book. Readers never know what will transpire on the black-and-white pages and things change direction dramatically at any given moment.

Andrew Lincoln, who plays Callies’s husband and group leader Rick Grimes, suggest the audience is attracted to the series in the same way he was attracted to the role.

“I loved that this guy goes on this extraordinary journey, this deterioration, this huge change because of everything that happens to him. And that happens to all of the characters and not just mine,” Lincoln says.

This season features two of the most-anticipated cast additions since the series started — the sword-swinging Michonne (Danai Gurira) and The Governor (David Morrissey).

Gurira finds taking on one of the favorite characters from the comic book as both daunting and cool.

“It’s amazing to be able to take on a character who existed in her own entity before I stepped into her. I have done a lot of theater and played a lot of characters that others have played before. But this is different because no one else has ever played her,” Gurira says. “It’s also a little humbling because there’s so much love for her.”

Fans were drawn to the character because not much is known about her other than she’s an expert with a sword and leads around two armless and jawless walkers on chain leashes. That gives Gurira the chance to bring her own spin to role.

Fans will see a different version of The Governor than the one in the comics. Morrissey says the way he’s playing him is as an earlier version of the sadistic madman presented in the comics.

“The Governor, in the comics, arrives fully formed. He’s quite evil straight off the bat and doing crazy things. My Governor is trying to do best by his people. Sometimes he takes options, which are quite brutal, but he does them in order to secure his place,” says Morrissey.

One of the surprising moves in the third season has Michael Rooker reprising his role of Merle Dixon.

Except for hallucination scenes, Dixon’s not been part of the series since he was chained to the roof of a building in the first season and left to die. Rooker says that Dixon hasn’t officially been on the show — but the specter of the character has hung over every episode.

Fans have wanted to see Merle and his brother, Daryl, back together since the first season. On numerous websites, fans have speculated that most of the bad things that have happened to the group have been Merle’s doing.

“The Walking Dead” graphic novels launched in 2003 by Image Comics to rave reviews from critics and fans. If you want to buy a copy of the first edition, the asking price on eBay is between $500 and $1,300.

Kirkman was adamant when the adaptation began for television that the program not be a panel-for-panel version of his books. The basic elements have not been changed, but plot lines, characters and other major points have been shifted or altered to create a variation.

Kirkman’s happy with all of the changes and says those new directions have opened up more story possibilities and provided more ways to keep fans and new viewers as hungry as a walker for more.

The continued popularity of the graphic novels and the TV show should keep “The Walking Dead” going for years.

When the end day finally comes, Callies has one wish for the final episode.

“I want Rick and Lori to have a happy ending,” Callies says. “I want the series to end with them in the back of a convertible heading off to the Bahamas.”

———

‘WALKING DEAD’ CHARACTERS:

—Andrea (Laurie Holden): Considered suicide but has become a fighter.

Holden on her character’s changes: “It’s really been a gift as an actor to go from a suicidal sad sack who had no will to live to finding herself and her strength.”

—Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus): Hunter, protector for the group while still trying to be a loner.

Reedus on playing Daryl: “When I got the role I didn’t talk to anyone about how they wanted me to play him. They just gave me the freedom to run with it.”

—Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker): Daryl’s brother left for dead in season one.

Rooker on Merle: “He’s a survivor — bottom line. He will do whatever he has to do to take care of his brother.”

—The Governor (David Morrissey): Man of many secrets in charge of small community that has found safety from the walkers.

Morrissey on the series: “The idea of living in a living Hell, we don’t have to look too far to see people doing that every day in war zones around the world.”

—Beth Greene (Emily Kinney): Hershel Greene’s youngest daughter who tried to commit suicide.

Kinney on her character: “Between season two and three we are on the road together and this little family unit has come together. She has to hope or she’ll spiral back into the depression again. She has a lot of faith and that issue comes up a lot in season three.”

—Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson): Veterinarian, farm owner who had to face reality of walkers.

Wilson on the arc of his character: “The whole second season was interesting for me from an acting point for Hershel to have this protective and very human point of view about the walkers that there could be a cure for them.”

—Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan): Hershel Greene’s oldest daughter who’s become skilled fighter.

Cohan on the series: “The key is knowing the walking dead are not the zombies. The zombies last season were a symbol for the difficulties we have in day-to-day life. But, now, it’s the unpredictability of people.”

—Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs): Son of Rick, Lori Grimes who becomes a walker killer at early age.

Riggs on changes in his character: “He’s stopped being a kid and really grows up. He’s grown into the world that it’s become to him.”

—Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies): Pregnant wife of Rick Grimes.

Callies on her character: “I think what Lori’s very clear on is that her husband is the right man to lead them. And that whatever he needs from her to be a better leader is what she will give him.”

—Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln): Leader of the group of survivors.

Lincoln on this season: “We are in the worst place since pre-apocalypse. I believe it’s caused an irreconcilable rift between Rick and Lori but there’s some movement in the first episodes that shows they are trying — for the sake of themselves and the group — to heal this rift.”

—Michonne (Danai Gurira): Mysterious fighter who swings a mean sword.

Gurira on the writing: “The show felt a lot like theater. There was something so rich and layered to the characters.”

—Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride): Mother dealing with death of her daughter.

McBride on the differences in her character: “We see a very different tone to her this year. It’s like Carol’s getting a fresh start in a rotten world. She’s the type of person who takes what has happened and move beyond it.”

—Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun): Young member of the group growing into more of a forceful role.

Yeun on playing Glenn: “I am very lucky to play Glenn just from being an Asian-American male and not having to play some kind of nerd role. You see a boy turn into a man. It wasn’t fully realized in the second season, but the third is him still learning.”

—T-Dog (IronE Singleton): Main muscle for the group.

Singleton on his character: “In a non-apocalyptic world, most people are like him. You have a few leaders and you have a few stragglers but most people are in the middle doing what needs to be done. That’s where T-Dog dwells.”

———

THE WALKING DEAD

9 p.m. EDT Sunday

AMC

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