Ostensibly the purpose of the Paley Center for Media's annual springtime festival of the best in television is to celebrate what is on right now, the series that have captured the zeitgeist of our pop culture. In the case of AMC's The Walking Dead, the show's most insatiable fans might actually split hairs on that premise, due to the fact that the show isn't on the air right now. Hey, it happens, all shows go on hiatus now and again. Except that for The Walking Dead, the year-long wait from last fall's all-too-brief six episode debut until this fall's return seems apocalyptically long.
Unfortunately [spoiler alert!] - at least one of the cast and crew of the hit show who gathered for the Paley Fest panel on Friday won't be returning for season two: Emma Bell, who portrayed Amy, younger sister to Laurie Holden's Andrea.
"It's like I walk around with a perpetual raincloud over my head," Bell laughs now. "[People say] 'Emma, awww!'"
Amy was killed off at the end of episode four. Episode five, which includes an extraordinary extended sequence of Andrea making peace with her sister's demise and subsequent return as a zombie, was screened prior to the panel. Both Holden and series executive producer Frank Darabont spoke at length about the creative power in packing an emotional punch along with the terror in scenes such as these. "What if you could look [a loved one] in in the eye and tell them how sorry you are for how you failed them in life," Darabont explains, "but they can't really hear you? That's fuckin' cool shit [to write]."
Speaking of writers, both Darabont and comic book creator/co-producer Robert Kirkman all but confirmed that rumors of the show having no writing staff in the upcoming sophomore outing aren't entirely true. They've assembled a team who have begun to break the second season now. It's clear simply from their rapport with one another, though that Kirkman and Darabont have a shared vision and appreciation and mutual respect for each other's creativity, developing storylines which converge with some aspects of the comic that Kirkman is several years deep into at this point, but not always.
"[The writers are able] to look at the underside of the comic... I get to sit around in a room going 'Oh, why didn't I think of that?" Kirkman says. "You get seven people in a room and they come up with angles I never thought of."
When the idea of cross-pollinating the comic with characters unique to the show - such as Norman Reedus' popular redneck rogue, Daryl Dixon - came up, Darabont erupted in an almost reflexive "Cool?!"
After a bit of audience laughter, Kirkman followed with "Is it cool, or are you going to sue me?!"
Among the show's cast members, all looked back fondly on what they clearly perceive as the terrific fortune to join a show that is not only a hit, but creatively pushing the envelope in terms of both storytelling and content. Andrew Lincoln, the English actor who transforms seamlessly into Southern leading man Rick Grimes, joked, "I'm still only convinced I got the job because my son had just been born and I looked like I'd survived a zombie apocalypse."
Meanwhile Steven Yeun, who plays fan favorite smart-aleck Glenn, had a more pragmatic (and audience-tickling) answer.
"I wish I could say I [got] the script and I really liked it so I thought I'd put my name in," he said. "But for me it was like, 'I need to book a job now'!"
Despite their humor, all seemed to agree that the approach to a tale of survival such as The Walking Dead, not shying away from edgy premises and grim realities, presented an irresistible opportunity to create a show that people will both talk about and embrace.
Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Rick's wife Lori, observed, "You do the version [of this kind of story] where you take a deep breath and shoot a little girl [zombie] in the face, you go all the way there, and if you do, there are people who are just going to pour themselves into it."
Lincoln added that it was important to him to make Rick a protagonist who does not make a single decision lightly: "Everything costs him. I didn't want him to be an impenetrable superhero."
So what is on the horizon that everyone watching can pour themselves into come October? (Or October-ish... without mentioning a specific date, we can expect the show to return around AMC's Fear Fest Halloween season again.) At some point, we can definitely expect the characters to take shelter in the abandoned prison, which provided a huge arc in Kirkman's comic. Darabont, who is best known for films including The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, chuckled about this, "I'm the ultimate recidivist, I keep getting sent back to prison!"
Also important are the practical considerations of future events that will be affected by real life, such as how Chandler Riggs who plays Rick's son Carl may age faster than the events of the show. Are they ready to avoid, as fans are apt to call it, the Lost/Walt problem?
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"'One year later'... is always an option," Darabont noted, with Kirkman adding, "We're definitely on puberty watch!"
When asked about arguably the hottest topic of fan speculation, which has Daryl Dixon's brother Merle (Michael Rooker), who was left for dead early on in the first season, returning in the guise of the comic book's terrifying villain known only as The Governor, Darabont first cracked, "You actually expect me to answer that?!"
He followed up quickly, though, with "Merle won't be The Governor because what a lame and obvious choice that would be." He paused and said, "But, I could change my mind."
Fitting, one supposes, that as with The Walking Dead's survivors, we as audience members ought to be kept on our toes.