The Walking Dead is the most watched show on cable. By a lot. Yet getting it on television was no easy task — NBC, FX, and HBO reportedly passed on the show before it made its way to AMC in 2010, where it has since become a staple of the TV landscape. Ahead of Sunday’s Season 7 premiere, executive producer Gale Anne Hurd joined Andy Greenwald on The Watch to talk about how the property finally made its way to the small screen.
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Networks Didn’t Think a Zombie Show Would Work
Andy Greenwald: Robert Kirkman’s comic book existed and had a devoted fan base before it became a television show. But the property passed through, I believe, NBC, [and] passed through FX. It was there to be taken. And it just needed the right combination of someone who could communicate the vision and the network ready to take a chance on it. Why couldn’t people see it? Why was it hard?
Gale Anne Hurd: When you consider a successful comic book, except for rare exceptions, that’s selling 30,000 issues a month. So if you go, “Oh wow, that’s big,” I mean, you look at how many people you need as [TV] viewers, that doesn’t necessarily translate. So I think there was reticence there that the IP might not be as well known and certainly might not travel well.
And there had been what I thought was a really excellent pilot, actually starring Ray Stevenson, who I worked with, called Babylon Fields, that was a zombie pilot that didn’t go forward and people thought, “Well, they’ve tried that. It didn’t work.”
A.G.: Right. So throw out the baby, the bathwater, the bath, the bathroom, the whole house.
G.A.H.: Exactly. Everyone had seen that pilot and they thought, “OK, how do you sustain it?” And they didn’t think, “Well, this is a successful comic book that’s been going on for years. And the creator is sustaining it, and not only that, it’s growing bigger and bigger.”
I think what people couldn’t get past is that it’s a show about the characters. It’s not about the zombies. And they were always like, “How do we keep the idea of zombies [when] at a certain point [they] won’t be scary anymore?” Well, if you’d actually read the comic book, you’d realize that very quickly, it’s established that the greatest fear that we have to face now or in a zombie apocalypse are other people.
The Pilot Was Continually Rejected
A.G.: So when did you come on to the project?
G.A.H.: Frank [Darabont] had been involved with it before because he had been involved in the NBC version.
They had rejected that as a pilot. And it’d been sent everywhere. And he didn’t even want to hear about it when I called and said, “Look, let’s see.”
And he didn’t have the rights at that point. We went down to Comic-Con because at the time Robert Kirkman still lived in Kentucky. And we met with him and ultimately, everyone reached an agreement. And we took it in to AMC. And I knew we were probably going to have a more open audience because the executive, Jeremy Elice, who we took it to, when I said, “I got this crazy idea. The Walking Dead.” And when he said, “You mean Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead?” I thought, “Wow. This is going to be a receptive audience.”
AMC Was in the Market for Scary Shows
G.A.H.: AMC was looking for programming in their Fear Fest block.
A.G.: I think people don’t realize that one of the reasons AMC picked the shows that they picked was that they had this library of movies and they wanted to be able to program alongside them and launch new properties with the properties that they had embraced.
G.H.: Even more importantly, [the Fear Fest block] had their highest ratings of the entire year. More so than Mad Men. And I think Mad Men was the only one that was on, and then Breaking Bad [came later]. But they had, as they call it, more eyeballs. And so if you’re going to promote something, you want to promote something to an audience that’s, first of all, receptive, because it’s a similar genre, and, secondly, you’re reaching the most people.
The Show Is About More Than Zombies and Violence
A.G.: You’re up to 88 episodes now. What story on that show are you most proud of? Or development or character, what development do you hold up?
G.H.: One of the episodes that resonates with me is “The Grove.” That’s when we have the sociopathic little girl who’s convinced that the zombies, the walkers, are really not bad. She’s going to prove it by killing her sister and her sister will come back and everything will be fine. And there are no child psychologists working in the zombie apocalypse, at least that we’ve encountered.
A.G.: Not yet anyway.
G.A.H.: So Carol, who’s really taken these girls as her surrogate daughters because her daughter has already succumbed, has to kill Lizzie. In that same episode, beautifully brought to life by Melissa McBride, [you also have] the character Tyreese. The character of Carol had killed his girlfriend thinking she could stop a contagion of the prison. She essentially killed someone sick in cold blood, thinking it was the right thing to do. And Tyreese, who went into a violent rage over this unnecessary death in his mind, forgiving her for that, for everything. That to me is the kind of thing that you never figured you were going to see in a story about the zombie apocalypse.
The Lack of Emmy Nominations Doesn’t Matter — Except for One
A.G.: The development of [Carol] and the performance by Melissa McBride is probably my favorite thing about the show. It’s such a surprise. If you watched the first few episodes … what that character would be, what it could be, and what she could deliver in that performance. Was it that way behind the scenes as well, or was there a larger plan in place?
G.A.H.: Let’s put it this way: Melissa McBride had been in Frank’s film, The Mist. She’d given up acting. She was working in a casting department in Atlanta. He said, “I wrote this part for you; you have to do it.” She said, “Yeah, but you can write me out?”
Frank was like, well, she’s still alive in the comic book. But he had to make that promise to Melissa. And here she is, still with us. But at that time, it was not a career that Melissa planned to continue. And what a loss that would’ve been.
The fans are upset that we don’t get nominated for Emmys. To me, that’s not why we make the show, but overlooking her performance and not even getting a nomination? That’s the one thing that probably seems unfair.