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How 'The Walking Dead' Went to No. 1 by Killing Off Lead Characters

The Ratings Slayer
Raymond McCrea Jones

A new showrunner's bold strategy helped bring in 10 million viewers a week for the No. 1 fall series, leading to inclusion in THR's 2012 Rule Breakers portfolio.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The third season of AMC's The Walking Dead is doing more than simply slaying zombies. The drama based on the Image Comics franchise created by Robert Kirkman ranks as the fall's No. 1 series in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-to-49 demographic, becoming the first cable series in history to top all of broadcast in the metric.

And after a tumultuous second season that was widely panned for its slow pace, the drama under Frank Darabont replacement Glen Mazzara has been taking big swings as more than 10 million weekly viewers struggle to catch their breath as the show moves through the story at breakneck speed.

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Two major characters were killed early on (RIP Sarah Wayne Callies' Lori Grimes and IronE Singleton's T-Dog) in an episode that for others could have served as a season finale -- and there's a new threat with the introduction of two iconic "living" characters from the comics in 48-year-old David Morrissey's villainous Governor and 34-year-old Danai Gurira's sword-wielding heroine Michonne.

"As soon as I became showrunner, I felt our horror element demanded this style of accelerated storytelling," says Mazzara, 45, of the revitalized series, which originally was passed over at NBC and HBO. "If you have a good twist, move it up instead of saving it and building to it. Throw it at the audience when they -- and the characters -- least expect it."

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It's all part of the Dead's "take chances" strategy that includes Kirkman's "two shows in one" approach, with storylines set at both the prison -- controlled by 39-year-old Andrew Lincoln's beleaguered ex-sheriff Rick Grimes -- and the idyllic community of Woodbury, where the Governor keeps its dark underbelly in the closet.

"Most shows experiencing this success wouldn't be trying as hard as we are -- trying new things, adding major characters and new storylines and altering the kind of stories we tell," says Kirkman, 34, of the drama, which has another eight episodes left in its third year as it awaits the expected fourth-season renewal. "It makes people say, 'This isn't people killing zombies every week.' "

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