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The Walking Dead spinoff 'The Ones Who Live' is an ambitious attempt to reach new eyes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A popular zombie franchise gets a new spinoff series Sunday with the debut of "The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show - centered on the return of two of "The Walking Dead's" most popular characters - is an ambitious version of a franchise that's working hard to reach new viewers. Spoiler alert - Eric's review does have some details about the new series, so listen at your peril.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE")

ANDREW LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) I tried. Please know I tried.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: That's the voice of Rick Grimes, the earnest hero who hasn't appeared regularly on a "Walking Dead" show since actor Andrew Lincoln left the series in 2018. Back then, Rick was carted off to an unknown location in a helicopter after nearly dying in a bridge explosion. On the new show, in a handy bit of exposition early in the first episode, he explains what came next.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE")

LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) And I woke up in a military hospital. An army found me. A force of thousands protecting a working, hidden city of hundreds of thousands. Security and secrecy above all - that's the Army's code. So no one can leave, ever.

DEGGANS: This is how "The Ones Who Live" builds out the world of the original "Walking Dead" show, which ended new episodes in 2022. In this new series, Rick is stuck in a hidden city, trying and failing to escape. Rick has always been "The Walking Dead's" version of Job, tortured by heartbreaking losses and an unyielding drive to protect those he loves. In the new series, he's tortured by visions of the love he left behind and is trying to return to - Michonne, a fierce fighter and survivor played by "Black Panther" co-star Danai Gurira. Rick misses Michonne so much he dreams about them being together. And even then, she offers him some sage advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE")

DANAI GURIRA: (As Michonne Hawthorne) But shut up about your misery. You're not stuck anywhere.

LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) But you said you're not where you want to be.

GURIRA: (As Michonne Hawthorne) I'm not. But I'm not stuck, either. We can make this whole damn world ours if we want to.

DEGGANS: That's all "Walking Dead" fans need to hear to know that their favorite couple will likely soon be back together, fighting the flesh-eating undead known as walkers. The word zombie's never uttered in "The Walking Dead" universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEAPON STABBING FLESH)

DEGGANS: In its heyday, "The Walking Dead" was one of the most watched shows on TV, but its ratings dropped as the show aged, cable TV declined, and plotlines got so dense it was tough even for longtime fans to keep up. This story, originally announced as a series of films, got delayed by COVID and transformed into a six-episode series, joining several other spinoff shows centered on "The Walking Dead" universe. The result is a deliberate tale with sharp action. It balances giving fans a reunion they've waited years to see with a story "Walking Dead" newbies can easily jump into. The cast includes "Lost" alum Terry O'Quinn, playing a military leader trying to figure out Rick's intentions by describing a different soldier who served with an opposing force but switched sides to save the hidden city.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE")

TERRY O'QUINN: (As Major General Beal) He was with their air force. He was supposed to bomb the city, but instead he bombed 4,000 Marines staging at Lincoln Financial Field. He switched sides.

LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) Well, I did, too, in a way.

DEGGANS: I'm not sure anybody believes Rick Grimes is giving up on escape quite that easily. "The Ones Who Live" blossoms into an epic love story between two beloved characters, set in a world where the walking dead are often the least of their problems. But convincing former fans that the expanded world and high drama makes this series worth another look, well, that may actually be their biggest challenge of all. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNIPERUM'S "WALKING DEAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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