Tag Archives: Jonathan Brackley

Sci-fi high

Science fiction has a long association with television, but it’s now more visible than ever. DQ explores how a shift in storytelling has pushed the genre into the mainstream.

When it finally launches later this year, Star Trek: Discovery will carry the hopes of the next generation of science-fiction fans. But the show is also a perfect example of the state of the genre on television.

The space-set franchise, which has been on air in some form since 1966, embodies the long-running popularity of sci-fi, which has roots as far back as the 1930s with the BBC’s fledgling broadcast service and a 35-minute play called RUR.

The fact that Star Trek is returning to television, albeit on US network CBS’s SVoD service All Access, is also proof of the current strength of the genre and the new opportunities it is finding on non-traditional platforms. But space-focused shows such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Expanse (pictured top) and Dark Matter represent just one part of a genre that continues to inspire and amaze – and shock and scare – viewers around the world.

Series like Orphan Black, Westworld, Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Sense8 and Legion represent the sheer breadth of stories that can sit under the sci-fi umbrella, offering unbridled creativity to those behind the camera. And though it was once the preserve of an elite group of fans, the genre has gone mainstream by focusing less on science-fiction and more on ‘science-possible,’ asking questions that resonate in the present day, whatever the setting.

The BBC’s Doctor Who currently stars Peter Capaldi

Regardless of whether series fall into the space opera or speculative fiction camps, Martin Baynton, chief creative officer at Pukeko Pictures, believes that sci-fi dramas “at their best are fairy stories for adults – they allow us to ask difficult questions, they’re stories of consequences and are often moral fables.”

He continues: “People don’t watch The Walking Dead for the zombies. It’s actually how these human beings deal with the implications of having to stay alive and function as a group. Everyone watches it fascinated by the drift of the moral compass of the characters and what it means to be human. Good science fiction always asks that question.”

Australian drama Cleverman, on which Pukeko is a producing partner, is set in a near future when creatures known as ‘Hairypeople’ must live among humans and battle for survival in a world that wants to exploit and destroy them, touching on themes of immigration and racism. Season two launches later this month on ABC in Australiana and SundanceTV in the US.

“Science fiction allows you to explore really fundamental consequences safely because it puts issues at a distance,” Baynton continues. “If you put it in a contemporary setting, it can become almost too powerful. So by putting it in the near future, it becomes a cautionary tale where you think, ‘We’ve got time to change direction and not go down that path.’”

For many viewers, the words ‘science fiction’ still conjure images of “spaceships, aliens and the planet Zargon,” observes Sam Vincent, co-creator of British drama Humans, which is based on Swedish series Äkta Människor (Real Humans). “They don’t necessarily think of things that are a little bit more grounded, more speculative and use ideas about the future to explore things that are happening in the present. That’s what Humans is.”

Channel 4 and AMC coproduction Humans centres on humanoid androids called ‘synths’

The series, produced by Kudos for Channel 4 and AMC and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution, posits a “parallel present” in which robots known as ‘synths’ have become part of everyday life.

“Everything looks like it does now, except there are these humanoid androids,” adds Vincent’s writing partner Jonathan Brackley. “That was such a smart way of bringing this idea to be much more accessible for an audience, allowing us to enter this sci-fi world on a very grounded, domestic level, and having an everyday family at the heart of the show.”

Humans is also notable for dispensing with traditional sci-fi logic and, like HBO’s sci-fi western Westworld, wanting the audience to feel sympathy for the robots, rather than their human masters. “They’re really different shows, with different settings, tones and scales, but the most interesting thing for us about Westworld is that viewers are encouraged to root for and see through the eyes of these machines as consciousness dawns on them, much like in Humans,” Vincent says of the “companion” shows. “The humans are the bad guys now and that’s undeniably an interesting parallel.”

Artificial intelligence is also at the centre of Danish drama Unpunished, which follows a group of scientists as they attempt to create AI as a defence against a cyber virus that threatens to reveal the world’s best-kept secrets. Currently in development with producers Investigate North and distributor About Premium Content, it is slated to begin production in March next year.

But creator and producer Niels Wetterberg believes it’s a “fallacy” to say sci-fi is becoming more mainstream: “It’s always been very mainstream,” he argues, citing movies such as Alien, ET and Jurassic Park. “But the future is threatening us in a new way, and so the shows you see now are more science-possible. They’re moving from the realms of the fantastical to something more achievable, and that resonates better with a wider audience.”

Travelers sees a group of time-travellers from the future attempting to save mankind in the present

Humans and Unpunished are just two of the sci-fi shows rooted in some kind of present-day reality that allows them to tap into themes and issues affecting contemporary society – none more so than the increasing role of technology, which is also at the heart of Charlie Brooker’s darkly satirical Black Mirror. The anthology series, first commissioned by the UK’s Channel 4, is now exclusive to Netflix, which launched the third season last October.

The global SVoD platform and its competitors have undoubtedly had a huge effect on the way sci-fi is created, commissioned and consumed, while also giving writers the opportunity to explore ideas over 10 hours, where perhaps previously they might have been limited to a 90-minute movie.

Netflix series such as 1980s-inspired Stranger Things and mystery thriller The OA have ensured television can still have its water-cooler moments in an on-demand world, and the streamer has also been investing in a host of other sci-fi shows.

One example is The Expanse, the Syfy drama set in a future when humanity has colonised the solar system. Netflix acquired the series, which has been renewed for a third season, for global distribution late last year. There’s also Canadian time-travel series Travelers, on which Netflix linked up with broadcaster Showcase. Starring Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and distributed by Sky Vision, the show centres on a group of time-travellers from the future who come to the present to save mankind.

“What’s interesting about this is sci-fi shows aren’t going anywhere,” notes Carrie Mudd, president of Travelers producer Peacock Alley Entertainment. “Travelers is not like the Terminator films, where you see glimpses of a dystopian future. Instead, that comes out through the characters and their experiences because they’ve never had a piece of fruit or heard a bird sing. It’s so much more character-driven and draws a much broader audience as a result of the drama and the characters.”

Concept art for in-development Danish drama Unpunished

Sci-fi isn’t appreciated the world over, however. Vlad Ryashin, producer and president of Star Media Group (Mata Hari), explains: “Russian viewers prefer more emotional dramas, focused on human collisions between the protagonists. Since the early 1990s, soap operas and comedies have represented solid options for the channels, while historical films and series are also a big attraction for mass audiences. Sci-fi is a bit too tough for a viewer who is looking for relaxation without being involved so quickly in some alternate reality or parallel world.”

But Star Media isn’t giving up on the genre just yet, and its efforts in the region could be buoyed by The Contact, produced by Ukraine’s Film.UA. The sci-fi crime drama sees three people – a criminal, a writer and a photographer – realise they can enter each other’s minds.

Series director Mikhail Barkan believes the secret to successful sci-fi drama lies in looking at the world in a new way. “It’s not about chasing impressive visual effects or creating realistic monsters, it’s about looking at timeless issues from a different angle,” he says.

“Only three things are of greatest concern for humans: where are we coming from, what are we living for and where are we going after death? Unfortunately, there are no answers we can all agree on – but science-fiction offers the possibility to imagine ‘what if?’”

Sci-fi has always encouraged viewers to question what the future may hold but it’s telling that the shift in dynamic towards science-possible fiction has led the genre to become more visible than ever.

“It used to be second-tier drama,” Pukeko’s Baynton says. “Now it’s of such high sophistication that it’s a leading dramatic art form. Clearly new formats have changed the landscape, because you have the ability to tell complex stories in which characters can develop over 10 hours.”

Mudd adds: “There will always be a lot of room for sci-fi, in whatever sub-genre you choose to define a show. But everything’s cyclical. There hasn’t been a big space opera like Battlestar Galactica or Stargate SG-1 in a long time – maybe that comes back next.”

Not all sci-fi is rooted so firmly in reality, however. Currently in development at Toronto-based True Gravity Productions, Election Day is set on Earth but undoubtedly has some fantastical elements – pondering what might happen if historical leaders could be resurrected.

Taking place in 2055, the show, which is yet to be attached to a broadcaster, sees companies, not countries, ruling the global population. Tech advancements mean humans can be grown from DNA samples, leading to some of history’s best leaders being brought back to life and battling to be elected world president.

“There are no boundaries,” True Gravity Productions creative director David Merry says of working in sci-fi. “You don’t have to adhere to the regular norms of society or the planet, because we’re inventing stuff that could potentially be around 30 years from now. It’s fun to just step outside the realm of normalcy.”


Clockwise from top: The first image from the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery pictured alongside The Next Generation and Voyager

Humans co-creator Sam Vincent on the significance of Star Trek

In terms of pure science fiction, Star Trek is both a space adventure and a sci-fi of ideas – both of the main strands of the genre – and for me it remains one of the more thoughtful and thrilling explorations of sci-fi on TV.

All the Star Trek shows are notable but the high point is The Next Generation [1987-1994]. That stands apart. Each of the six Star Trek shows [Discovery will be the seventh] reflected the values of the era really interestingly and commented on them in a fascinating way. You watch the original show and it’s very rooted in the era and yet, at the same time, had some of the great sci-fi writers of the 20th century like Harlan Ellison contributing ideas and scripts. It was also very much an expression of values.

Sam Vincent

At its core, Star Trek has always been about exploration, which is a hopeful and optimistic venture. So there is an optimism hardwired into Star Trek. When you look at The Next Generation, it was very much an expression of a high point of liberal ideals – that you should not interfere in other cultures, that you should be peaceful. It was a very diverse crew, there were all kinds of aliens, there were even people with disabilities. It was very ahead of its time but simultaneously it was the most optimistic, thoughtful and humane version of Star Trek. The shows that followed were very interesting takes on that.

Deep Space Nine [1993-1999] was set on a space station and was all about the aftermath of a horrendous war between two alien races. It had huge parallels with what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, focusing on people trying to come to an accommodation after this conflict. Interestingly, it was the one Star Trek that didn’t move, being set on a space station. That was very important for the DNA – it wasn’t about a ship going into other territories.

Then you had Voyager [1995-2001], which was about getting lost on the other side of the galaxy, arguably reflecting more uncertain times. The most recent series was Enterprise [2001-2005], which was a strange one. It became more conservative again, slightly more empire-building. It harked back to the early series quite a lot; it reflected the George Bush era and was a bit more traditional.

I cannot wait for the new Star Trek. The creative pedigree is really interesting and it will be intriguing to see how the show deals with the world in which we live now.

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The art of the twist

From Sophocles to Shakespeare and Agatha Christie to Arthur Conan Doyle, great thriller writers have distinguished themselves by their ability to shock and surprise audiences. It’s no different in the world of TV drama, where intriguing setups, sudden changes of direction and disguised denouements are key to keeping viewers engaged. We ask writers of recent hit shows how they hooked audiences and kept them off balance until the reveal.

The-Missing-s1-ep2-1The Missing
Jack Williams wrote the BBC1/Starz thriller The Missing alongside his brother, Harry. Across eight episodes, fans tried to work out the identity of the villain who snatched Tony Hughes’ son, Oliver.
Discussing their approach, Jack says: “For us it’s about not treating characters as villains – every character needs to be three-dimensional and have their own back stories. That way, no one stands out more than anyone else, making it possible for anyone to be the villain. And for us it’s often more important why someone did it, rather than who did it.”
Williams says he and his brother always try to “play fair” with their audience, but stresses it is important not to underestimate them: “Audiences are very smart, and assuming they won’t get something is always the first mistake. Assume your audience is smarter than you and then try your hardest to surprise them.”
However, he doesn’t believe it is necessary to have endless twists and turns to keep fans hooked: “As long as the characters and emotional journeys are compelling enough, that should carry you through. You have to earn every plot turn and twist – if we believe what the characters are doing, any twist is much more surprising.”
In The Missing, the story focuses on the possibility that Oliver has been taken by paedophiles, and maybe even exported as a child slave. In the end, though, it’s revealed he was the victim of a bizarre accident involving the owner of the hotel where he and his family had been staying.
“The hotel keeper wasn’t the most obvious villain – in all the newspaper polls, he was very low down on every list,” says Williams. “But eagle-eyed viewers had worked out that he shared a surname with the mayor Georges Deloix and started to realise around episode six he might be involved. What interested us about the hotel keeper is that he wasn’t an evil paedophile. He was a drunk and a coward who made a terrible mistake.”
Indeed, it is Tony’s deterioration that is the masterstroke of the story, meaning viewers didn’t over-obsess on the whodunnit resolution. “We always wanted all our characters to be interesting in their own right, and for the audience to care more about their journeys than the whodunnit. We liked the notion that everyone would immediately be hugely sympathetic to Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) – what he’s gone through is so awful and primal. But something like that would corrupt someone’s soul, and it was interesting for us to see how far that audience sympathy stayed with Tony as he went to darker and darker places.”
Asked about his favourite dramas, Williams picks out FX’s Fargo: “The first episode, when Martin Freeman’s character (Lester Nygaard) snaps and kills his wife with the hammer – it’s really well played and was very surprising. A brilliantly judged and executed moment.”

HumansHumans
Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley are the writers who adapted Swedish series Äkta Människor (Real Humans) for the English-speaking market. A hit for Channel 4 in the UK and US cable network AMC, the show imagines a world in which ordinary people own robot servants that look like attractive young humans (called Synths).
Thematically, the show explores what is means to be human. It also uses the Synth idea as a metaphor for issues like race and migration, analysing the way that mobs can come to distrust and abuse ‘the other.’
The plot centres on a small group of Synths capable of independent thought. The sentient Synths are pursued by a government agency that fears their potential. But there are other unexpected twists that take the story in different directions. For example, young policewoman Karen is revealed as one of the thinking Synths who regards herself as a freak experiment.
This, say Vincent and Brackley, is their favourite twist: “Karen’s reveal as a Synth is such an unexpected, odd and striking image. And (actress) Ruth Bradley’s performance is wonderful – very coolly shifting into eerie Synth mode.”
Finding out that Karen was a Synth was, however, only a partial reveal because her motive still wasn’t clear: “It provided mystery rather than conclusiveness. The fact she’s a Synth didn’t necessarily mean she was an antagonist, nor did the fact she was looking for the other Synths. It was only in the penultimate episode we finally found out what it meant to her and how she was going to react.”
Vincent and Brackley were in an interesting position because they were working with an existing format. They say: “We can’t take credit for several of the key twists in the show, as they were created by the brilliant Lars Lundstrom for the Swedish series. But we did a lot of moving around and additional reveals to keep the audience on their toes.
“We were also wary of trying to hang on to big twists and hooks for too long. It’s good to keep your powder dry for the finale, but it’s also good to blow some up at the beginning – and in the middle.”
The audience response has been hugely gratifying for the writers, but not just because of the plot: “What’s satisfying is that people seemed to be talking about artificial intelligence, technology and the future. We always wanted to spark debate and that was reflected in the show’s coverage in the media – there were lots of articles discussing moral and tech issues beyond the show’s content.”
In terms of twists from other shows, they say: “We remember watching
the first series of 24 together and being blown away when Nina Myers was revealed to be the mole and killing (main character) Jack Bauer’s wife. More recently, pretty much every death in Game of Thrones has had us on the edge of our seats. For a show that’s famous for the indiscriminate dispatching of characters, it’s amazing how they manage to make it a heart-stopping surprise every time they do.”

Modus-s1-2Modus
Modus is an eight-part thriller commissioned by Sweden’s TV4 from Miso Film. Based on books by crime author Anne Holt, the series is directed by Lise Siwe (The Bridge) and Mani Maserrat, and written by Emmy-winning Danish writers Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe.
The story centres on criminal psychologist and profiler Inger Johanne Vik and her detective partner. Vik is drawn into the investigation of a series of brutal murders in Stockholm after one of the killings is witnessed by her autistic daughter Stina. Vik discovers a connection between the case and a ruthless international network.
“Modus is about love and hate,” say co-writers Brostrøm and Thorsboe. “It is a dark, entangled contemporary tale about death and holy wrath.”
Brostrøm and Thorsboe are well-established writers, and for this reason have become wary of the genre’s cliches. For example, they try not to over-promise at the outset, despite the fact that producers often want a high-impact opening: “We try to hold back and not give away the story too quickly. There is always a risk for writers if they promise too much at the start of the story because it is difficult to keep on climbing towards the climax. In this case, the opening of the show involves a wedding, where we try to give the impression evil is coming, that something will happen.”
For similar reasons, Brostrøm and Thorsboe don’t over-emphasise the whodunnit or cliffhanger elements of the story. “We see this story more as a ‘whydunnit.’ This isn’t a story where everyone in the show could have done it… we wanted something with more realism. We learn the identity of the killer before the last episode but then explore the motives. This is a way of keeping the audience more involved in the structure of the story. They aren’t spending their whole time trying to guess the killer. We have questions at the end of each episode but not deadly cliffhangers.”
Having said this, they still feel all the usual pressures of trying to keep the audience on their toes: “You have to be like a magician, getting the audience to look at one hand as you do something with the other. There is a big twist near the end that we think will take the audience by surprise. Producers like to have twists.”
Writing a thriller based on existing novels has its own challenges, they admit. “On the whole it is not as hard as writing from scratch. But you have an obligation to the writer, the book and the fans, who you can’t cheat. At the same time, it needs to work for television. This story is actually drawn from three Holt novels.”
Brostrøm and Thorsboe add that there are advantages to working as a team: “We do a lot of talking about character and plot – we love to challenge each other and come up with ideas for crazy endings. In terms of how we work, there is always paper on the floor and the tables and pictures on the walls that help set the atmosphere.”

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Synth-ly the best: Translating Humans from Swedish to English

Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent tell Michael Pickard how they transformed a Swedish sci-fi thriller into Channel 4’s biggest original drama for 20 years.

From spies to Synths, Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley can now be considered among the top writing talents in the UK after building a career across television and film.

Jonathan Brackley (left) and Sam Vincent
Jonathan Brackley (left) and Sam Vincent have also worked on Spooks

Best known for running BBC1 spy drama Spooks for its final two seasons, they also brought the series to the big screen earlier this year in Spooks: The Greater Good.

For their latest project, the longtime collaborators are behind Humans, an eight-part sci-fi thriller that has become Channel 4’s biggest original drama in more than 20 years.

Based on the Swedish series Real Humans (aka Äkta människor), it is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for a busy family is a Synth – a life-like humanoid.

Featuring a cast including William Hurt, Katherine Parkinson, Gemma Chan, Colin Morgan, Emily Berrington and Neil Maskell, the debut episode drew a consolidated audience of 6.1 million viewers.

The drama represented an interesting challenge for Vincent and Brackley, who were brought on board by Kudos (Spooks, Broadchurch) to pen the series after the producer won a battle for the format rights. US cable network AMC later joined the series as a coproduction partner, with the show debuting stateside two weeks after its UK launch on June 14.

Brackley says: “We’ve worked with Kudos for the last couple of years, doing the last two seasons of Spooks and the Spooks movie. We got a call from (former Kudos CEO) Jane Featherstone, who said they’d just won a rights battle to this Swedish series about robots and wanted to know if we’d be interested. So we said yes.

Humans stars Gemma Chan as a 'Synth' called Anita
Humans stars Gemma Chan as a ‘Synth’ called Anita

“They gave us the first season to watch and we loved it. It’s so full of fascinating, interesting ideas, and approached in such a genuinely new way that we really wanted to have a go at bringing our own take to the show.”

In particular, Vincent says it was the drama’s unconventional take on artificial intelligence and how this could be placed at the heart of a family drama that attracted the pair to the series.

“Putting it right in the heart of the home was really fresh,” he says. “Usually these stories would be about the origins of the technology or a dark conspiracy surrounding its use, but this was about one ordinary family and how the strains and stresses that are already present open up into chasms by the arrival of this machine. That was the real creative coup of the original concept.”

Vincent and Brackley watched the first season of Real Humans twice, and then pushed it aside, fearful of relying too much on the source material and simply translating the original series, rather than putting their own stamp on its themes.

“If you compare the first episodes of the original with ours, you’ll see a lot of similarities,” explains Vincent. “You’ll see scenes that are the same and the key characters, but as we developed the story, it very organically grew into its own thing and you move further and further away (from the original) as the series progresses, so by the season end you’re in a very different space. It was all fairly organic and natural.”

The writing pair had not adapted a foreign-language drama before, but compared the process to joining Spooks after it had already been on air for eight seasons – taking over an established set of characters and taking them in a new direction, while retaining the show’s original spirit and tone.

That’s not to say they dispensed with Real Humans altogether, however. Brackley says: “There are individual moments that we really liked from the original that we kept, but in broader terms the narrative goes in a completely different direction by the end of the season. And if we’re lucky enough to get a second season, we’ll be carrying on from the end of ours.”

A second season is yet to be confirmed, but the ratings success of the first season suggest it’s more a matter of when than if. And it’s that success that Vincent and Brackley believe justifies the decision to remake Real Humans in the first place.

“We always knew there would be a few people saying ‘why remake this?’ but it’s not really an argument we have much sympathy for, because you only do it if you feel it’s creatively worthwhile,” says Vincent. “You feel you’re changing it for a different audience, growing it, developing it. We felt we were in conversation with the original and could do things in a slightly different way and build on certain aspects. There’s certainly room for both.”

Brackley adds: “There’s always a place for remakes as long as it’s doing something different, if it’s not just retreading the same territory in the same way then there’s always a place for an adaptation or translation into another country or another format.”

Having previously adapted another Scandinavian drama, the worldwide smash hit The Killing (aka Forbrydelsen), AMC was a natural US partner for Channel 4. Vincent admits he and Brackley were slightly overwhelmed at the prospect of working with the network, which counts Mad Men and The Walking Dead among its biggest hits, but says AMC were “incredibly supportive” and were fans of the show’s UK identity – ruling out fears that the show might suddenly be transplanted to a US location.

The series has become Channel 4's biggest original drama in more than 20 years
The series has become Channel 4’s biggest original drama in more than 20 years

“The only concession we made for the American market was that we removed ‘milk float,’” he reveals. “We weren’t even told to do that, people just kept asking us what milk float meant.”

As for the key to making a successful remake, Vincent says writers have to steep any adaptation in cultural relevance: “Real Humans has a great universal concept but a lot of it is quite culturally specific. We wanted to turn the lens of the concept onto an English-speaking culture and Britain today, and that produced a lot of subtle and interesting effects and differences.

“You have to ask whether it’s truly worthwhile – are you just reheating something, or are you actually refreshing it, reinvigorating it, changing it for a different audience and bringing a lot of yourself to it? If you’re not, you really have no business doing it. It would be madness trying to adapt something you weren’t passionate about in the first place. If you’re as passionate about the source material as we were about Real Humans, then it can be a really fantastic process.”

Before putting pen to paper, however, Brackley and Vincent both met with the show’s original creator, Lars Lundström, to discuss the series and how they might adapt it for a new audience.

Lundström says the idea of blurring lines between humans and robots was something he’d been working on for several years, and had pitched to a few producers before it was picked up by Swedish pubcaster SVT. Real Humans first aired in 2012, running for two seasons.

“I have no idea where the idea for it came from, it just popped up in my head,” he says. “SVT were willing to take a chance on it because they saw it not as sci-fi but more as a drama or thriller.”

Of his meeting with Brackley and Vincent, Lundström says: “We spoke about the DNA of the show, but the storyline is up to them. We were speaking about what I thought was the bottom line of the show, and it was very fruitful. They’re two very intelligent writers so they picked it up and shaped it nicely.

“One thing to be clear about is the hu-bots (as Synths are called in the Swedish version) are neither bad nor good. They’re just something humans have created, so it’s not like other AI shows where they are purely bad and we have to destroy them. That makes it a bit more complex and complicated than other similar shows, and that was very important for me. It’s a show that explores interaction with technology and what it means to be human. It’s not really about robots; it’s about humans.

“I had full confidence in them and I knew they would do something great with it. When I read the first couple of scripts, I was just happy. It’s fun that it gets a new life in the English language.”

Lundström – who is now working on new “mystical thriller” 1001 for Gaumont International Television, Matador Film and Eyeworks Scandi Fiction – has written a storyline and some scripts for a third season, but says these are now unlikely to come to air.

Instead, he hopes Humans will pave the way for more series to be adapted across borders. “I hope broadcasters will dare more with their shows,” he adds. “Sci-fi is hard because it usually doesn’t hit big numbers, but now we’ve proved it can. In the US they have done lots of shows like The Walking Dead that prove genre can be big and broad.”

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