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‘The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live’ spinoff turns out to be a bridge too far

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Originally announced as movies that would feature Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira, “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live” became a series instead, and as conceived and constructed, the least impressive of the zombie drama’s recent spinoffs. While Lincoln’s involvement as the original star looks like a coup, that’s poor compensation for questionable decisions regarding how to showcase him.

The stars deserve some blame for that, since rank having its privileges, Lincoln and Gurira share “created by” credit with the executive producer of all things “Dead,” Scott Gimple. Yet this reintroduction of their long-separated characters, Rick Grimes and Michonne, does less to rekindle the original show’s heyday than provide an uncomfortable reminder of how far the AMC series drifted from it while hanging on after Lincoln and Gurira exited in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

In between, the branded spinoffs “Dead City” and “Daryl Dixon” beat this one to the punch, each planting standout characters in different settings and building the offshoots around them.

Even without those shows, though, “The Ones Who Live” – which begins five years after the sequence at the bridge that separated the principals – feels like several bridges too far.

Without giving too much away, Rick has become the reluctant resident of a vast, sprawling city, one that shields itself from the outside world by brutally enforcing a rule that nobody admitted into its society can ever leave. Michonne, meanwhile, has continued her search for him, leaving behind loved ones who have grown up and older in his absence.

The new players include some intriguing additions, like Terry O’Quinn as the leader of a military unit to which Rick is assigned. The four episodes previewed, however, zero in on Rick’s character in a way that risks undermining what the audience knew and liked about him, while testing Michonne’s grit and determination as she joins another hardy group of survivors.

“The world is so much bigger than we knew,” Rick says at one point, although that’s frankly as much a tribute to commerce – and AMC’s determination to keep milking this franchise for all it’s worth – as creative inspiration. Yes, there are new quadrants of this post-apocalyptic landscape to explore, but each one takes the show farther away from, or at least further dilutes, the flagship title that once ranked as TV’s most-watched series.

When Lincoln left, the initial announcement that he would star in a trio of movies sounded bold, if – like so much during that period in the show’s life – a bit of a bait and switch. The jump to the big screen came with risks, but also the possibility of greater scope and scale.

“The Ones Who Live,” by contrast, appears to be an occasion at first but soon becomes a narrative slog that grinds too slowly. While there’s an initial kick in seeing the charismatic stars reunited, the life quickly drains from that promise, again resembling a franchise that simply doesn’t know when to quit.

“The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live” premieres February 25 at 9 p.m. ET on AMC and on AMC+.

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