Two years ago, I turned one of my good friends into a Walking Dead superfan. (Victory!) So when AMC started promoting a sweepstakes for their first ever Fan Premiere, there was only one person I wanted to go with. We entered every day for almost a month for a chance to win two tickets to Madison Square Garden where they were hosting red carpet arrivals, an advanced screening of the 90-minute season 6 opening episode, and a panel discussion with the entire cast on Friday, October 9 as part of New York Comic Con. Entry was free. Winners were announced daily. And when she texted me to tell me she won, I think I stopped breathing.
The event was dedicated to the fans out of pure gratitude for making “The Walking Dead” the highest rated and most-watched drama in cable history. (Seriously. Google it.) It was a massive undertaking: The sold-out crowd of over 15,000 audience members came to Manhattan from far and wide—49 states were represented as well as a handful of foreign countries, including South Africa and Russia.
President of AMC Charlie Collier, creator Robert Kirkman, executive producer Greg Nicotero (among other producers), and showrunner Scott M. Gimple were all present and ecstatic to see so many happy fans in attendance. The show’s entire crew even flew up from Georgia to participate. The panel was hosted by “Community" actress and frequent "Talking Dead" guest, Yvette Nicole Brown. (Chris Hardwick had a wedding that weekend, as explained in a broadcasted video message).
In addition to all 13 current core cast members, five new season six regulars joined the panel, along with a handful of surprise guests who had been killed off in seasons past. There was a Q&A, games, blooper reels, awards, and more.
It was truly an unforgettable experience. Here are some highlights:
The Fellow Fans
We were all there for free and we were all there to have a good time, which meant no matter how long we had to stand in confusing lines or security checkpoints, no matter how wet we were from walking in the rain or sweaty from standing shoulder to shoulder in a herd even more claustrophobic than those depicted on the show, everyone we talked to was in good spirits. I happen to think making small talk with strangers is fun and we talked to a lot of people! Everyone wanted to know where everyone was from, how they got their tickets, who they were most excited to see. We even reminisced about favorite scenes (“Terminus was awesome!”) and characters we missed (“Awww, Hershel!”) There was a mother/daughter duo in front of us who flew all the way from Colorado for their first NYC visit. The girls we sat next to in our row were from Texas and California. It was a unifying event, bringing together all different types of people from all over who simply wanted to share the joy of immersing themselves in the universe of their favorite fiction for a night.
The Collective Viewing Experience
If meeting other fans was fun, watching the episode with them was even better. There’s always jerks in a movie theater and that’s in a small room—I expected in a huge arena for there to be a few people trying to ruin it for everyone. Not one! (As far as I could tell.) We were on the honor system as far as recording and breaking the copyright laws, with threat of being thrown out immediately if caught, and I saw not one little blinking red light or lit phone screen for the full episode length. We all just sat, enraptured, laughing in all the right places, gasping in all the right places, cheering for badass moments, clapping for favorite characters, and genuinely just enjoying ourselves. I’m sure it was just as fun for the cast and crew to watch us watch it—where else could they witness live feedback on all their hard work?
The Church of Reedus
Kirkman said it, not me: “We thank you for your support, whether you’re here because you’re a fan of the show or the comic, or just a follower of the church of Reedus...” The order in which the cast was announced was of no surprise to us, with the level of popularity determining who came out last. When Norman Reedus was announced right before Andrew Lincoln, the crowd...went...bananas. A spotlight appeared in the middle of the floor. Instead of walking out onto the stage like the actors before him, Norman decided to go full Daryl and drove a motorcycle up the center aisle onto the stage. There was a high-pitched shrieking filling my ears; I realized it was coming from me. Yes, I love Daryl and yes, I love Norman—but not because he looks damn fine on a motorcycle or holding a crossbow. It’s more about the fact that if you know anything about him as an actor, he’ll readily admit that he’s led a rather low-kew career and never expected to have legions of fans—especially screeching young women. What I admired most about him that night was how incredibly gracious he was to his fans. When the night ended and everyone on stage started filing out, he hung back to walk around and wave to the crowd, signing things that were thrown at him, and basically looking like he didn’t want the night to end any more than we did. He was the last one to walk out. Pretty cool of him, if you ask me.
The Cast Fun
After the initial excitement wore off, it started to feel like no big deal that I was in the same room as some of my favorite people. Maybe that comes from the way I view celebrities in the first place, something that's helped me along as I've tried to break into entertainment writing, and that's the fact that, hey, guess what? They're just people. They have way cooler jobs than we do, but they're just people—people who happen to be very good friends with each other and who were dressed to the nines and thrilled to see some of their old friends pop up and who were just there to enjoy each other's company with the fans, whether that meant watching embarrassing moments captured on set or battling it out in a trivia game, elementary school style (girls vs. boys). It was fun just to watch their fun.
The Surprise Guests
Not one, not two, but SIX actors whose characters had been killed off in prior seasons showed up to join that fun. From out in the crowd, IronE Singleton (T-Dog) awarded the best cosplayers with a chance to get a photo taken with the cast after the show and Chad Coleman (Tyreese) took a fan question: "Rick, how would things be different if Shane was still alive?" Andrew Lincoln went from looking momentarily put off to be addressed by his character name to overjoyed to see Shane himself, Jon Bernthal, come strolling onto the stage. His appearance was clearly a surprise to everyone, as they all rushed to hug him at once:
Fan favorite Scott Wilson (Hershel) was next, who was given the first ever Walking Dead Hall of Fame award. His acceptance speech was briefly interrupted by David Morrissey (the Governor) via video message, but he went on to graciously thank the cast and crew for giving him such a wonderful character to play and he wished his "family" luck as they go on to "kill it this season." The cast was also joined by Emily Kinney (Beth) as she rounded out the girl's team for a Family Feud-style game called Family Face Off. And last but not least, the other Dixon, Michael Rooker (Merle) closed the show by inviting everyone to take a massive group selfie. It was awesome to see so many favorites back with the gang. It really put into perspective how massive the cast has become ... and how many people we have yet to inevitably lose.
Bring it on, season 6!
TOTAL IN ATTENDANCE Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes) Norman Reedus (Daryl Dixon) Melissa McBride (Carol Peletier) Chandler Riggs (Carl Grimes) Danai Gurira (Michonne) Steven Yeun (Glenn Rhee) Lauren Cohan (Maggie Greene) Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha Williams) Alanna Masterson (Tara Chambler) Christian Serratos (Rosita Espinosa) Michael Cudlitz (Sgt. Abraham Ford) Josh McDermitt (Eugene Porter) Seth Gilliam (Father Gabriel) New Season 6 Regulars Lennie James (Morgan Jones) Ross Marquand (Aaron) Alexandra Breckenridge (Jessie Anderson) Tovah Feldshuh (Deanna Monroe) Austin Nichols (Spencer Monroe) Surprise Guests IronE Singleton (T-Dog) Chad Coleman (Tyreese Williams) Jon Bernthal (Shane Walsh) Emily Kinney (Beth Greene) Scott Wilson (Hershel Greene) Michael Rooker (Merle Dixon) Producers Gale Anne Hurd Greg Nicotero Tom Luse David Alpert Scott M. Gimple Robert Kirkman AMC Charlie Collier Host Yvette Nicole Brown