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'The Walking Dead' returns for Season 9 with big changes 

Danai Gurira, left, Chloe Garcia and Andrew Lincoln

Danai Gurira, left, Chloe Garcia and Andrew Lincoln in Season 9 of AMC's "The Walking Dead." Credit: AMC/Jackson Lee Davis

Umm, remember "The Walking Dead"? Walkers --  Rick Grimes, Negan and his bat, Lucille?  Ring any bells?

Sure they do, but with the ninth season returning Sunday (AMC, 9 p.m.)  a few helpful reminders are now in order. TV's once-loved, now harder-to-love zombie show is somewhat chastened as it enters late middle age. While still a hit, "The Walking Dead" is no longer the conversation starter it once was. Original fans have drifted away or been forced away, mostly by a numbingly predictable narrative (War, then peace. War, then peace.) and enough violence to peel paint.

 But a new beginning is upon "TWD." In fact, Sunday's episode is called "A New Beginning."

 What's so new? Here's a quick primer:

NEW SHOWRUNNER Angela Kang, a veteran "TWD" writer, knows the show intimately, and its challenges, too. In a July interview with the Hollywood Reporter, her first since taking over, she promised the gore won't go away, but a deeper exploration of human institutions will form the narrative spine, specifically "what it means to have a civilization . . .  What are the things that we owe to each other as human beings?"

NEW TIMELINE Season 9 has made an 18-month time jump from Season 8, when Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and crew finally put down Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and crew. He has united the Hilltop, the Sanctuary, the Kingdom and the Alexandria Safe Zone, but gasoline and even bullets are now scarce. That means they're all forced to improvise. Horses are now the primary means of transportation, for example. As Grimes explains Sunday, "We're looking to the past to help us with the present."

NEW CHALLENGES Huge new challenges, by the way. Original cast member Lincoln will leave this season, and most likely in the first half. Lauren Cohan who plays  Maggie Greene  will also leave at some point later this season. Danai Gurira who plays Michonne and joined in the third season is now a film star ("Black Panther," and the next "Star Trek" sequel) so her days are likely numbered. That leaves Melissa McBride, who plays Carol, and Norman Reedus (Daryl)  as the remaining originals. Both the Rick and Maggie characters have key stories Sunday (they usually do) and without them, "TWD" will be forced to become a new show whether it wants to or not. Meanwhile, a sinister group, the Whisperers, enter the ambit, lead by the particularly sinister Alpha, played by English star, Samantha Morton.

NEW STORIES Kang has one key advantage — the show is mostly leaving behind the Robert Kirkman comic book source material. That allows her to construct a brand new world, introduce brand new characters, find brand new narratives. "Brand new" could be liberating for "TWD" because the "old" had effectively shackled it.

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