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TV Weekend: The Walking Dead Has Legs

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By the end of its short first season, I was ready to put The Walking Dead on my list of “almost” shows: those series that had the potential to be great, but which for lack of execution or desire never actually got there. It had well-regarded source material (I haven’t myself read the Robert Kirkman graphic novels)* and a terrific premise: a zombie apocalypse,  handled with complete psychological realism. The pilot was breathtaking—sweeping in its visuals, economical in its dialogue and unstinting in its dedication to show how actual people would respond to the potential grisly end of human life.

The rest of the season delivered on plot, but the writing faltered, hampered by often-clichéd dialogue, stock characters and haphazard-seeming narrative diversions. There were strong sequences—the final, hope-crushing interlude at the CDC was effective, if rushed—but what began with the potential to be a great series (on a par with other AMC and HBO dramas) seemed content to be an exciting horror story with just-good-enough storytelling. And the ratings were fantastic, so I wasn’t sure it had much incentive to improve.

Going into season 2, there was then the famous friction with the parent network over budget and production issues, and AMC ousted producer, director and showrunner Frank Darabont. Would The Walking Dead itself become a kind of TV zombie, kept alive (on a smaller budget) with stopgap producers, mediocre scripts and the momentum of a devoted audience without many good options for genre horror on TV?

Darabont left during production, so it will really take the season to find the answers. But I’ve seen the first two episodes, and I have some good news about a show that’s mostly about bad news: The Walking Dead is starting season 2 much more strongly than it ended season 1.

I can’t really get into much plot detail without running into spoilers. But as a very general setup: the show picks up almost precisely where it left off. The caravan of zombieism survivors has left the CDC and is moving on down the highway in search of another haven. What happens next is—well, harrowing and thrilling, and involves zombies. But maybe most important is that what happens next is not too much. Maybe because it has a full season to play with, the show slows down, focusing on a couple of acts of violence and their very painful (physical and moral) aftereffects.

It had always seemed really clear that no one was safe on The Walking Dead, but these first episodes make it undeniable—to the point of being tough for me to watch, and I see a lot of TV violence. And they do it with compelling action sequences and lean, emotional dialogue: the whole show feels more pared-down and focused. And star Andrew Lincoln benefits from this in particular, embodying a man trying to bear up under pressure past the point of exhaustion.

There are still big issues baked into The Walking Dead: the group vs. the individual, whether extremity brings out the best or worst in the survivors, whether the living are more dangerous than the walking dead. And it should: what separates a great monster story from a sheer pulp entertainment is that it’s about something besides horror. But for these two episodes, at least, The Walking Dead probes the issues through action, more than talk, and it’s better for it.

Check back here Monday at time.com, where Nate Rawlings is going to do weekly recaps of the show. (I’ll check in on it from time to time too, but I’m doing Boardwalk Empire the same night and don’t want to give either short shrift.) I’m not ready to proclaim The Walking Dead’s problems solved yet, but this new beginning is reason for hope. And after what it has to show you, you’ll need some.

* For the purposes of this and any Walking Dead posts here, by the way, I’m going to assume that readers have not necessarily read the graphic novels here. So—even though the series has sometimes diverged from the books—same rules as in my Game of Thrones coverage: NO REFERENCE in comments to plot points or events that have not transpired in already-aired episodes of the series. Thanks!