Where were we? Oh, right,still running from zombies. Have you looked around lately at the cable news channels? The zombies are winning, my dears.
AMC’s hit “The Walking Dead” returns Sunday night, and before we ask whether or not it’s gotten better as a series, I suppose some reference should be made to a bit of backstage tumult: Frank Darabont, who shepherded the original “Walking Dead” graphic novel series, is off the show, even though his influence will remain strong for the first half of this season’s episodes. (There will be six episodes this fall, with another six starting up again February.) Now the graphic novelist , Robert Kirkman, and the head writer, Glen Mazzara, are in charge. What happened there?
Don’t know, don’t care. We just want to know if “The Walking Dead” is still as preoccupied with the socio-psychological dynamic — “The Lord of the Flies”-type desperation of the proto-community — as it was last time around.
It is, but the show seems somehow sleeker and better paced. Characters may now be people first and archetypes second. This has the subtle but immediate effect of making “The Walking Dead” less predictable and more frightening.
Having survived a disastrous dashing of hopes at the all-but-abandoned Centers for Disease Control bunker at the end of last season, our loosely affiliated survivalists have left Atlanta, hoping that military assistance awaits them at Fort Benning.
Although “The Walking Dead” is expensive to shoot on location (each episode reportedly costs a cool $2.5 million or more), it benefits enormously from the fact that it is set in and actually filmed in Georgia in the worst heat of summer. Each rattle of locusts and blistering sunbeam lends the series a terrific sense of abject apocalypse. Here, day is more fraught than night.
As the group caravans south in an RV and other vehicles, they run into the remnants of a nightmare gridlock on I-85. Then the RV’s radiator begins wheezing steam. While the group scrambles to fix it and root through abandoned cars for supplies . . . well, don’t you know, that’s when the herd of zombies comes shuffling along? It’s thrillingly scary.
During the mayhem, one of the group’s two children goes missing in the woods. “The Walking Dead” is not terribly sentimental about or protective of children this time around; it’s rare to see a TV show that is willing to have children equally imperiled as the adults, but then again, that’s a tribute to the show’s determination to feel true. It’s murder on your stress level, however.
As zombie fare goes, “The Walking Dead” has found just the right mix of believable terror and goopy gross-out. There’s a fine line to it: Some prefer their zombie movies to err on the side of crass humor and excess splatter. Others prefer the shuffling, inexorable realism “The Walking Dead” offers, such as when the group’s leader, Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and its disgruntled Georgia rebel, Daryl (Norman Reedus), have to cut open a dead zombie to check its stomach contents for evidence of the missing child. This is not a show to snack through.
As with a lot of these cable dramas that make us wait a year or so for new episodes, it takes a while to remember who the characters are and what each brings to the saga. As Rick, Lincoln remains a perfect tortured cowboy, frustrated by his inability to save everyone. His best friend, Shane (Jon Bernthal), who was secretly having an affair with Rick’s wife (Sarah Wayne Callies), seems more extraneous all the time, and itches to break apart from the group and survive solo. One of the more compelling characters, Andrea (Laurie Holden), would like to abscond with Shane; she is resentful that the other members of the group won’t let her have a gun after she tried to kill herself at the CDC.
Grim stuff. Dale (the excellent Jeffrey DeMunn), the wise old RV driver, fixes the radiator promptly but delays announcing this while the others search in vain for the missing child. “I’m just guarding against the worst,” he confides to another man. “I want to hold off on the ‘needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’ arguments for as long as I can.”
That’s really the core of the show — the world is destroyed, and each episode seems as if it’s avoiding the inevitable demise of everyone. Yet they keep running into pockets of other survivors who seemed to have figured out part of the trick of getting by. The zombie epidemic seems permanent, which raises the question of how long we can watch a show about something so despairing and futile. What “The Walking Dead” could use, if anything, is just a glimmer of hope. But that doesn’t seem to be where this road leads.
(90 minutes) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC. Followed at midnight by “The Talking Dead,” a live after-show featuring cast and crew, with reactions from fans about the night’s episode.