AMC's zombie sensation, "The Walking Dead," returns for Season 2 tonight, and we're pleased to report that it retains its hard-earned status as the TV show most likely to send shivers up your spine -- or, at the very least, make you lose your lunch.
Yes, the gruesome ghouls are back in attack mode. And thanks to their rotting flesh, sunken eyes and really bad hygiene, the ick factor is at an all-time high. Fair warning: The gripping 90-minute opener contains a zombie autopsy scene that makes anything you've witnessed on "CSI" feel like a child's game of "Operation."
Then again, the "Dead"-heads who helped make the show AMC's biggest hit (yes, bigger than "Mad Men") get that it's so much more than gore porn. At its heart, it's a survivalist story that focuses on how human lives are drastically altered when society collapses and regular folk are plunged into a strange, hostile environment. Think "Lost" with mobs of insatiable cannibals.
This dynamic provides "The Walking Dead" with its beating heart and enables it to push emotional buttons that other shows don't. And based on the first two installments of a 13-episode season, it will continue to have viewers perched on the edge of their sofas.
That's a very good sign, considering that some doubts had been raised about the creative future of "Dead" this summer when show-runner Frank Darabont suddenly bolted in the middle of production. Although the series is based on an acclaimed graphic novel by Robert Kirkman (also an executive producer), Darabont got much of the credit for establishing its visual mastery and creepy vibe.
But the show, of course, must go on. Glen Mazzara, Darabont's top assistant, was put in charge, and perhaps more important, Kirkman stuck around to see things through. The result? Well, at least in the early going, both the production values and the anxiety level remain high.
When we last left "The Walking Dead," our gutsy little band of survivors, led by stoic lawman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), was on the run again. What they thought was a safe haven, Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control, went up in flames, forcing them to seek another form of shelter.
As Season 2 unfolds, they're fleeing Atlanta and hoping to reach Fort Benning, an Army base about 125 miles away. Unfortunately, they don't get far before trouble arises in the form of a roadblock and a huge throng of ghastly, flesh-eating stiffs.
Just when you think "The Walking Dead" might be getting a little claustrophobic, its world opens up with the introduction of several intriguing new characters, some of whom don't appear in the comic book. Meanwhile, we continue to learn more about our core group of survivors as personal agendas emerge and the constant fight-for-your-life tension places additional strain on everyone.
Especially of note is the key trio of Rick; his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies); and his sheriff's department pal, Shane (Jon Bernthal). When the saga opened last season, Lori and Shane assumed that Rick had died in a zombie invasion at the hospital, where he had been recovering from gunshot wounds. Subsequently, they initiated a relationship.
But under the presently dire circumstances, Lori has circled the wagons with Rick and their young son Carl (Chandler Riggs), choosing to keep the affair a secret. That has left Shane feeling like a third wheel and thinking of striking out on his own. Like we said, this show isn't just about zombies.
We'll refrain from issuing any spoilers, but be assured that several shivery thrills and some interesting plot twists are in the offing. Also, brace yourself for a shocking incident that brings even more emotional oomph to the show.
Still, you have to wonder how long "The Walking Dead" can continue to keep the suspense percolating. This season's 13-episode order more than doubles Season 1's six, and already you can sense the writers straining to find new ways to kill off the zombies. A cleaver, screwdriver, baseball bat, rock and arrow are all deployed in the first two episodes. Moreover, just how much running can our characters do before it gets to feel monotonous?
Then again, maybe it's best to quit worrying about where the show is going and just enjoy it for what it is. For now, "The Walking Dead" is alive and well.