Has Frank Darabont’s departure and budget cuts spoiled AMC’s hit? THR’s chief TV critic, Tim Goodman, weighs in.
There’s nothing like a rock-solid 90 minute premiere to make doubts disappear, and there were a lot of them floating around last year’s out-of-nowhere hit, The Walking Dead.
The zombie drama was AMC’s highest-rated premiere ever with 5.3 million people in last season’s opener, then hovered near the 5 million mark until topping everything with 6 million in the season finale.
Then executive producer and writer Frank Darabont was ousted and there were worries that a supposedly slashed budget would add to the upheaval and ultimately ruin one of the true fairytale performances for any series last season.
So much for that.
Maybe you can’t kill a series that has already beaten long odds – standing out in a genre field, particularly one so overdone as zombies. Maybe whatever elements that made The Walking Dead so compelling – and there were a lot of them – just couldn’t be stopped by outside forces.
Because that Season 2 premiere? It’s 90 minutes of skill – bringing viewers back into the story without missing a beat, adding immediate depth to characters, ratcheting up suspense (if that was even possible), plus expanding the emotional palette of the series. No small task – any of those. Oh, and there’s more than one shocker mixed in.
Of course, Darabont’s fingerprints are still all over The Walking Dead, but the first two episodes are a reminder that the initial mix, the first shot of freshness that The Walking Dead had in it, remains. And that winning combination from Season 1 is a foundation that just may be too firmly established for anyone to muck up.
In Season 1, the zombie apocalypse was at hand – the series began with Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) shot, then waking up in the hospital as seemingly one of the last people standing in rural King County, Georgia. He led a rag-tag group of survivors on a search for – what? That was always a key mystery at the start. Mere survival? Friends and family? Answers to how it all happened? An understanding that might ground the survivors somehow – such as knowing how widespread the events were? Of if there was a cure for whatever toxin turned people into zombies? Or if there was a concerted government response?
That the answers to those questions were often murky was part of the allure. Because all of those questions and concerns had hope as a foundation. People’s will to survive, to believe things were going to get better, was a core of the show. By the sixth episode – the Season 1 finale – the Center for Disease Control was destroyed and so was hope.
In Season 2, the early themes are, not surprisingly, hopelessness and doubt. That’s human nature – and thus real. Mixed in is an exploration of faith – one of those new twists that have broadened the scope of the series.
Rick is still in charge. But his partner from the Sheriff’s department, Shane (Jon Bernthal), is feeling like a third wheel. In Season 1, he thought Rick had died from a zombie invasion at the hospital where he was recovering and subsequently started up a relationship with Rick’s wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and mentored Rick’s son, Carl (Chandler Riggs). Rick’s reappearance has left Shane feeling like he might be better off on his own, a feeling that also crops up in Andrea (Laurie Holden), still recovering from losing her sister to the zombies and hoping to die in peace at the CDC, before Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) stepped in to save her life.
One of the ideas inherent in pack-survival is how to keep everybody together and even if doing so is a good idea. It’s natural to the storytelling, then, to have Shane and Andrea contemplating leaving.
Also feeling antsy is T-Dog (Robert Singleton) who tries to convince Dale to leave as well. “Why are we on the side of the road like live bait?” he says at one point. Feeling antsy and vulnerable is a key underlying element to The Walking Dead, because the group of human stragglers begins to run into ever larger packs of zombies. That feeling of being outnumbered, of struggling with futility, is ever-present.
So are the requisite chills and pulse-raising moments (the series is particularly good at shocking the viewer without always illustrating it – a blood soaked and splattered baby seat, for instance).
Essential to the expansion in Season 2 is the aforementioned character growth. This season will find Daryl (Norman Reedus), the redneck hothead taking more of a leadership role as he evolves and Glenn (Steven Yeun), the plucky loner has a surprising redirection as well.
There are 13 episodes in Season 2, which should allow the writers (including new showrunner Glen Mazzara and comic creator and executive producer Robert Kirkman), to let the series breathe – without losing the crowd-pleasing element of killing zombies that stalk you, of course.
The Walking Dead is at its best when it can go beyond the conventions of the genre and, for instance, raise the emotional stakes. Making the series have gravitas as an adult drama with depth and nuance is what attracted non-zombie movie fans to the series in the first place. Early in Season 2, it’s very clear that keeping that dramatic heft is of primary concern.
Viewers will meet new characters in Season 2 (a given, since the core group is on the move) and there should be more intrigue around motivation and personal interest –not just from the newbies, but from the core.
Above all else, The Walking Dead hasn’t lost the most important ingredient in its strangely successful recipe: it’s thrilling.