This Sunday, "The Walking Dead" returns to the air with a brand new hour and a half season premiere and a brand new timeslot, now airing at 9PM on AMC. Proving to be the cable network's big hit of 2010, season two continues to follow the exploits of a group of humans trying to survive societal collapses after the zombie apocalypse. CBR News recently screened the premiere and the second episode of the second season of "The Walking Dead," and if the first two episodes are an indicator for the rest of the season, the show is shaping up to be exactly as good -- and sometimes as flawed -- as season one.
With the 90 minute premiere emphasizing the suspense and horror aspects of the show and episode two diving more into character, these first two offerings of "The Walking Dead" seem to be trying to lay fears to rest that a smaller budget means a decline in production value and story. The best part of season one was that it felt less like a TV show and more like a serialized horror movie, and the first episodes of season two continue to hit that mark, providing ample zombies scares, with walkers appearing exactly when everything seems safe, jumping out at characters from unexpected places. Like the best horror movies, both episodes masterfully build suspense even when there are no zombies in sight; it is the ever-present threat that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The show continues not to shy away from the grotesque, either -- let's just say, if you loved Glenn and Rick picking through zombie slime in season one, you will not be disappointed.
"The Walking Dead's" overall production values show no evidence of being hit by a smaller budget as the carefully composed shots are as cinematic as season one, and there are plenty of great close-ups of the zombies. There are plenty of sweeping shots of the Georgia landscape that serve both to look beautiful and to absolutely terrify -- shots of the Georgia woods linger a bit too long and shots with the main actors are framed a bit too wide as if leaving space for something undead to pop in. The zombie makeup by consulting producer and makeup artist Greg Nicotero also continues to amaze, as viewers are treated to the full range of zombie decomposition. In fact, both episodes provide teases of deeper zombie behavior as the survivors begin to take notice of the actions of the walkers and we see more varieties of the walking undead.
Story-wise, both episodes address threads left by season one's CDC explosion while providing screen time to many of the show's underdeveloped characters such as T-Bone (played by IronE Singleton) and Carol (Melissa McBride). They also start to address Lori's point of view on the whole zombie mess, something that was sorely lacking in season one. Lori has some great standalone character moments, and the season premiere is one of the first times actress Sarah Wayne Callies' acting choices make Lori seem like a strong, take-charge character rather than someone who exists solely to negatively contradict Rick's ideas. She's turning from a voice of dissension to a voice of reason -- a welcome change.
Actor Norman Reedus' turn as Daryl is the highlight of both episodes, proving his worth to show viewers and the onscreen group over and over again as he displays unknown talents and surprising generosity. His competence and confidence is refreshing, especially compared to the Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane (Jon Bernthal) who are beginning to doubt, quietly and vocally, their decisions and place in the group. Reedus' Daryl is equally at ease taking orders as he is giving them and he's sympathetic, even when he's berating the survivors for their sentimentality -- an amazing feat given he started off in season one as the wrathful redneck brother of an even more wrathful white supremacist. Episode two also gives voice to Singleton's T-Bone, the only black member of cast and one who has been fairly quiet up to this point. T-Bone has a unique perspective on the state of the world, post-zombie apocalypse, and it's a viewpoint worth exploring further, both as the lone minority voice and as a potential source of conflict down the road.
As for the rest of the group, the characters viewers have come to think of as stable start to doubt themselves and the others cling closer. Played by the charismatic Jeffrey DeMunn, Dale's easygoing attitude is beginning to wear thin, offering glimpses of a deeply worried man underneath. The burden of responsibility is getting to Rick just as Andrea (Laurie Holden) clamors for a more active role in the decision making, her ongoing disagreements about the group's guns providing one of the funniest moments of the season premiere. One of the most interesting characters of season one, Holden continues to shine as Andrea reacts to the events at the CDC and reveals an intriguing outlook on personal responsibility and the freedom to make individual choices, even when it seems like those choices are wrong. While Andrea's anger and confusion could have come off as annoying, Holden handles it so skillfully that you end up on her side; she has been dealt a bad hand, and when she gets angry or frustrated, you feel it equally.
In fact, the first two episodes also bring up the headier themes that have always simmered under the surface of season one: personal choice versus sacrifice for the greater good. It all boils down to the individual versus the group with even the zombies reflecting this, swarming across the landscape as a homogenous horde as the individual characters struggle to reconcile personal choices with the group's overall survival. It is an especially pertinent discussion as, in so many ways, the zombies have won; the homogenous whole has proved successful, not the individuals that make up human society. Dale and Lori verbally debate this theme in the first two episodes, and while these philosophical speeches could easily have been the weakest parts of episode one and two, the actors pull it off, marrying their loftier ideals with the gritty realities of post-zombie life.
Outside of those two speeches, however, as with season one, the weakest moments of both new episodes are when characters descend into expositional dialogue. Rick's opening monologue is a perfect example, a grandiose speech that no real human being would ever actually utter. Dramatic scenes between whispering survivors go on far too long and each character seems to have their own pithy catchphrase to fall back on as they grouse about the hardships of the zombie apocalypse. Beyond the dialogue, while in season one the music was used sparingly throughout the episodes, leaving many scenes with an eerie, quiet feel, season two sees the score become part of the episodes in a much bigger way. There are still long stretches of time without any sound, but the score now swells whenever there is any sort of character drama, overpowering the action as it tries to underscore character speeches and monologues.
Overall, the best and worst things about the first two episodes of "The Walking Dead" are that they so closely match season one's episodes of "Walking Dead" in both tone and quality. It still has its flaws and trouble with hokey dialogue and defining everyone's characters, but it is apparent that the show is trying to address those concerns -- some more successfully than others. Moreover, the show recognizes that what it does best are the classic movie horror beats. The gross zombie appearances and terrifying thrills are exactly as good, if not better, than last season, and if "Walking Dead" can keep up the level of suspense displayed in the first two episodes of season two, then it's going to be a good one, giving fans exactly what they want out of the show and matching the first in quality, episode for episode.
"The Walking Dead" season two premieres October 16 at 9PM on AMC; episode two airs October 23 9PM