When last we left Rick Grimes, the weary hero of AMC's zombie apocalypse drama "The Walking Dead," he and his friends and family had just escaped the exploding headquarters for the Centers for Disease Control, not long after learning that the odds of a cure for the zombie plague were somewhere between slim and none. Rick and company hit the road, uncertain of what to do next, or even if the fight to stay alive was still worth it.
Though the moment wasn't intended as a metaphor for the state of the series, it sure seemed like one during the long, strange hiatus between the end of season 1 and the season 2 premiere. (The 90-minute episode premieres Sunday night at 9.) That first season was run by Frank Darabont, who had spent years trying to turn Robert Kirkman's comic book into a TV series, who had written and directed the show's masterful pilot episode, and whose presence and creative influence was so important that AMC only produced six episodes in that first season because that was all the room Darabont had on his schedule. And then midway through production of season 2 - and only a few days after Darabont had represented the show in front of 4000 giddy fans at the San Diego Comic-Con - Darabont was out. Some reports suggested he quit, others said he was fired, and there were even conflicting accounts as to why in either case - with a fight over the show's budget being the most frequently-cited cause.
Regardless, here was a show that was the biggest hit in AMC history, one that seemed poised to do even better in its second season now that more episodes could be made and everyone knew how the material worked on-screen, and all of a sudden the whole thing blew up in the way that the CDC turned out not to be the perfect refuge Rick (Andrew Lincoln) was hoping for.
But whatever impact Darabont's absence will have on "The Walking Dead" - if any, given that the rest of his team (including Kirkman himself writing the season premiere, and former number two man Glen Mazzara taking the reins) is still in place - will come later in the season. I've seen the season's first two episodes, and even knowing what I know about the backstage issues, they left me feeling more confident about the series than I actually did for most of the first season.
And the opening of season 2 seems more focused, and just plain stronger than the great bulk of that first batch of episodes.
We pick up not long after the CDC fiasco, and though Rick has plans on heading to Fort Benning to see what remains of the military, post-apocalyptic life - in this case, a highway traffic snarl of cars that were either abandoned or are still occupied by their dead, rotting drivers - gets in the way. The group tries to make the best of it, scavenging the cars for supplies, engine parts for the mobile home driven by Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), but as with everything in their nightmarish new existence, nothing goes according to plan, and there's action, suspense, and plain old terror aplenty.
Thanks to our zombie friends, the group we're following is down to a manageable number now, and that allows the show to go a bit more in depth with whoever's left. The center of the show remains the awkward love triangle between Rick, wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Rick's cop partner Shane (Jon Bernthal) - the latter two hooked up when they thought Rick was dead - but we get more interaction between Dale and Andrea (Laurie Holden) as she grieves her dead sister, Merle's brother Daryl (Norman Reedus) becomes more character than caricature, and even Shane himself seems like a much more complicated person than he was throughout season 1. And though Lincoln's Southern accent remains the worst in an ensemble full of shaky ones (possibly because, as an Englishman, his has the furthest to travel?), his overall performance - the way his face captures the burden of not only living in this hellish existence, but having to be responsible for the survival of others - remains extremely strong.
Yet even as we get to know the characters better, the show itself seems as stripped-down as the group of survivors. With the CDC and a cure out of the picture, the show's now an unapologetic pulp thriller. The focus is entirely on whatever situation the group is facing at the moment - the unexpected arrival of a zombie "herd," a medical emergency, or someone going lost in the woods - and everything else falls away. And that tunnel vision winds up making the show feel much richer than it did for much of the first season. If all anyone making or watching the show cares about is this situation, right here, right now, it becomes better-executed and more intense. There's no deeper meaning here most of the time - and, in fact, the handful of scenes where characters stand around and talk about civilization and faith and other big questions tend to be the weakest moments - and that's okay, because sometimes you just want to watch people hide from zombies.
Can the show maintain this level of execution once we get to the post-Darabont episodes? On the one hand, Darabont was responsible for by far the best episode of the series to date. On the other, he was also the man in charge for a lot of the bumpier parts of that first season. A TV show is a huge collaborative enterprise, and this isn't like trying to continue, say, "The Sopranos" without David Chase and his encyclopedic knowledge of the Jersey suburbs and all the family incidents that inspired the show. It's a toss-up.
Like Rick Grimes, all I can do is focus on what lies directly in front of me, and the here and now of "The Walking Dead" looks very good.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com