There's been so much behind-the-scenes drama at AMC's "The Walking Dead" that it threatens to overshadow the intense, gripping horror series that's entering its second season. The good news is that the unceremonious firing of executive producer/show runner Frank Darabont is not evident in the first two episodes made available for review. After that? We'll see.
Season two begins shortly after the destruction of the Centers for Disease Control that ended the show's first season. Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) continues to lead a band of survivors of a zombie apocalypse as they try to stay alive amidst roving herds of the undead.
The opening scene of the season premiere (9 p.m. EDT Sunday) finds Grimes on the radio, sending out a message to Morgan, a character viewers met in the series pilot. In that message, Grimes teases what he learned in a whisper at the CDC, but then he doesn't actually reveal what was said. Surely viewers will learn that conversation's contents later in the season.
After that, it's back to being on the run. The survivors' caravan gets caught in a briar patch of abandoned vehicles on a highway leaving Atlanta. It's a logical story point and one that lesser shows might skip past, but "The Walking Dead" never abandons the reality of its premise. It's also not surprising to see the survivors scavenge parts and supplies from other vehicles.
If the first season was about introducing the world, the 90-minute premiere and the following week's episode go about advancing the plot while also cementing the personalities of the characters who make up this ragtag band of survivors. We're reminded of the broken relationship between Grimes' wife, Lori (Sarah Waynes Callies, "Prison Break"), and Grimes' best friend, Shane (Jon Bernthal, "Eastwick"), who fell in love while Grimes was in a coma.
Andrea (Laurie Holden, "The X-Files") remains guilt-ridden after the death of her sister. She's also mad at Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) for saving her life and not allowing her to choose suicide back at the CDC.
Daryl (Norman Reedus) seems less volatile than he was last season when his hillbilly brother Merle was left for dead. T-Dog (Robert "IronE" Singleton) has an accident that could imperil his life. And Carol (Melissa McBride), out from under the shadow of her abusive husband who died last season, tries to make life as bearable as possible for her daughter, Sophia (Madison Lintz).
Glenn (Steven Yeun), who proved himself a smart, valuable member of the group in season one, doesn't have much to do in the first two episodes of season two, which focus on two unexpected crises that lead the group to another set of survivors at the farm of an older gentleman named Hershel (Scott Wilson).
When you step back and think about what happens in these first two episodes of "The Walking Dead," you realize that, in terms of plot, there has not been a ton of forward momentum. But the show creates tension -- through atmosphere and characters the audience cares about -- and offers so many make-you-jump scares that by the end of an episode, you're left breathless. How many TV shows have that effect?
The work of co-executive producer Greg Nicotero continues to be gorily impressive. The zombies come with a multitude of disfigurements and are destroyed in a variety of creative/disgusting ways -- spear through the eye, anyone? The effects are so believable that "The Walking Dead" can be difficult to watch at times, but that's true of most horror films.
In addition to his work on the TV series, Nicotero directed a six-episode Web series (available at amctv.com) about the Bicycle Girl zombie who was shot in the show's pilot episode last year.
After this Sunday, the second season of "The Walking Dead" will continue with six more one-hour episodes this fall before taking a break until Feb. 12 when the show returns with an additional six episodes to complete its second season.