In the first two episodes of the drama's second season, scares are efficiently dispensed, the action moves along briskly and there are credible attempts to make the survivors of a zombie apocalypse more than a collection of types.
The bottom line is, if you liked the what the show was dishing out in its first season -- genre storytelling made with admirable restraint and economy, except for those jump-out-of-your-seat scary/gross moments -- you're likely to enjoy what you see in season 2.
The first episode re-introduces lawman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his wife and son, with whom he was only recently reunited. Rick doesn't know that his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) had an affair with his best friend, Shane (Jon Bernthal), while they were separated by the undead outbreak that turned the world into a nightmare landscape of shuffling brain-munchers.
Will Rick and Lori work it out? That's not entirely clear, but unlike the TNT alien-invasion drama 'Falling Skies,' 'The Walking Dead' knows what to focus on and what to avoid: It doesn't overload the narrative with schmaltz or with soap-opera twists and turns. There's not a lot of filler in the first two hours of 'The Walking Dead'; even though the characters, like 'Lost's' islanders, tend to spend a lot of time walking around in forests, there's always a clear destination in mind
Here's progress: I still don't have much time for the grating Shane, but at least I wasn't rooting for the zombies (who, it emerges, can shuffle pretty darn quickly when they feel like it) to catch up with the former cop and bite him to pieces. Among the other cast members, Laurie Holden continues to do very solid work as unwilling survivor Andrea and Jeffrey DeMunn gives the show a humanistic and even optimistic center as the quiet lynchpin of the group, Dale. Even the cartoonishly reactionary Daryl (Norman Reedus) is less belligerent and more human this season.
Other AMC shows, of course, are really and truly all about the characters; we could spend days talking about the intricacies of Walter White, Don Draper and Peggy Olsen. 'The Walking Dead' isn't like that. What this show is really good at tends to be straight-up horror and intelligent misdirection. Sometimes what happens is scary because it's exactly what you'd expect it to be (how awful would it be to be trapped with a zombie in an RV? Yep, very awful). But the show comes up with interesting and creative ways to subvert expectations about what exactly is going to happen next, and that thrum of suspense and surprise will keep me coming back for more. That, and the show's shameless and effective use of cliffhangers.
After some pulse-pounding scares, not to mention some unsentimental conversations among survivors about why they're even bothering to stay among the living, Rick and his group come across the family of Hershel Greene, who've somehow managed to keep living relatively normal lives despite the total collapse of civilization. There's no doubt that the show will be able to provide all these characters with imaginatively grisly zombie encounters, but I still have some doubts about how much we'll care about who survives and who doesn't.
With even more characters on the scene, will 'The Walking Dead' do a better -- or even adequate -- job of filling in who these people are and why we should care about their fates? That's the question that may be affected most by the creative reshuffling at the top, and we won't know the answer for a few weeks, at least. The second season of 'The Walking Dead' will consist of 13 hours, instead of the six hours we got in season 1. Thirteen could turn out to be too many episodes if we end up not caring very much about who bites the dust. The ideal result is that a 13-episode season feels too short, but we'll have to see how the mid-season transition between Darabont's and Mazzara's leadership goes before we can judge the overall viability of the TV version of Robert Kirkman's tale.
Still, as I said, the first couple of hours of the season don't offer any cause for alarm on the creative front. They're marked with the same sense of efficient propulsion that we experienced in most of season 1, and even though I'm not a horror fan in general, I was hooked. 'The Walking Dead' is still scary all right, and at this point, it still appears to be made with braiiins.
Note: Check back here after Sunday's season premiere for Mike Ryan's review of the episode and some post-premiere intel from the show's producers. Here are some 'Walking Dead' cast interviews from Comic-Con and from a 'Walking Dead' screening in Los Angeles. The trailer for the new season is here.
Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.