The very first episode of "The Walking Dead" (which returns Sunday, October 14 at 9 p.m. ET on AMC) was simple without being simplistic.
The show's 2010 pilot was a spare, taut story that chronicled one man's attempt to comprehend the catastrophic plague that had destroyed the world while he was in a coma. It moved with fluid grace and provided plenty of shocks and scares as it stealthily took on big themes like mortality, connection and the will to survive at any cost.
A third of the way into the show's second season, "The Walking Dead's" momentum had ground to a halt and its thinly drawn characters stood around a lot, explaining to each other once again what they would and wouldn't put up with and what they did and didn't believe. Factions and personalities waxed and waned, but it was hard to sustain much interest in any of it; watching bickering people stuck in the muck of Herschel Greene's farm often made me hope the undead would chomp all of them. (Except Daryl. Daryl is always the exception to everything. Thank God for Daryl.)
In any event, whole chunks of the second season were extremely different from the streamlined show we glimpsed during the high points of "The Walking Dead's" first season, which wasn't perfect but was as focused, energetic and quietly elegiac as good episode of "Star Trek" or a gripping Western.
The zombie gods must have listened to our prayers, because the good version of "The Walking Dead" is back.
It's not just that I didn't want someone to kill Lori during the first two episodes of Season 3 (she's been toned down a lot, thank goodness). It's not just that these two episodes had the kind of sustained momentum and solid construction that allowed me to forgive the occasional head-scratching moments (and there are only a couple of those in the first two hours of "The Walking Dead" Season 3). It's not just that the newest addition to the show, the sword-wielding Michonne (Danai Gurira), is every bit the badass I'd hoped for.
Here's the main thing: The show is no longer putting the cart before the zombified horse. In the past, I'd respected "The Walking Dead's" attempts to add depth to the characters without being particularly enamored of the results. Not only did the muddled, incoherent attempts to add dimension to Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his unhappy band of survivors end up making some characters less sympathetic or interesting, the slow-going farm stay effectively drained the story of much of its tension. "Hey, remember that zombie apocalypse?" I would shout at the screen. "Remember how that was more interesting than seeing Lori and Rick or Shane and Rick or anyone and Rick fight?"
If you shouted similar things, know that our pleas were heard. Of course, during Season 2, there were signs -- in episodes like "Nebraska," among others -- that gave me hope that executive producer Glen Mazzara, who replaced the show's original creative leader, Frank Darabont, would put this zombie-infested house in order. So far, so good: If the first two hours are any indication, Season 3 of "The Walking Dead" may be the most satisfying year yet.
That's partly because the efforts to humanize and add detail to the characters happen in the margins of solidly entertaining, well-paced stories, and the characters don't do dumb things that make me lose respect for them. Rick and Lori are never going to be like "Breaking Bad's" Walt and Jesse, so it's wise to accept those limitations. As the season gets underway, "The Walking Dead" provides meaty genre stories with small, deft character moments, rather than the reverse. The show is, as it should be, freak-you-out entertainment that is nicely (if you'll pardon the word) fleshed out.
It's my bet that most viewers will come away with increased respect for Rick, who unambiguously took control of the group at the end of Season 2. The question is no longer who will lead the pack, but what that leadership role does to the person in charge, which is the kind of difficult (and unanswerable) question that gives the show a necessary dose of ambiguity.
A well-calibrated dose of ambiguity is one thing, but one of the biggest dangers for "The Walking Dead" (or any other zombie tale) is creeping fatalism: If the destroyed world is too believably and unrelievedly grim, you start to wonder why the survivors don't just off themselves. Wisely, Mazzara and his writers have varied the emotional palette here and there; the group doesn't just rack up some wins, they actually laugh once in a while and they are able to enjoy or at least tolerate each other's company. Of course, all these good things could start to fall apart once Season 3 settles into a groove, but the narrative unity that these two episodes show makes me think the drama's meandering tendencies and frustrating inconsistencies will be less problematic than they were in the past.
This season, there are intimations that the survivors may be getting a tad too comfortable with the constant slaying of human-ish bodies. When does that reflexive habit stray into something more callous and even murderous? The second episode telegraphs some answers to that question a little obviously, but I hope the moral erosion of "good" people is a theme that show continues to explore.
Tactical wins, taut storytelling and zombies munching tasty, tasty braaaaains: All that plus the addition of Michonne and David Morrissey as the Governor in upcoming episodes make me pretty damned happy that "The Walking Dead" is back.
Check out my colleague Chris Harnick's interview with executive producer Glen Mazzara.
Ryan McGee and I discussed "The Walking Dead" (along with "Nashville," "Arrow," "Dexter" and "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog") in this week's Talking TV podcast, which you can find here and embedded below. Other Talking TV podcasts can be found on this site and on iTunes.
"The Walking Dead" Season 3 premieres on Sunday, October 14 at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.