The casualty count on “The Walking Dead” remains high — and that’s just its showrunners. Scott M. Gimple is the latest to step into the breach, after Glen Mazzara supplanted Frank Darabont — who developed the show — and guided it to become TV’s highest-rated hour in key demos. The new season’s first two episodes move much more assuredly than the zombies who populate the program, reflecting minor stylistic changes, perhaps — with a higher horror/splatter quotient, as if someone got that memo — but nothing that threatens to prevent fans of AMC’s blood-soaked gravy train from dutifully answering the dinner bell.
If ratcheting up the horror and gore seems like a no-brainer, it’s worth noting “Walking Dead” is one of those series that lure guys in with exploding heads and entrails, before getting them hooked on the characters and relationships. The adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels — which regularly departs from the source —has also been particularly bold in shedding key players, adding a welcome uncertainty to the proceedings, while deftly reloading with strong new talent.
As viewers of season three will remember, Rick (Andrew Lincoln, recovering from that unfortunate loony-bin subplot) has inherited a lot of survivors from the town overseen by the Governor, creating a vast community within the prison where the core group had taken refuge from the “walkers” lurking outside. The addition of all those new faces, however, has introduced an element that almost feels like the old “Star Trek,” with the newcomers mirroring the red-shirted crewmen who beamed down to the planet but seldom beamed back up.
The premiere, directed by makeup effects wizard Greg Nicotero, does feature one impressive action sequence, as a group leaves the compound to forage for supplies.
Still, the most compelling portion of these hours is more philosophical than visceral — hinging on the notion that death has become such an ever-present part of their lives, some survivors are so numbed they must question whether they can still care, feel or allow themselves the luxury of grief. That’s played out in part through Rick’s relationship with his young son Carl (Chandler Riggs), who has grown up mighty fast, both literally and figuratively.
The second hour, meanwhile, features a new threat inside the prison, while the sword-wielding MIchonne (Danai Gurira, looking pretty striking on horseback) continues to search outside for the Governor — with her evident discomfort around people reflecting one of the stronger moments.
The cast, in fact, seems to be at an especially good juncture with Gurira, Chad L. Coleman as Tyreese and fellow “The Wire” alumnus Lawrence Gilliard Jr. as part of the group.
Of course, in “Walking Dead”-speak, viewers are perhaps well advised not to get too attached to any one individual — or producer. But at this point, the series/cottage industry that is “The Walking Dead” — if unlikely to ever enjoy the street cred of something like “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” — clearly appears bigger than any of its expendable parts, and unlike those zombies, has a whole lot of life left in it.