American Movie Channel (AMC) is a cable network that has become synonymous with award-winning programs like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” ever since the former series debuted in 2007. It’s also a channel that took a pretty big risk when it chose to bring ambitious horror series “The Walking Dead” aboard its critically lauded slate of shows in 2010.
Based on the successful comic series by writer and series producer Robert Kirkman, “The Walking Dead” promised to be a show that would introduce audiences to a zombie-filled apocalypse unlike popular films such as “28 Days Later” and “Zombieland,” which seem to repeatedly recycle many familiar tropes of the zombie genre. Initially, with “The Shawshank Redemption” director Frank Darabont’s pilot “Days Gone Bye,” it managed to introduce a sophisticated piece of horror filmmaking that hadn’t been seen on television for years.
Despite “Days Gone Bye” yielding AMC’s highest-rated debut for a series, this initial sophistication quickly petered out, and the rest of season’s quality varied while ratings still remained high. Now, after the much-publicized departure of series creator and executive producer Darabont following disputes over the show’s budget, “The Walking Dead” returns with its second season’s series premiere entitled “What Lies Ahead.”
Replacing Darabont is “The Shield” producer Glen Mazarra, who previously served as a writer and consulting producer for the first season’s final episode “Wildfire.” It appears right from the beginning of “What Lies Ahead” that Mazarra is working directly from the template Darabont setup in “Days Gone Bye.”
Kicking things off with a 20-minute, suspense-filled zombie ambush on a stretch of highway that resembles an automobile graveyard, “What Lies Ahead” throws us right back into the human drama that made the show a standout at the start of last season. The band of survivors, led by the astute Rick Grimes, believe they’ve survived a wave of flesh-eating zombies when suddenly a younger member of their clan is attacked by a member of the living dead.
Making her way out from a hiding place under an abandoned car, the young girl runs for cover in the woods running parallel to the highway with zombies in hot pursuit. Rick makes an effort to rescue the young girl, but loses her in the thick of the woods, much to the dismay of her mother and morale of the group.
And so what “What Lies Ahead” does is set things in motion – much like Darabont’s earlier pilot episode – starting the season with a hunt for this missing girl, which also brings about many of the group’s hidden tensions and frustrations. While many of the relationships between group members seemed to be forgotten by the end of last season, “What Lies Ahead” makes due on focusing the series back on what matters – the survivors’ struggles.
In particular, the tension between Rick’s best friend Shane and Rick’s wife, Lori, is slowly reaching a boiling point, with both seeming as if they could tell Rick about their past infidelity at any moment. Shane seems ready to split apart from the group as a means to cope with the fact that he can’t have Lori, leading to the episode’s key dramatic moment that proves this series may still have dramatic legs to stand on.
Overall, it’s a strong start for a show that had many worried when it boarded up its doors for the season last December, and especially after Frank Darabont was relieved of his duties as overall show-runner this past summer. While many critics are throwing out terms like “return to form” for this first episode, many will feel the need to wait and see where the season goes from here.
“Days Gone Bye” also offered similar hope for a season of engaging human drama set within a zombie apocalypse, but mostly forgot about that first part as the season went on. For now, “What Lies Ahead” acts as a promise of this season’s quality to viewers -they’ll just have to hope that it’s one that will be kept.