TV's Most Improved: These Two Genre Shows

6:00 AM PST 10/23/2012 by Tim Goodman

"The Walking Dead" and "Dexter" come back from rocky seasons to show how it's done.

In a world where genre series like FX's American Horror Story, HBO's Game of Thrones, ABC's Once Upon a Time, NBC's Revolution and Showtime's revitalized Dexter are all doing well, there's nothing quite like being a zombie.

AMC's The Walking Dead continues to be cable's biggest weapon, even if it dropped 1.4 million viewers in its second airing Oct. 21 -- about the total audience many cable series would kill for -- still picking up 9.5 million viewers and rising to an astounding 14 million after two encore airings the same night.

There's no great mystery to this spike. Viewers are constantly behind on series, especially those on cable. Latecomers who hear enough buzz will rent a season or two and marathon through them. Once caught up -- and hooked -- they turn out for each new season, bloating the numbers. It's the DVD effect, plain and simple.

Because of those excellent numbers, it's safe to say Walking Dead is -- you know it's coming -- feasting on the competition and has no doubt kept the heat on programmers at other networks to come up with something equally devastating.

Just don't do more zombies. Because chances are you'd get the mix wrong.

Walking Dead's first six-episode season was a real enigma. Fans of the source material would frequently worry about the direction it was going. Hard-core zombie-film fans bellyached about the relative lack of action. And for people who didn't like horror, the concept was a nonstarter.

But what Walking Dead did in that first season, fueled by Frank Darabont's directorial vision, was create an immediately visceral experience and establish the template the series continues to run on: the notion that this dystopian, mysteriously postapocalyptic zombie wasteland would be about not the dead but the living -- about how one man tries to keep the social fabric from tearing and face the limits of humanity and morality.

In its second season, while ratings skyrocketed (and AMC and Darabont parted ways), the added episodes -- 13 instead of six -- strained the writers' ability to get the pace right. The battle between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) versus Shane (Jon Bernthal) for control and clash of philosophies took too much time, derailing the character development of others.

But despite the learning curve, Walking Dead was addictive because it was relentlessly entertaining, and more and more non-horror fans came on board. Once the writers began to grasp the complexities of an ensemble cast, the series picked up, and some characters rose from bit players to fan favorites.

And that's the key to Walking Dead's success: It has great characters. You could make an argument that some of the side characters have been more interesting than Rick, the focal point. And yet, at the start of season three -- continuing from the final episodes of season two -- Rick losing his moral compass and his growing frustration with the pack have made him more intriguing.

It's still early in season three, but already major advances in quality are evident. Characters such as Michonne (Danai Gurira) and The Governor (David Morrissey) and the return of Daryl's brother Merle (Michael Rooker) should add to the complexity and determine whether the writers have learned from season two's missteps. The bet here is they have, and Walking Dead will be primed to take a step up the ladder to greatness (at a time when others -- Boardwalk Empire, Treme -- might be slipping a rung).

As for Dexter, America's favorite serial killer cut his own throat last season -- the sixth -- with the worst episodes of the entire run. Beyond a complete creative whiff, the season didn't do what it needed to so badly: expose Dexter (Michael C. Hall). Sure, it happened in the final episode when sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) found out, but by then the series felt tired, pointless, so lame it needed a bullet. The near misses and almost-caught-him moments devalued the series' legacy. But shockingly, season seven, which by rights shouldn't be on anyone's radar, is making up for the transgressions by resetting the series. Deb knows who and what Dexter is. The battling impulses to arrest or help him have been played out smartly, and adding real risk has been immensely beneficial. Carpenter has been one of the saving graces of season seven.

The bigger issue facing Dexter is that it has already been renewed for an eighth and probably final season. So it's not like Dex is going to jail this year. By rights, eight seasons of scot-free serial killing is too much, so the goal should really be to cripple Dex's future by this season's end and set up a justified fate in the final season that will be rewarding to all.

None of this is to say Dexter still can't implode. The ask-but-don't-tell part of Deb's decision is working so far but still could become trite or simply unbelievable. It's a rare and refreshing comeback and proof that the living, breathing essence of serialized television can pay great dividends when the answer to, "What have you done for us lately?" is, "Improved tremendously after screwing up."

Airdates 9 p.m. Sundays (The Walking Dead, AMC; Dexter, Showtime)

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