'The Walking Dead'

Gene Page/AMC

Keep fearing the zombies, but don't worry about the quality of the AMC series despite the offscreen setbacks.

There's nothing like a rock-solid premiere to make doubts disappear, and there were a lot of them floating around The Walking Dead, last year's out-of-nowhere hit.

The zombie drama was AMC's highest-rated premiere to date, with 5.3 million people watching last season's opener. It hovered near the 5 million mark until topping off at 6 million for the season finale.

Then executive producer and writer Frank Darabont was ousted, and there were worries that a slashed budget would add to the upheaval and ultimately ruin one of the true fairy-tale performances on television last season.

So much for that.

Maybe you can't kill a series that has already beaten long odds such as standing out in a genre field, particularly one so overdone as zombies. Maybe whatever elements made Walking Dead so compelling -- and there were a lot of them -- just couldn't be stopped by outside forces.

As for the season-two premiere, it's 90 minutes of skill, bringing viewers back into the story without missing a beat, adding immediate depth to characters, ratcheting up suspense (if that was even possible) and expanding the emotional palette of the series. No small task, any of those. Oh, and there's more than one shocker mixed in.

Of course, Darabont's fingerprints are all over Walking Dead, but the first two episodes of the new season are a reminder that the initial mix, the first shot of freshness the series had in it, remains. And that winning combination from season one is a foundation that just might be too firmly established for anyone to muck up.

What that means is nobody should be looking for failure in season two. They should shake off the worries that popped up off-camera between seasons and just focus on the series.

In season one, the zombie apocalypse was at hand -- the series began with Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) getting shot then waking up in the hospital as seemingly one of the last people standing in rural King County, Ga. He led a ragtag group of survivors on a search for -- what? That was always a key mystery. Mere survival? Friends and family? Answers to how it all happened or an understanding of how widespread the events were? A cure for whatever toxin turned people into zombies? A concerted government response?

That the answers to these were often murky was part of the allure because all of those questions had one thing -- hope -- as a foundation. People's will to survive, to believe things are going to get better, was a core of the show. By the sixth episode (the first-season finale), the Centers for Disease Control was destroyed, and so was hope.

In season two, the early themes are, not surprisingly, hopelessness and doubt. That's human nature and thus real. Mixed in is an exploration of faith -- one of those twists that have broadened the scope of the series.

Rick is still in charge, but his partner from the sheriff's department, Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), is feeling like a third wheel. In season one, he thought Rick had died from a zombie invasion at the hospital where he was recovering and subsequently started a relationship with Rick's wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), while mentoring Rick's son, Carl (Chandler Riggs). Rick's reappearance has left Shane feeling like he might be better off on his own, a feeling that also crops up in Andrea (Laurie Holden), who is still recovering from losing her sister to the zombies and was hoping to die in peace at the CDC before Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) stepped in to save her life.

Also feeling antsy is T-Dog (Robert Singleton), who tries to convince Dale to leave as well. "Why are we on the side of the road like live bait?" he says at one point. Feeling vulnerable is a key underlying element to Walking Dead because the group of human stragglers begins to run into ever-larger loads of zombies. That feeling of being outnumbered, of struggling with futility, is ever-present.

So are the requisite chills and pulse-raising moments (the series is particularly good at shocking the viewer without actually showing horrifying acts -- by lingering on a blood-soaked and splattered baby seat, for instance).

Essential to the expansion in season two is the aforementioned character growth. This season will find redneck hothead Daryl (Norman Reedus) taking more of a leadership role as he evolves. Glenn (Steven Yeun), the plucky loner, has a surprising redirection as well.

There are 13 episodes in season two vs. season one's six, which should allow the writers (including new showrunner Glen Mazzara and comics creator and executive producer Robert Kirkman) to let the series breathe -- without losing the crowd-pleasing element of killing zombies, of course.

Walking Dead is at its best when it can go beyond conventions of the genre and raise the emotional stakes. Making the series an adult drama with depth and nuance is what attracted non-zombie-movie fans in the first place. Early in season two, it's very clear that keeping the dramatic heft is of primary concern.

Above all else, Walking Dead hasn't lost the most important ingredient in its strangely successful recipe: It's thrilling.

Airdate: 9 p.m. Sundays (AMC)
Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Robert Singleton, Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun
Writer-producers: Glen Mazzara, Robert Kirkman

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