'The Walking Dead' Season 4: TV Review

"The Walking Dead" season four starts Sunday on AMC
Scott Gimple takes over as the series' third showrunner in four seasons. But his plan to let the show breathe and spend more time on various characters is a wise decision that, in the first two episodes, already pays off and has the promise of a better, stronger season to come.

Even with -- or maybe because of -- a new showrunner, season four of "The Walking Dead" starts off as strong as ever and promises to build more character development throughout the cast. And yes, the thrills and gore remain.

It may be that in some scenarios, the image of showrunner as the all-powerful magical tour guide to your favorite show is just a tad overblown. The Walking Dead enters its fourth season on Sunday with its third showrunner.

In truth, all of them have been good. The show has continued to get better. People flock to it like (and no, I won't make the easy comparison there) well, like they ought to for a buzzed-about, watch-in-real-time television event.

And if the first two episodes are any indication, not only is the series not missing a beat, it's actually growing into itself to allow new storytelling possibilities. That's an enviable position for Scott Gimple to find himself in as the next in line.

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Instead of worrying about if he's the next to go, or if he can follow Glen Mazzara as well as Mazzara followed Frank Darabont, Gimple -- who has been with the show since the second season and has penned a number of great episodes -- is able to take a series that's been around long enough that people have a familiarity with its world and tinker with it. That's got to be exciting.

In Gimple's case, he's apparently putting an emphasis on broadening the characters. That's a welcome and much-needed addition to an already very good series. A good storyteller will take every opportunity to bring the audience closer to the characters, to explore the backstory of those characters and perhaps to change or enhance the audience's opinions of them -- and, once that's accomplished, in the case of The Walking Dead, to perhaps kill them off later.

Not that fans already haven't felt the loss of characters they love (or loathe), but when the audience is allowed to form deeper bonds with the characters, the emotional wallop of their deaths will be more visceral. For example, season two was probably the weakest so far because the storyline got bogged down by the love triangle between Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane (Jon Bernthal), which was not only wishy-washy but didn't allow for the growth of other characters. It also damaged many viewers' perceptions of Lori, so that when her death occurred it lacked the emotional impact one might expect from the passing of such a central character -- that sense of being gutted (though the way it was constructed and carried out was excellent).

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Whoever goes this season -- and you know some will -- we're likely to react more strongly when it happens. A great series -- and The Walking Dead could conceivably make that leap -- is heavily reliant on strong character development. Right at this moment, having not seen a frame of the fourth season, most people would probably be devastated if Daryl (Norman Reedus) or Glenn (Steven Yeun) were to perish. Why? Because the series has done a good job at making them intriguing, and a lot of that has to do with their developed backstories (and in Glenn's case, the fact that his solo-survival skills, humor and niceness translated instantly and hooked another fan favorite in Maggie, played by Lauren Cohan).

In the first two episodes, Gimple and his writers have managed to milk more backstory from a number of characters, even if it's done with minimal screen time (as is deftly demonstrated with Michonne, played by Danai Gurira, in the second hour).

What has made The Walking Dead so compelling as a series is that it transcends the genre. It's not really a show about zombies so much as it's a show about the living. Being able to breathe, to allow characters to do more than just creatively eviscerate the skulls of zombies, is what makes it unique.

As we enter season four, we find Rick and company enjoying a relatively quiet life at the prison. Rick seems at least tenuously recovered from his walk to the edge of sanity, finding solace in gardening. Daryl has assumed more of a leadership role (Rick doesn't even carry a gun anymore). And everything's humming along. All the newbies -- many of them having fled from the Governor and his Woodbury sanctuary, but others collected outside the gates and saved -- are enjoying good meals, a roof over their heads, and a sense of community that not even the faux Shangri-la of Woodbury could provide. There are more kids now -- not just baby Judy. Even Killer Carl seems to be getting back where Rick wants him -- to being a kid again. "Why don't you wear your hat anymore," Michonne asks him. "It's not a farming hat," Carl says.

See? They're just peaceful farmers now.

Uh, yeah. You know better than that.

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But no spoilers here. And just to emphasize the direction Gimple is taking the show, despite tons of zombie action, it's not like Rick and the gang run to their cars, motorcycles and horses and race away. Some of that frenetic back and forth of season three is missing, but not the action. The Walking Dead still has its signature look -- ultra-tight shots that create panic because you're absolutely sure a zombie is RIGHT THERE. It can still freak you out without even spilling any brains.

What feels most promising is that by establishing more of the myriad characters, you just know that once you get to know them and their stories it's going to be a lot harder to lose them. And that's good for the drama.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine