'The Walking Dead' Still Has an Identity Crisis

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The hit AMC show can't decide if it's a character drama or a blood-and-guts horror story

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Last night's second-season premiere episode of AMC's hit zombie series The Walking Dead finds the series caught in the same identity crisis that plagued its first season. Is the series aiming to be a sharply-written, character-driven drama, like sister shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad? Or is The Walking Dead simply content to offer an hour of generically gory thrills each week? Unfortunately, "What Lies Ahead"—an entertaining but slight episode of television—indicates the former. Much like the first season, there's plenty to admire about the series: an intriguing premise, excellent production values, and a generally likable cast. But it's hard to shake the feeling that The Walking Dead could be—and should be—so much more.

"What Lies Ahead" picks up shortly after last season's finale left off, with the remaining survivors banding together under the general leadership of series protagonist Rick Grimes. Our heroes' best hope, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, self-destructed at the end of season one, so they've turned to Plan B: a 125-mile trek to Fort Benning. This being The Walking Dead, the Fort Benning plan goes awry pretty much immediately when the group's RV breaks down on a long stretch of highway.

From there, "What Lies Ahead" alternates between zombie-killing action and bland, repetitive characterization. In between all the blood and guts, we spend a lot of time retreading the building blocks of The Walking Dead's first season: Rick struggles to find the best way to protect his family and lead the rest of the survivors. Shane guiltily pines for Lori after their aborted love affair. Andrea snaps at everyone and complains about how terrible it is to be alive. These subplots were all featured extensively in the first season of The Walking Dead, and it's getting harder to ignore the fact that none of the series' characters has grown or changed at all since they were first introduced.

Fortunately, even as the series spins its wheels in the writing department, it continues to excel at its most obvious virtue: striking visual storytelling. It was widely reported earlier this year that the second season of The Walking Dead would suffer from budgetary cuts, but if less money was spent filming "What Lies Ahead," it doesn't show; this is a fantastic-looking, stylishly-directed episode of television. Perhaps unsurprisingly, "What Lies Ahead" is at its best by far when the threat of a zombie attack is near. Early in the episode, there's a great action sequence involving the survivors scrambling to hide under corpses and cars as dozens of zombies stumble past. A later gory scene, in which two characters nervously analyze the contents of a zombie's stomach and discover that it's been eating woodchuck, not human, is played with a ghoulish black comedy that The Walking Dead would be smart to try more often.

With 12 episodes left in the season, what could improve The Walking Dead? A recent book analyzing modern horror quotes famed horror director Wes Craven on the best way to frighten viewers: "The first monster that an audience has to be scared of is the filmmaker. They have to feel in the presence of someone not confined by the normal rules of propriety and decency." The creative minds behind The Walking Dead could learn a lot from Craven's advice. For a show about the ragged edges of humanity, The Walking Dead's storytelling (and particularly its dialogue) is by-the-book and irritatingly clichéd (did we really need two separate, teary monologues delivered to a statue of Jesus on the cross in a single episode?). With the possible exception of Rick, none of these characters are complex or well-defined enough to care about yet. If The Walking Dead wants to be scary, its creative team needs to take some real risks—with the characters, with the story, or with the genre—in its upcoming episodes.

But for now, The Walking Dead's virtues are plentiful enough to suffer through its vices. There's certainly time to right the ship; after all, "What Lies Ahead" has the unenviable task of both recapping the six episodes of the first season and setting the stage for the 12 episodes yet to come. But if the series doesn't evolve from the bare bones of its premise, it won't stay compelling for long.

Note: For the sake of those who haven't read The Walking Dead comics series, please avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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