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Television Review

Holding out hope for the living in ‘Dead’

From left: Laurie Holden, Norman Reedus, Jon Bernthal, Melissa Suzanne McBride, Sarah Wayne Callies, and Chandler Riggs are human survivors among the zombies in “The Walking Dead.’’ From left: Laurie Holden, Norman Reedus, Jon Bernthal, Melissa Suzanne McBride, Sarah Wayne Callies, and Chandler Riggs are human survivors among the zombies in “The Walking Dead.’’ (gene page/amc)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 14, 2011

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‘The Walking Dead’’ has gained the reputation of a top-notch TV series, based on the six-episode first season. An Entertainment Weekly cover story last December labeled it “THE BEST NEW SHOW ON TV,’’ it landed on a bunch of Top 10 lists, and it was nominated for both 2011 Writer’s Guild and Golden Globe awards.

So I should say up front that I’m not among the many who think especially highly of the AMC show, which returns for a 13-episode second season on Sunday night at 9. I still need convincing that “The Walking Dead’’ is anything more than a hackneyed apocalyptic melodrama with borscht-like guts spilling out all over the place. After a suspenseful start, the first season seemed to devolve into pat, flat writing and empty histrionics. There were lots of tears, terrors, and close calls, but I nonetheless felt less and less curious about these characters as time went on. The abusive husband, the racist pig, the redneck - none had much depth or originality.

After watching the first two episodes of season 2, I’m still in need of persuasion. “The Walking Dead’’ is engaging enough, as the walkers flock across the Southern landscape, limping haltingly but without conscience, foraging for warm bodies. They are idiot robots, except when it comes to stalking down people, rats, horses, and deer. You can’t help but study these grotesque, vacant beings, and thrill as they shuffle anarchically onward, as primitive as TV’s vampires are slick and cultured. I understand why AMC raked in huge-for-cable ratings last year, including 6 million viewers for the season finale. The show is a grim spectacle, and juicy bait for end-of-the-world addicts such as myself.

But the living people in “The Walking Dead,’’ those uninfected with the mysterious virus, they are far less compelling. I understand that the show is based on a comic series, but still: This is a TV storytelling, thus providing the opportunity and the obligation for character development. I’d been wondering if reported changes in the “Walking Dead’’ writers room, as well as the departure of executive producer and writer Frank Darabont, might result in noticeable improvements to the shallow scripting.

That doesn’t appear to be the case. The redundancies in the first two episodes are wearing, as heartstrings are pulled when one and then another child is endangered.

The premiere picks up with the survivors after they’ve left the exploded Centers for Disease Control. There’s still a lot of triangular tension between Rick (Andrew Lincoln), his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and Shane (Jon Bernthal), Rick’s former partner and Lori’s former lover. Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) helped to save Andrea (Laurie Holden) in the finale, but she’s still feeling self-destructive after having killed her zombie sister. Next week, as the band of survivors travels on, and some members consider breaking off, a few new survivors will enter the mix. Perhaps they’ll add some needed character appeal.

The cast of “The Walking Dead’’ features mostly unknown actors, which serves a purpose - the same purpose it served on “Lost.’’ The actors don’t have good-guy or bad-guy baggage, so we really don’t have preconceptions about where their characters will stand on the morality spectrum. And the show - which is about a group of strangers - stays an ensemble show, instead of a vehicle for a familiar star. But while each of the “Walking Dead’’ actors looks right - Lincoln’s face is that of a leader - none has a lot of distinction and personality, what the “Lost’’ cast had in spades. Yes, I root for Rick, Lori, Shane, and the others as they seek answers and safety, but only because they are human, and, alas, not because I’m attached to any single one of them.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

THE WALKING DEAD

Starring: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden, Norman Reedus, Chandler Riggs

On: AMC

Time: Sunday night, 9-10:30