The Walking Dead

Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC. Four episodes into the first season.

As monsters go, zombies aren’t particularly interesting. Zombies don’t reason; they don’t remember; they don’t have any kind of motivation beyond a drive to eat your brains. Exceptions abound, of course—one classic deviation immediately leaps to mind—but in general, zombies are simply ravenous monsters pointlessly and inexorably overwhelming the human race.

The interesting thing about zombie apocalypse stories (if there is an interesting thing, which there sometimes isn’t) is the way the non-zombies react, how they handle the collapse of society, the formation of small, fragile cells of survivors. Zombie stories tend to be depressing, but zombies aren’t the half of it. The depressing thing—the riveting, dramatic thing—is how quickly civilization disintegrates, how rapidly the surviving humans lose their humanity.

The Walking Dead, AMC’s new TV adaptation of the intensely dark comic book series, is consistently good at dramatizing zombies. The depiction of living people is a little more scattered—sometimes heartrendingly powerful, sometimes downright obtuse—which is a problem because the survivors, the actual characters, have to be the legs of the show. There are definitely more right notes than wrong here, and the production values are incredible, but the wrong notes are still discordant enough to give me pause.

The hero of The Walking Dead is small-town police officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who awakens from a coma to discover that mindless but insatiable corpses have overrun the world. Scrounging what he can, he manages to find his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), among a small band of survivors camped outside the ruins of Atlanta. The group is led by Rick’s former partner, Shane (Jon Bernthal), who has mixed feelings about Rick’s appearance. He and Lori, distraught and believing Rick to be dead, had struck up an affair, and although Shane’s happy to see his friend Rick alive, he can’t help but be disappointed by the abrupt end to his relationship with Lori.

The extent of Shane and Lori’s affair—and whether Shane deliberately misled Lori about Rick’s demise—has been left quite vague, but I prefer to believe that both parties sincerely believed that the man they both loved had died along with virtually everyone else at the hospital, not to mention countless others across the country, if not the world. The presumption of passing judgment on where someone manages to find comfort in the face of such desolation makes my skin crawl, but I fear The Walking Dead is edging up to that. Can the writers be counted on to forgo slut shaming when they’ve drawn too many other characters with cartoonishly villainous features? A violently racist asshole who chooses to pick a wholly unnecessary fight with a black man when zombies are literally beating down the door; a violently sexist prick who viciously beats his wife in front of half a dozen witnesses and probably molests his prepubescent daughter as well—these characters aren’t just outrageously unlikable; they’re dramatically unbelievable. Even racist assholes and sexist pricks have some sense of self-preservation, but these two-dimensional freaks seem have to have absolutely no reason to exist beyond creating artificial conflict and inciting audience dislike. That’s lazy writing.

And that’s doubly disappointing considering how skillfully creator Frank Darabont and his fellow writers and directors have crafted drama from other scenarios. First, the bare aesthetics of the clashes with the zombies are masterful. The use of heightened ambient sound, for example, is almost as agonizingly tense and nerve-wracking as that in No Country for Old Men—which is about the highest praise I can offer on that front—and the zombies are convincingly grisly and frightening. The show has been labeled the goriest on non-premium TV by some, but in my opinion that’s overblown. Bones and the various permutations of CSI regularly offer far more repulsive corpses. But regardless, The Walking Dead isn’t gruesome purely for shock value. The horror quality goes far deeper than gross-out jolts.

And that’s what I want to see Darabont and company develop further. The pilot holds such promise. We meet Morgan Jones (unforgettably played by Lennie James), a widowed father of a young boy. As he explains the terrible outbreak to the confused, disoriented Rick, we realize that Morgan’s wife is among the shambling corpses wandering the neighborhood. At the episode’s climax, Morgan tries to summon the will to end her zombified existence, but he breaks down. He can’t do it. His beloved wife has lost her ability to recognize him or their son, her awareness of anything beyond hunger, her memories, her passions, everything that made her her. And yet when Morgan looks at her, part of him can’t bear to accept that. None of that is articulated, but James’s poignant performance, the elegantly cinematic direction, and Bear McCreary’s meditative score express the hideousness of a body outliving its soul with heartbreaking clarity.

The successive episodes don’t have that kind of sustained power (and it remains to be seen whether any of the actors are as impressive as James), but they have their moments. The mingled joy and despair on Shane’s face when he first catches sight of Rick, the volatile anger of another man mourning a brother whom no one else will miss, the newfound closeness between sisters bonded through loss, the nightmarish attack on the camp at a moment when everyone had believed himself safe—these scenes crackle without any need for contrived histrionics. They point toward what The Walking Dead could be and sometimes is: the kind of raw, visceral drama that speaks to the head and the heart and the adrenaline-consuming gut.