Look beyond the carnage and high-octane action of "The Walking Dead," and you find a pure heart of humanity on the edge.
It's been the reason why this drama (returning 9 p.m. today, AMC) is more than just another tale of zombies. But after two and a half seasons, even the "Dead" has to progress beyond just surviving daily in a world without rules.
The current storyline pits Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his group of survivors against the fenced-in community of Woodbury, where residents live an idyllic life (or at least relatively so): They are safe from the threat of zombie because of well-armed security patrolling the gates. Leading the community is the mysterious man known merely as The Governor (David Morrisey in a keenly crafted performance).
The story of Woodbury is now taking "Dead" to a different place, facing a far more dangerous menace than the zombies.
The result of this is mixed in the season opener. While all the favored elements are there — it opens with a fight-to-the-death pit — the opener is slightly unsatisfying.
Part of the blame goes to the delay between new episodes. "Dead" left the air for its mid-season break almost three months ago. Getting wrapped up in what happened then and applying it to what's airing tonight takes some memory work.
It's asking a lot.
Also Rick losing grip with reality after the death of his wife — while a novel idea in the comic-book series — doesn't translate well for television.
Rick has been the touchstone in the madness of "Dead." If he can't rise to the occasion anymore, "Dead" is weakened and damaged.
"Dead" is hardly beyond being fixed. For the first time, though, it is showing signs of not being quite as engaging as it can be.
"Dead" has a lot to live up to. The first half of this season had big events — deaths, introducing new characters and ushering in the whole Woodbury story. Perhaps the problem is the second half has the daunting task of picking up the pieces — and that's a tall order.
Score: HHH (out of 5)
Terry Morrow may be reached at 865-342-6445 or firstname.lastname@example.org.