By Ken Tucker
October 16, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

The Walking Dead returned on Sunday night for a second season of running away from/killing zombies. The pace and depth of Robert Kirkman’s source comic-book was significantly more swift and detailed than this opening episode, which pretty much just made sure we knew the living cast is beating a hasty retreat from Atlanta and heading for Fort Benning. Really, if it wasn’t for Daryl’s crossbow (which I’ve come to think of as a character every bit as vivid as Daryl or any other human in the show), I wouldn’t have been entirely sure which side to root for.

Character development? These people are, for the most part, unchanged — they’re The Walking Living. Sheriff Rick is still stiff-upper-lippy unless a member of his family is in danger (more about that later). Shane is still perpetually low-boiled-steamed and has had a “meltdown” over the continued yearning he has for Sheriff Rick’s wife, while Lori herself looks perpetually startled and emotionally torn. Andrea is still understandably upset over the death of her sister (mere days have gone by since that event), while Dale’s face seems to have frozen into a look of frantic intensity, whether he’s trying to comfort Andra, or is scrounging for spare parts to repair his Winnebago.

The gross-out scenes continue to be impressive; Sheriff Rick using a rock to bash two zombie heads flat was squishily satisfying — it constituted bloody realism in this horror-story context. So was Andrea’s piquant use of a screwdriver-into-eye-ball defensive move.

But this, AMC’s biggest ratings hit, is starting to look like its most lightweight piece of programming, woefully lacking in the sort of depth of character, twists of plot, and narrative momentum that gives Breaking Bad and Mad Men both their gravity and their spark. Perhaps The Walking Dead is pacing itself, since its episode order has been more than doubled. But that’s the producers’ problem — we need to get invested in the new season with more decisive drama than what were were given this night.

Mild Spoiler Alert: You may not want to read what follows if you haven’t watched the season premiere of The Walking Dead.

The disappearance of young Sophia was less suspenseful than inevitable — why wouldn’t a kid get lost on one of these frightening expeditions? And it led to the most trite moment in the series thus far: Sheriff Rick in a church, praying to Jesus after coughing up a manly-man’s preface — “I’m not much of a believer” — and asking for “some indication I’m doing the right thing.” I’m not ridiculing anyone’s attempt at faith here; indeed, I think the entire concept of a “walking dead” contingent cries out for some spiritual analysis: What does it mean, theologically, to be a zombie? At what point does the soul leave the body? Alas, this was not on the show’s mind. Therefore, I’m simply saying that The Walking Dead needed to dramatize Rick’s plea to the Almighty in a manner we haven’t seen in a thousand other TV shows and movies.

As for the final scene, the wounding of little Carl: It was the best-directed moment of the premiere (by Gwyneth Horder-Payton from a script by now-walking-dead producer Frank Darabont), with the positioning of the beautiful deer and the shot that pierced both animal and boy. It was more frightening than any of the zombie moments.

Next week we’ll meet some new characters, and the cast and producers have already given interviews asserting that this will change the dynamic, making our core characters invaders themselves, intruders who threaten the (relative) peace of others. I hope it adds elements of drama that will enliven the series.

Agree? Disagree?

Twitter: @kentucker