It's an understood trope in zombie flicks that, while the action is nominally about pesky undead wanting to eat the main characters, mostly it's about the interaction among the humans that drives the plot. After all, zombies are limited in their range, being unable to speak or emote much beyond a plaintive moan. They are not in the least bit sexy (like, say, their vampire cousins) and are transparent and relentlessly compulsive about their single need: They want to eat you, and nothing else much matters.
Zombie apocalypse survivors in for the long haul have deserved and finally gotten their own television series in "The Walking Dead," now in its second season on AMC (Sundays at 7 p.m.) Nominally a soap opera with zombies and guns, "The Walking Dead" is based on Robert Kirkman's series of graphic novels and centers around a group of survivors in Georgia. At the end of the six-episode first season, what seemed like a good idea of a pilgrimage to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta ended in a Dr. No-like self-destruction of the place by the one, slightly mad scientist left.
Oh well, back into the vehicles and onward to ... wherever. As the new season kicked off, we find Rick (Andrew Lincoln) still wearing his sheriff's deputy uniform leading the band of argumentative survivors as he works to shore up his marriage to Laura (Sarah Wayne Callies) and frets over his son Carl (Chandler Riggs) who, oops, is shot accidentally by a guy hunting deer in episode 2. Meanwhile, Rick's frenemy Shane (Jon Bernthal) has had enough of trying to forget about the affair he had with Laura while Rick was presumed dead and makes plans to leave the group - perhaps with Andrea (Laurie Holden), another malcontent who sort of wishes she'd been blown up back at the CDC.
Got all that? Sometimes, all this interpersonal drama takes up so much space that we can be lured into forgetting about the damned zombies altogether, but they always reappear to remind us that, yeah, zombies are still gumming up the works from the cities to the deep woods. When that happens, it's best to have at your side redneck crossbow expert Daryl Nixon (Norman Reedus). Once Daryl gets over the fact that he's more or less stuck with this gang, we start to see a more sensitive side to him which manifests itself in his gruffly telling several characters to just chill the hell out. For Daryl, zombies are mostly an annoyance, perhaps along the lines of anti-gun lobbyists and other liberals in the old world. When one of the walkers only half dispatched with a baseball bat moans its moan, Daryl just says "shut up!" and puts an arrow through its head.
So much for being scared by zombies.
Most Z-flicks expend a lot of energy expressing various forms of amazement and denial about the awful state of things. In "The Walking Dead," we're already moving into the acceptance phase, with Daryl as our guide - at least insofar as dealing with how things really are goes. The only thing that really annoys Daryl is when emotion threatens to trump the hard business of whacking the walkers, even if said walker was recently a close family member.
"The Walking Dead" has gained quite a following, and while zombie stuff has been popular for years, it's hard not to note that the time is ripe for a resurgence. The great recession may not be as bad as a zombie plague, but there's a strong sense of ruination about the country right now, and if an apocalypse featuring hungry undead is what it takes to get out from under that mortgage and credit card debt, well ... at least that's one silver lining. Unlike many of the world's problems, zombies can often be dispatched with a minimum of fuss, and you don't need a committee or a jury to make that decision. Politics, ethnic divisions, wealth disparity and any of the other issues dividing us now are all stripped away; it's just the living vs. the dead, and there's an odd solace in that crisp delineation.
So thanks, zombies, for helping bring into stark relief what's truly important in what's, for my money, the best hour on television this fall.
Summit Daily editor is also the author of "Zombie Road Trip," an e-book told from the point of view of a pair of zombies. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.