Andrew Lincoln

"Here comes the bad part."

When you hear ominous words like these in a show as unflinchingly graphic and terrifying as AMC's The Walking Dead (Sunday, 9/8c), you know you're in trouble. Bad, of course, meaning good and gruesome — just how a zombie-phile likes it. Following a long hiatus and behind-the-scenes tumult including the departure of co-creator/director Frank Darabont, Dead returns very much alive and kicking, the gut-wrenching highlight of another busy TV weekend.

The second season opens with an intense 90-minute episode that finds our small band of desperate survivors back on the road, leaving Atlanta in hopes of finding a haven at Fort Benning, but stalled at another auto graveyard on an open freeway. Doesn't take long before hideous, horrific danger intrudes on their turf, with one scene so excruciatingly suspenseful I thought I'd broken a tooth trying not to scream when I first watched this with a small audience at a private screening. (I much prefer watching The Walking Dead in the privacy of my home, where I'm less embarrassed to yell back at the screen when someone does something stupid like emerging from a hiding place a fateful beat too soon.)

A world removed from the hyperactive self-indulgent overkill of FX's laughably berserk American Horror Story, this spare, bleak and truly horrifying saga of survival excels at unnerving you with silence, occasionally grossing you out by what you imagine (as in the "here comes the bad part" scene) even more than by what you actually see, which is already awful enough. As visceral an experience as it is to watch The Walking Dead, it would be meaningless if the emotional stakes weren't so high. As Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, all Gary Cooper-ish stoicism) tries to keep his group together, weathering all the burdens when things inevitably go wrong, you pray along with him for any sign that things might get easier.

But it's too early in the season for that, and the dark twists keep coming up to the very last shot. (Next week's equally strong episode also ends in a breathless cliffhanger.) If you have the stomach for it, The Walking Dead will leave you hungry for more. Good luck sleeping afterward.

[All six episodes of Walking Dead's first season will air Sunday starting at 2:30/1:30c. And if you're still not zombied out when it's all over, stick around for the live Talking Dead discussion after-show, led by G4's Chris Hardwick, at midnight/11c.]

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The weekend's other best bet comes from PBS' Masterpiece Mystery!, beginning a three-part series based on Kate Atkinson's wonderful Jackson Brodie bestsellers. In Case Histories (Sunday, 9/8c, check local schedules), we're introduced to the ex-cop turned private eye, played with seductively wry charisma by Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies, and the star of NBC's haunting midseason series Awake). Everyone seems to want Brodie on their case, and he's such good company it's easy to see why.

In this beguilingly entertaining movie (followed the next two Sundays by adaptations of One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News?), Brodie establishes a pattern of continually stumbling into overlapping mysteries that cleverly dovetail in satisfying and surprising ways. Operating a cash-poor shamus practice in Edinburgh, occasionally bringing along his precocious daughter from a broken marriage, Brodie is clearly more of a doer than a brooder. This engaging story begins when his altruistic good deed for a dotty old cat lady (Sylvia Sims) leads him into a cold case involving a little girl who vanished 30 years ago. He's also hounded by a grieving father to solve his daughter's recent brutal murder, which the police are still investigating. A request to locate yet another long-lost girl dredges up a new set of family skeletons. Brodie's cases tend to dwell as much on mysteries of the heart as on the usual blood-and-guts. It's a nice change and a great start to a delightful franchise.

On to the weekend's other highlights, night by night:

FRIDAY

Traveling the country to spotlight regional talents, the inaugural PBS Arts Fall Festival kicks off a nine-week showcase of Friday night specials with the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis production of the Gilbert & Sullivan crowd-pleaser H.M.S. Pinafore (9/8c, check local schedules), hosted by The Office's Rainn Wilson.

Friday's cult faves each deal with skeletons from the past. On the CW's underrated Nikita (8/7c), when the spy siren discovers her former Division partner (Bones' Katheryn Winnick) is alive, she enlists Michael on a rescue mission to Turkey. ... On Supernatural (the CW, 9/8c), Dean finds himself on trial by the Egyptian god Osiris for his past misdeeds, and one of the witnesses for the prosecution is former fellow demon-hunter Jo (Alona Tal). ... And as if he didn't already have enough on his damaged mind, Walter Bishop must face his long-buried demons on Fox's Fringe (9/8c) when he leaves his lab for the first time in years. Destination: Massive Dynamics headquarters in New York, where he and Olivia study old case files relating to his experiments with Cortexiphan back in the day.

So what else is on? ... Diane Sawyer travels to South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for a special 20/20 report (ABC, 10/9c) titled "A Hidden America: Children of the Plains," finding stories of hope amid the region's crushing poverty. ... Having Breaking Bad withdrawal? CBS' CSI: NY (9/8c) features a guest turn by Dean Norris (aka Walt's brother-in-law Hank) as an Internal Affairs officer investigating a shooting involving Danny and his rookie cops.

SATURDAY

Just for laughs: The puckishly outspoken late-night host Craig Ferguson takes to the stand-up stage for the Comedy Central special Does This Need To Be Said? (10/9c), filmed in Nashville, in which he indulges in the sort of "friendly cussing" he can't get away with on network TV. He also recounts his terror at meeting Dick Cheney when hosting the White House Correspondents dinner. ... Meanwhile, we hope Anna Faris' second time hosting NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30c) goes more like Melissa McCarthy's go-for-broke recent appearance than Ben Stiller's night of flop sweat last weekend. Drake is the first-time musical guest.

SUNDAY

The aforementioned Walking Dead and Case Histories are just the newest additions to an already full Sunday plate.

The season's best new drama, Showtime's Homeland (10/9c), doesn't miss a beat in its engrossing third episode, as enigmatic war hero (or is he?) Brody prepares his family — including rebellious daughter Dana — for a national TV interview in their not-quite-happy home. Meanwhile, Carrie's unauthorized operative Lynne, the mistress of a Saudi prince, continues her dangerous search for evidence of funding an Al-Qaeda plot. On Dexter (9/8c), as Deb adjusts uncomfortably to her new position of power — bet you didn't see that coming — Dexter has an unhappy epiphany when he encounters a grumpy old man (Ronny Cox in a fearlessly unsympathetic guest turn) who may be a lapsed serial killer once known as the legendary "Tooth Fairy." An appalled Dexter muses, "Can this really be the man who inspired me to keep a scrapbook?" And in the perverse chamber of horrors occupied by this season's mysterious Big Bads (Edward James Olmos and acolyte Colin Hanks), a new victim is being prepped for a truly ghastly public display.

Some powerful moments as well on HBO's Boardwalk Empire (9/8c), just renewed for a third season, as Gillian has a memorable showdown with the ailing Commodore, the hauntingly disfigured Richard Harrow bonds with Jimmy's wife Angela over art, Irish upstart Owen joins Nucky's staff — "A bit cheeky, isn't he?" wonders Margaret (and she's right) — and Chalky White is made to feel an outcast in his own home. There's liquor business going on as well, but it's the characters that really resonate this week.

OWN-ing it: Three of OWN's more recognizable series return to form a new Sunday night block: Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind (8/7c), featuring mogul Tyler Perry; Ask Oprah's All Stars (9/8c), with Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Suze Orman weighing in on "ultimate checklists" for viewers to live their (drumroll) best life; and Our America With Lisa Ling (10/9c), reporting on "Amateur Porn" on the Internet. Honestly, Oprah, get a room!

So what else is on? ... Discovery pays homage to Apple's late visionary in iGenius: How Steve Jobs Changed the World (8/7c), hosted by Mythbusters' Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman and featuring interviews with authors, critics, artists and colleagues reflecting on impact of Jobs' innovations in personal computing and media. ... Live coverage of the Martin Luther King Memorial dedication in Washington, D.C., including a performance by Aretha Franklin and an address by President Obama, will air on BET, sister channel Centric and BET.com at 11 am/ET. ... He'll forever be 24's Tony Almeida to us, but Carlos Bernard is joining CBS' CSI: Miami (10/9c) in a recurring role as Horatio's newest nemesis, Diego Navarro.

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