"See that?" shrieks one of the band of zombie-slaughtering survivors in AMC's The Walking Dead, eyes wide and wild in bloodthirsty pride as we bear graphic witness to a new way of dispatching a "walker" — this one tricked out in riot-gear armor, befitting the new season's prison setting. Yes, of course we see. It's not as if we can look away, much as we might want to at times. Granted, we might need to look twice, because in the tradition of the greatest horror-movie thrill rides, we're sometimes watching through our fingers as we climb the back of our chairs and sofas in revulsed shock and awe.
As if to answer last year's impatient cries among fans and some critics that there were too many contemplative lulls between the explosions of grisly carnage, Walking Dead kicks off its third season (Sunday, 9/8c) with full-on action, only occasionally stopping for breath — or possibly to sing a campfire song to soothe the beastly impulses of the savage zombie warrior. There is no respite in this march of death, no time for a picnic among this group of weary, filthy travelers. "We got to push a little bit harder," urges grizzled leader Rick (Andrew Lincoln) as he continues to deflect the attentions of his piteously guilt-ridden, self-loathing, very pregnant wife Laurie (Sarah Wayne Callies).
Rick is like a stoic, resolute Gary Cooper in a warped Western from some existential hell on earth. And the sprawling West Georgia Correctional Facility, where much of the season's first two episodes take place, is a wonderfully creepy metaphor for the prison of their unearthly existence among the relentless undead in a civilization beyond repair. This is a haunted chamber of horrors for sure, where the potential for gruesome hand-to-hand combat lurks around every dark corner and within every eerie cell. It's also a veritable shooting gallery where they all get plenty of target practice to take down the lurching walkers, in one gut-wrenching encounter after another, as the heroes seek safe harbor within these forbidding walls. It's not much of a spoiler to say Sunday's premiere ends on one of the show's most ghastly and upsetting sequences to date, giving even Rick pause in his gore-soaked zeal to do the right thing by those he's pledged to protect.
If you can handle it, The Walking Dead is grade-A terror, a far cry from the feeble "eeks" emanating from ABC's glossy supernatural wannabe 666 Park Avenue (Sundays, 10/9c).
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IT'S SHOWTIME: As always, the other top Sunday options include Showtime's one-two punch of top-drawer suspense, most especially Season 2 of the Emmy-winning Homeland (10/9c), which continues to ratchet up the tension. Last week's episode closed with the kind of jaw-dropping reveal any other show might choose to end an entire season on, as CIA analyst Saul (Mandy Patinkin) discovers the alarming truth about Brody (Damian Lewis) — from his own mouth, the videotaped confession he made before the suicide bombing that went so memorably awry. While we wait to see what Saul does with this intel as he makes his way home, and its impact on the wired-from-action Carrie (Claire Danes), Brody faces a potential Waterloo when sent back to Gettysburg to deal with the bomb-making "tailor" who fitted him for his infamous vest.
When the assignment fails to go as smoothly as planned — this being a thriller and all — the crisis inflames the tensions between Brody and his socially upwardly mobile wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin, her finest work to date this season), as she takes the public spotlight while also taking the private reins in this stormy relationship. She may be fed up, but we can't get enough of the riveting twists and turns of Homeland.
Meanwhile, as Dexter continues its terrific comeback season (9/8c), the title character (Michael C. Hall) is chafing under his sister's overly watchful eye. Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) thinks she can suppress Dexter's "dark passenger," unaware how the pressure on her brother is percolating into seriously murderous fantasies. As he pleads with her to let Dexter be Dexter, and she counters with the logical response, "It is a capital offense to be who you are," a new target emerges for his vigilante brand of justice. Can Dex convince by-the-books Deb to see things his way? That's a story juicy enough to make up for overly familiar and tedious workplace subplots, like Detective Quinn (Desmond Harrington) once again getting too amorously close to one of his contacts, a stripper playing double agent with the ice-cold Ukrainian mobster (Ray Stevenson) whose path begins to cross with Dexter's in ominous ways.
This episode marks the first appearance by Chuck's Yvonne Strahovski as a character whose sordid past makes her a natural for Dexter's world. She doesn't get much to do in their first encounter, but it's early days yet.
A SCANDALOUS WIFE: One of the things I like best about CBS' much-honored The Good Wife (Sunday, 9/8c) is that it's so much more than a legal drama, but even by those standards, it operates with smarts and wit without lapsing into the cartoonish excesses of latter-year David E. Kelley. This week's case is a good one, bringing back John Benjamin Hickey as an especially unscrupulous Internet mogul who this time has used a powerful search engine algorithm to punish a scrappy start-up. Themes of power, money and the compromises of the law often challenge the characters in this series, as they walk precarious moral tightropes involving sex, politics and integrity. "I feel cursed," laments Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) as this public "good wife" fears her good name will be smeared by tabloid journalism — Miriam Shor taking over as a surrogate for the injured Kristin Chenoweth — when apparent evidence of her fling with Will (Josh Charles) surfaces. Is the real target her estranged husband Peter (Chris Noth)?
As these matters get sorted out, we're treated to yet another gamy chapter in the "bad wife" storyline of Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) and her obsessive S&M antics with sinister husband Nick (Marc Warren). Their steamy encounter over ice cream last week left an icky aftertaste, and this week they've literally got knives drawn, as Kalinda's flexible pan-sexuality gets under Nick's thin but rugged skin. Who's in control here? You may still be wondering as this episode comes to a close, but on this show the women tend to get the last word — or in Alicia's case, make the last surprising move. Which is another reason I'm so fond of The Good Wife, and wish more were.
BOMBS AWAY: The last thing you want to hear in an explosively combustible shoot-first/think-later action romp like Cinemax's Strike Back (Friday, 10/9c) is one of the heroes looking at an armed nuclear warhead and musing, "What's the worst that can happen?" Quoting the immortal Maxwell Smart, would you believe ... two armed warheads, which if not disarmed simultaneously will wreak annihilation on unsuspecting Johannesburg? And for good measure, the mastermind behind the mayhem (Charles Dance, merrily slumming) is out there with a "dead man's trigger" detonating device! Not since the glory days of 24's Jack Bauer have good guys taken such a licking and kept on ticking as the Section 20 operatives Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) and Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester), who never met an overheated gun battle they couldn't somehow escape by the flayed skin of their manly hides.
You know you're reached the season finale — the show was just renewed for a third year — when heroes and villains alike take pause amid the chaos to do a little soul-searching. For some, this is a prelude to extermination (and Strike Back is not afraid to sacrifice leading players when necessary), for others a chance to tease us with the merest shade of character development as they reflect on this deadly "game of soldiers." It's a game that's a lot of fun to watch, and I'm glad one of my more reliable guilty pleasures will be around for at least one more adventure.
BOO! With Halloween approaching, our craving for cheesy horror movies may even be stronger than our once-a-year compulsion to devour all the candy corn we can get our hands on. This weekend, two made-for-TV terrors scream for attention. First, on Chiller, there's Dead Souls (Friday, 9/8c), about an 18-year-old orphan who inherits his birth family's farm in Maine, which harbors spooky secrets. Maybe involving dead souls? ... And you have to applaud the shameless moxie of Syfy and its Saturday night fright fests. Knowing FX's American Horror Story is right around the corner, the channel clocks in with American Horror House (Saturday, 9/8c), starring the terrifyingly ageless Morgan Fairchild and Caprica's Alessandra Torresani in a yarn about a haunted sorority house beset by ghosts and a murderous housemother. Woo-hoo!
MORE REASONS TO WATCH TV THIS WEEKEND: Thursday's robust vice-presidential debate certainly gave the Saturday Night Live writers more to work with than last week's first presidential face-off, so we're hoping for more than we got with last weekend's snoozy opener. Christina Applegate returns to host, a nice break from the comedy dead zone of second-season Up All Night. ... To celebrate the arrival of the campy '60s sitcom classic Bewitched to the channel, Logo dedicates Sunday to an all-day marathon of twitchy-nosed mischief, starting at 11am/10c. Regardless of which Darren is on deck, my heart will always belong to Samantha (the beguiling Elizabeth Montgomery). ... Oprah Winfrey salutes The First Graduating Class: Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in a two-hour OWN special (Sunday, 9/8c) as the TV-talk queen revisits the South African school she founded in 2007. ... After Anderson Cooper frolics inside the James Bond archive of cool 007 props for a 50th-anniversary segment on CBS' 60 Minutes (Sunday, 7/6c), the network's The Amazing Race (Sunday, 8/7c) introduces the season's first Double U-Turn in Indonesia, forcing the teams to think about strategy for once. ... Lancelot (Teen Wolf's Sinqua Walls) comes to the chivalrous rescue of Emma and Mary Margaret, still seeking a portal back home on ABC's Once Upon a Time (Sunday, 8/7c). Hope he makes a better first impression than Mulan did in the season opener. What a stiff.
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