Pilot episodes are burdened with having to set up the universe and establish the main characters. Still, I'm not convinced that The Walking Dead needed to take 90 whole minutes to set up what should be fairly familiar to audiences. Sheriff deputy Rick Grimes was already having a no-good, very bad day. His partner Shane is an idiot whose views on women begin and end at the sentiment, "Bitch, are you too stupid to turn off a light bulb?" He's having marital troubles with his wife Lori. Then to top it all off, he gets himself shot, because apparently in Georgia, engaging in idle chatter with your partner is a priority over clearing the crime scene. He then wakes up in a hospital some indeterminate amount of time later (a la 28 Days Later) and quickly finds out that a zombie apocalypse has occurred while he was sleeping. I say "quickly" but really, it's 30 minutes into the 90-min episode before Rick actually figures out that the shambling, rotting things in the street are zombies.
Look, just because certain shows on AMC are slow and methodical, doesn't mean ALL the shows have to follow that model. I think the show could have benefited from getting to the action a little faster. Did we really need a sequence where Rick's saviors - a man and his young son - dance around the issue with Rick for at least 5-10 minutes, with lots of nonsensical yelling and using ambiguous terms like "walkers"? In the original graphic novel, this bit of exposition is wrapped up in just 6 panels, with the actual explanation happening "off screen." Zombies are a well-covered topic in American pop culture, so I'm pretty sure that no one would have a problem with a character going, "Oh, didn't you know? There was totally a zombie outbreak and now the world has gone to hell. Don't forget to shoot them in the head, which you should probably already know, since this has been covered dozens of times over the past 20 some years of cinema."
However, despite these quibbles, there's plenty to like in this episode as well. There are some lovely sequences, such as when Rick returns to find the female zombie he first encountered after leaving the hospital. Andrew Lincoln does great work here showing the compassion and sorrow in Rick's face, as he commits an act of mercy by putting down the pathetic creature, who has been reduced to an emaciated torso and head. Another gorgeous shot involves Rick literally riding into Atlanta on horseback, a duffel bag bursting with rifles and shotguns strapped to his back, his deputy's hat fixed firmly on his head.
In addition, the last third of the episode introduces some nuggets that are interesting enough to pique interest for where the story is going to go. The most immediate and terrifying plot point involves Rick trapped inside an abandoned tank in downtown Atlanta, with zombies literally swarming over the tank and feasting outside on the remains of his poor horse. We end the episode there, just as a mysterious voice comes over the CB radio, chiding him for stupidly getting stuck in the tank.
Of course, Rick is only in that situation because he's in Atlanta looking for his missing wife and son. Luckily for Rick, they survived the apocalypse and are safe outside the city in the care of his partner Shane. Unfortunately for Rick, Shane's definition of "caring" seems involve shoving his tongue down Rick's wife's throat. Even worse - Lori seems to welcome the attention. Uh oh.
Again, I wished they had covered a little more ground, instead of dwelling on establishing whatever atmosphere they were shooting for. There are only 6 episodes in the season, so a little more sense of urgency would be nice. For those of us watching because we trust AMC and we know the source material, waiting an episode or two isn't going to be hard, but I'm not sure that as a stand-alone episode this really did a good job grabbing a more neutral audience. Overall, though, the quality of the show was evident, and the leading man was compelling enough that I'm looking forward to seeing where Rick's story goes from here.