I’ll let you in on a little secret:  When AMC sent us a screener disc with the first two episodes of The Walking Dead, I was a little concerned.

Part of that trepidation was because I’d built up this incredibly high expectation for the show.  How could I not?  It has the AMC tag on it, and their original programming has become a model for other networks on cable.  There’s high profile Hollywood talent like Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd attached to the series.  And ever since the early clips at Comic-Con and the initial trailer, we’ve been eagerly awaiting the invasion of the zombies.

Plus, it’s a show about zombies, which poses a whole new set of problems.  What are the limits for a network, even a Cable TV channel, when you’re dealing with an Undead creature that feasts on human entrails and can only be killed by destroying its brain?  Will they suck it up and show you as much as possible, or will they cave and play it the easy route?

I entered The Walking Dead with fingers crossed and raised hopes.  Two hours later, when I left it, I was impressed.  AMC presents The Walking Dead as a no-holds barred TV show that’s easily on par with the rest of their original programming, and stands above the majority of other shows on TV.  It’s vivid, it’s visceral, and it’s violent, and as someone that’s squeamish, I found myself cringing more than once.  But in the end, I walked away with such a high appreciation for the show that I feel comfortable calling The Walking Dead my favorite new TV offering of 2010.

I’ve got more, spoiler-free thoughts after the break.

The pilot episode, “Days Gone By”, presents us with the basics that we need to know about the series before throwing us to the wolves.  Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, wakes up in a hospital bed after an accident on the job, with no idea of how much time has passed.  Rick comes to find that the world has faced an epidemic that’s left humanity on the edge, with zombies overrunning the population.  He has no idea what’s happened, or why this has taken place, or even how long he was left stranded in the hospital.  He sets out looking for answers, and remnants of his past.

As is expected, the main purpose of Days Gone By is to present you with the world and characters, providing you with groundwork and getting you familiar with the locale before it starts throwing too much at you.  But the manner of delivery is particularly smart here; by presenting Rick with a world that’s foreign and has him asking questions, the audience is immediately taking a parallel journey as the main character.  It’s not a new concept in storytelling, but it works remarkably well for The Walking Dead.  They also keep the introduction of characters to a bare minimum in the first hour, saving the bulk of new character entries until “Guts”, the second hour of the series.

First, we must give credit where it’s due:  The work on the scripts here is pretty amazing.  As much as you’d expect the zombies to be center stage, they’re almost like background objects.  Oh, make no mistake, the Undead are unquestionably the antagonists here, and they’re every bit hell-bent on destroying what’s left of the human race.  But the zombies are used to drive the human stories, and keep the focus on the living.  And while “Days Gone By” is nothing to sneeze at, “Guts” has at least a half-dozen moments which had me glued to the TV screen.   There’s even a Whedon-esque moment where, in a moment of true brutality, the script writer manages to pull off an amazing joke that lightens the mood, if only for a brief moment.  It was a delicious moment of levity before the show jumped right back into the thick of things.

Second, we want to personally thank whoever it was that cast Michael Rooker for his role in the second episode.  His performance as Merle Dixon was outstanding, giving us a “Love to Hate You” character with no background and the briefest of introductions who managed to connect with us in under an hour’s time.  In a way, he almost takes center stage.  But it’s a delicious performance that is one of the best we’ve seen this year.

And then there’s the cinematography.  Both episodes are filmed in a loving way that not only highlights the epic nature of the story, but still manages to make The Walking Dead feel like a cinematic venture, with bold wide shots and large-scale set pieces that were almost certainly not easy for the production crew to create.  The Walking Dead feels less like a TV show as a result, and the extra polish on the camera work adds a serious impact to the storytelling.

Next, we have to give major props to AMC and the team behind The Walking Dead for not pulling (m)any punches when it comes to the visuals.  You’ll see half-eaten reanimated corpses dragging themselves through city streets, with their intestines trailing behind them.  You’ll see children with holes in their faces.  You’ll see arms and legs used like Christmas decorations.  And that’s just in the pilot, which is easily the less visceral of the first two episodes.  So if you’re in any way concerned that this might be a watered down horror show, put yourself at ease.  AMC spares no expense when it comes to showing you the brutality of zombies.  As someone that normally skips horror movies because of my squeamish nature, I had to cover my eyes a few times because the blood and violence was too intense for me.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for their special effects budget.  There were a few shots in either episode where the blood and guts were added through digital animation, and the quality on those shots isn’t the best.  They’re at just the level of quality where you realize it’s a computer-generated scene, which managed to drag us out of the moment more than once.

We also weren’t thrilled with the voice acting of Andrew Lincoln.  Southern accents are generally difficult to master, but for a British person, we can only imagine how tough they are.  Lincoln’s voice work as Rick Grimes is shaky in both episodes, never quite settling down into an appreciable rhythm.  It’s nowhere near as bad as other shows, but it could use some work.  We’re hoping he ends up perfecting a Southern Drawl as well as Stephen Moyer in True Blood, instead of mangling it like Anna Paquin in True Blood.

There are also some pacing issues in the pilot which left the last 20 minutes feeling slower than we like to see in an initial offering.  Thankfully, this is quickly remedied by the time “Guts” starts, and the second hour of the show will certainly have you on the edge of your seat at multiple points.

But those are largely minor quibbles that we feel compelled to make for the sake of fairness.  Even with those tiny blemishes, The Walking Dead is by far one of the most captivating shows we’ve seen so far this year.  Even though our copy of “Guts” was clearly marked as not being the final air version, we can’t imagine it being drastically changed.. it was easily one of the best hours of TV in 2010.

If you’re in any way interested in this show, we encourage you to give it a chance when it airs tomorrow night.  Try and be patient with the first hour… the pilot’s a bit slow at points, so don’t let its “long in the tooth” nature get you down.  By the time the second hour rolls around, The Walking Dead is firing on all thrusters.  This is an epic show, and its first season is a mere six episodes long.  We’re already hoping that the rumors of a second season being greenlit by AMC come true.