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john doyle

The zombies. They're baaaaack!

The Walking Dead (Sunday, AMC, 9 p.m.) returns for a third season, as gripping and poisonously grim as ever. A tiny group of survivors negotiates a postapocalyptic world that is overrun by zombies. That's the gist. There is the gore, of course, redolent of cheesy B-movies about zombies. But there is far more going on here. Based on Robert Kirkman's comic-book series, the show is the smartest kind of populist entertainment.

When we last met the survivors, they'd fled a farm that had for a time seemed an idyllic oasis in a very dangerous world. But as always with this series, safety is temporary, hope is fleeting, and the strength to survive is tested constantly. Now the survivors are on the road again, frightened that there is no way to escape the ever-increasing hordes of zombies on the landscape.

What they find as a refuge – and this is widely known in advance – is a prison. First, of course, they must fight their way in. The West Georgia Correctional Facility is, as leader and former cop Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) says, "perfect." The audience is left to dwell on the irony of the good finding refuge in the place that used to house criminals. And there's a warden in charge, a mercurial figure (played by English actor David Morrissey); and once again the series probes the issue of the necessity of a leader or boss, and whether, in such appalling circumstances, it is best to be led by a benign figure or a tyrant.

Those who watch for the scary scenes of marauding zombies will be well-satisfied. Those who watch for the essential themes of how to be pragmatically humane in a horror-filled world will be pleased, too. As ever, an essential message is that humanity will be wiped out unless people learn to get along. Without kindness, caring and sharing, we're all just zombies feeding on one other.

At the same time, the show is emphatically bleak. The survivors merely go from one temporary refuge to another. The faint hope that elements of the old civilization can be rescued from the postapocalypse is long gone.

That was a key element of the period at that farm: Owner Hershel secretly kept zombies in the barn, some of them friends and members of his family. He believed that some semblance of humanity remained in their horrific shells, and that one day there would be a cure. There is no cure, he learns. It's kill or be killed. There is no hope. And the disintegration of hope destroyed him.

Like other AMC series – Mad Men; the unjustly cancelled Rubicon; Breaking Bad; The KillingThe Walking Dead is a robust example of the quality of long-form television today. It thrives on the contradiction of being both deeply serious and luridly entertaining, and the irresolution in the plotting drives it along with aplomb. It isn't feel-good. It's frightening and fabulous.

Also airing this weekend

W5 (Saturday, CTV, 7 p.m.) examines "the prescription-pill epidemic" in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. It suggests there's a crisis, as there's a "growing number of kids and adults using and overdosing on opiates." Also, W5 talks to Lloyd Roberson about his upcoming autobiography.

Girl Model (Sunday, CBC NN, 10 p.m., on The Passionate Eye) teems with beautiful people but could make you scream with despair. An unflinching low-key look at the traffic in teenage girls from Russia to Japan for modelling assignments, it is heartbreaking. It opens with hundreds of thin young girls, usually 13 to 15 years old, auditioning in a grim hall in a town in Siberia. There are row upon row of them in swimsuits, all attracted by the modelling company's promise of work in Japan.

The focus ends up being on Nadya, a guileless 13-year-old who is flown to Japan, endures mindless and humiliating casting sessions, and never makes it. Simultaneously with Nadya's harrowing journey, the doc allows Ashley, a modelling scout and sometime photographer, to talk about her own experience as a model and enabler in the sick game. The woman is clearly depressed by her work and her experience but declines to break the cycle. It's Nadya and what she endures, stoically, that's unforgettable in this remarkable doc.