When Season 4 of "The Walking Dead" whisks us back to the prison commune on Sunday, fans will hardly recognize the place.

Several months have passed since the shattering events of last March's finale. The former residents of Woodbury have been welcomed inside the chain-linked sanctuary, and they've formed a governmental council to make sure everyone is safe and secure. There are story-time sessions for the kiddies and hearty breakfasts served up each morning. Everyone seems so happy as they go about their chores, you practically expect them to break out in a chorus of "Whistle While You Work" as chirping birds provide background vocals.

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) in an episode for Season 4 of "The Walking Dead." (Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC)
Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) in an episode for Season 4 of "The Walking Dead." (Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC) ( Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC )

Even our main man, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), is at peace with himself. After tragically losing his wife, surviving a brutal war with the Governor (David Morrissey) and nearly going bonkers, he has exchanged his gun for a garden hoe and is one with the soil. Life is about as idyllic as it can get during a zombie apocalypse.

Oh, you just know this can't last.

"The Walking Dead," after all, didn't become prime time's most addictive -- and terrifying -- scarefest by going all "Green Acres" on us. It's about the shivery thrills. And so new threats are quickly introduced, including one that rises from within the prison gates, and before the hour is over, zombies are literally raining down on some of our intrepid survivors. (Call it an undead-nado.)


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With the arrival of each new season, I find myself wondering if this show can keep the suspense percolating. After all, how many battles can the characters endure? And how many different ways are there to make a zombie go splat?

And yet, there continues to be life in the "Dead." Now the show is being run by writer-producer Scott Gimple, after a controversial change at the top. He's not only ushering in several new faces, but, judging from the first two episodes made available for preview, he's taking a more contemplative, character-driven approach that I endorse. More than usual, you feel the emotional weight our survivors lug around.

But at the same time, he apparently wants to assure us that the show isn't about to back away from turbocharged action sequences and gruesome gore. Sunday's opener contains an icky zombie-feasting scene that may make your skin crawl and/or stomach turn.

As for human threats, well, the Governor is still out there. Somewhere. We have no idea when he'll show up again, but at least one person isn't waiting around to find out. A vengeful Michonne (Danai Gurira) seems determined to go after him and take him down.

A 'GLEE'-FUL TRIBUTE: Before the weekend arrives, we've got several programs of note, including the highly anticipated tribute to the late Cory Montieth on "Glee" (9 p.m. Thursday, Fox).

We can't tell you much about the episode, titled "The Quarterback," because the producers have kept a pretty tight lid on it. The official log line from Fox simply states that "the McKinley High family, present and past, join together to remember and celebrate the life of Finn Hudson," the character played by Montieth, who died on July 13. Keep the hankies close by.

OFF TO WONDERLAND: Also on Thursday is another show that we can't fully review -- "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland" (8 p.m., ABC), the fantastical spinoff of "Once Upon a Time."

ABC provided only a 20-minute preview reel that sets up a very trippy saga about a grown-up Alice (Sophie Lowe), who flees a psychiatric institution, where she has been deemed insane. Her destination? Back down the rabbit hole, of course.

Based on the small sampling, we're intrigued. Boasting remarkable sets and special effects, "Wonderland" is full of visual verve, and Lowe makes for a feisty Alice, who apparently has the martial-arts skills of a cage fighter.

HURLEY BACK ON THE ISLAND: "Lost" veteran Jorge Garcia goes tropical with a guest appearance on "Hawaii Five-0" (9 p.m. Friday, CBS). It marks a return to Oahu for Garcia, who played the lovable Hurley. It also reunites him with fellow Lostie Daniel Dae Kim, one of the "Five-0" regulars. Garcia plays a conspiracy theorist who helps the team crack a double-murder case. There's a possibility that he could become a recurring character on the show.

Contact Chuck Barney at cbarney@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.

'The walking dead'

* * * ½

When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Where: AMC