(CNN)The following review contains spoilers about the season 7 premiere of "The Walking Dead."
"The Walking Dead" picked up Sunday where its sixth season cliffhanger left off, in a seventh season premiere episode that crackled with menace thanks to Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the villain Negan. Yet it also revealed, if there were any lingering doubt, that AMC's signature hit has become a gimmicky show under producer Scott M. Gimple, one far less deserving of the massive audience it enjoys.
If the series was for some time underappreciated by, say, Emmy voters-- unable, perhaps, to wrap their brains around a zombie drama being this good -- it's now over-covered, for obvious commercial reasons, relative to its quality. And while Morgan's addition bodes well for Season 7, the premiere didn't do much to eradicate the bad taste left by the teases and stunts perpetrated during the last stretch.
After a protracted opening, the show finally ended the suspense regarding who died. Even that, however, involved a bit of a fake-out, as Negan's bat-wielding demonstration of his complete authority over the program's regulars turned out to be, pardon the expression, a doubleheader.
Negan began by pummeling Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) to death. But he then proceeded to do the same to Glenn (Steven Yeun), his victim in the comics, which smacked of overkill, especially after Glenn's "Is he or isn't he?" period in the sixth season.
Those scenes were upsetting and extremely graphic, foremost because of how drawn out they were. As opposed to crossing a new line, though, they actually reinforce what has been true of the show for some time -- namely, that the evil that people do to each other in this lawless environment surpasses any horror the zombies can inflict.
Negan's purpose was to wring any vestige of resistance out of the group's leader, Rick (Andrew Lincoln), who defiantly told him in the wake of those murders, "I am gonna kill you." By the end, having threatened Rick's son and the other survivors, Negan announced, "You are mine," laying the groundwork for what amounts to a life in servitude.
The producers certainly got the casting right, which seems especially vital having just sacrificed two such significant characters. Morgan brings a mix of charisma and absolute ruthlessness to the role, as well as the cheerful sadism that Negan possessed on the printed page.
In the broad strokes, "The Walking Dead" still has a strong array of assets, and its willingness to jettison important players has been vital in keeping the storytelling unpredictable and evolving. Those who have stuck with the show since the beginning will still find plenty to like about it, and AMC has every reason to continue mining its huge footprint in the cultural zeitgeist.
Nevertheless, its most admirable qualities have increasingly been overshadowed by its more distasteful ones -- not merely in demonstrating just how brutal humanity can be, but by toying with its audience, dangling plot twists the way somebody plays with a kitten.
So when Negan informed a broken Rick, "Things have changed," he wasn't just talking about life within this post-apocalyptic world. Because while Negan's presence as what amounts to the new sheriff in town has once again altered the show's dynamics, it's hard to escape a sense that "The Walking Dead's" best at-bats are behind it.