THE SERIES "The Walking Dead"

WHEN | WHERE Season premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The sign reads, "New Homes, Alexandria: Starting at $800,000." At least they were starting at that.

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Real estate values aren't what they used to be in the Alexandria area, but Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and gang aren't in the market anyway. They're just happy to be safely behind the city walls. Peace, at long last. Frictions, of course, remain with some who were there before, but Rick gradually assumes control in the only way Rick knows how.

Morgan Jones (Lennie James), who appeared in the fifth season closer and has periodically turned up since the series' premiere, when he was the very first person to meet Rick, has moved into town, too. With his gnomic sayings ("Everything gets returned") and the staff he wields like a lightsaber, Morgan would appear to be "TWD's" first resident Jedi Master. But he's even more complicated than that. In any event, he and Rick have a lot of catching up to do.

Meanwhile, a mystery is solved: Why are there so few walkers outside the gates?

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In this sixth-season opener, an intriguing newcomer arrives outside those gates: Heath, played by Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre, "Straight Outta Compton" ).

MY SAY Without giving too much away here, and thereby risking the wrath of Deadheads everywhere, this easy observation should suffice: Sunday's episode is exceptional, marred only in a few spots by padding that's inevitable with these supersized episodes. (Sunday's runs an hour and four minutes, not counting commercials.)

But "TWD" season openers always have a little something extra in the goody bag -- supersized or otherwise -- as a way of subverting expectations and stoking excitement. The episode, which is titled "First Time Again," referring to Morgan's reunion with Rick, has several.

The episode picks up right after the days (or weeks) following the conclusion of the fifth season finale, then fast-forwards to a point much later in the story (which, as you will see, is technically present time). The episode then toggles between both, with the sequences from the past shot in black and white, and the fast-forwards in color.

If this sounds like a clever parlor trick by writer Scott Gimple and director Greg Nicotero to throw viewers off-balance, then wait for the opening seconds Sunday. I don't think I've ever seen a parlor trick quite like this one.

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As intended, the effect is vertiginous.

The time-manipulation gambit accomplishes a lot of other stuff, too, most notably dumping viewers at a point in the story that is hugely dramatic and cinematic without giving them a single clue as to why they're there. It's almost as if the show morphs, however briefly, into "World War Z," or "I Am Legend."

The characters in those color sequences have plenty of shared history -- Michonne (Danai Gurira), for example, balefully remarks about Morgan's obsession over his beloved "peanut butter balls."

Because viewers haven't shared that history yet, that becomes yet another trick to throw them off-balance.

More vertigo.

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The black-and-white sequences quickly fill in the blanks of the main story so everything quickly becomes clear. Meanwhile, those sequences behind the walls of Alexandria are almost infused with a sense of peace and nostalgia, as if to say, oh, for the good ol' days before the real hell breaks loose.

It will break loose. Before you even know it.

GRADE A-