I'll come out and just say it: Fear the Walking Dead has been a failed experiment for AMC over the last few years, an aimless and unnecessary expansion of a monster hit that the network was desperate to grow. But AMC has done the near-impossible and dug the series out of the grave and given it new life with the Season 4 premiere, and the way it did it was brilliant. Heck, given the problems The Walking Dead has had recently, Fear may finally be on the path to being the better show.
Yeah, that sounds like crazy talk, but Sunday's premiere showed that all the network's unusual decisions with Fear's fourth season — the high-profile casting, the crossover, the time jump — were the right ones, because Fear the Walking Dead is fully reinvigorated. Here's how AMC saved Fear the Walking Dead when most of us thought it deserved a crossbow bolt to the head.
(Minor spoilers follow for those who are curious about the new-look Fear the Walking Dead, but nothing that will ruin the experience of watching it after.)
1. AMC dropped a nuclear bomb on Fear the Walking Dead
Fear was in a bad, bad place, and AMC knew that. Aside from burying it in the ground and forgetting it ever existed, AMC did the next best thing and smashed the reset button. Gone are those weak army dudes, gone is the Black Hat Reservation, gone is nearly any remaining pieces of the original show. In fact, "What's Your Story?" was devoid of anything Fear-related until the final moments when the O.G. Fear crew ambushed Morgan (Lennie James) and his new friends.
Wiping the slate clean was a very conscious choice by AMC. The audience no longer needed to know what happened in the first three seasons, opening the door for new viewers to jump right in. Because let's face it, the 10 million viewers who tuned in to the series premiere dwindled down to just over 2 million for the Season 3 finale (yes, I know the show is on Hulu, but Hulu doesn't make viewing numbers available so let's just go with what we know), and those who left do not care about Broke Jaw or the Proctors or that Travis fell out of a helicopter. By starting anew, there's no need to force new viewers or viewers who previously left to catch up. It's like a do-over! That was step one.
2. The episode was mostly just another hour of The Walking Dead
Let's be very clear about what the objective was with this episode: It wasn't to satisfy Fear the Walking Dead superfans; it was to bring back people who gave up on the show and also to siphon off some of The Walking Dead audience (which may be smaller than it once was, but is big enough to resuscitate Fear). This may come as a surprise, but this is the only time Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead have aired on the same night. For many seasons, Fear the Walking Dead premiered the week following a The Walking Dead finale, which is a heck of a lot different from airing it back-to-back when Walking Dead fans are still reaching for the remote. But it's not a coincidence that AMC decided to right that wrong with the Fear Season 4 premiere.
By airing immediately after The Walking Dead Season 8 finale — an episode that is sure to grab big ratings as viewers tune in to see if Rick killed Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) — "What's Your Story?" practically becomes the second hour of a two-part The Walking Dead rather than an episode of the spin-off. Aside from the very opening scene (more on that in a bit), the transition from one show to the next was nearly seamless and featured many The Walking Dead favorites, like Jesus (Tom Payne), Rick and Carol (Melissa McBride). If you were a real fan of The Walking Dead, you didn't just watch, you stuck around. You were compelled to because the two entities felt tied together rather separate. That's exactly what AMC wanted.
3. Morgan moved on in
Continuing the thought above, bringing Morgan on board permanently to the show gives The Walking Dead fans a reason to stick with Fear for the long haul. Morgan had his frustrating moments in The Walking Dead, sure, every single character in that show has, but he's also been one of the best characters by virtue of Lennie James' powerful presence and command of scenes.
And the way Morgan crossed over was pretty great, too. In The Walking Dead finale, after Rick spared Negan and the Savior threat was squashed, Morgan — fresh off a freakout in which he almost accidentally killed Henry — decided he needed some time alone and took refuge solo in the Heapster's trash dump. As Fear the Walking Dead began its fourth season, Rick, Jesus and Carol came to Morgan to get him to come back, which he was having none of. Eventually, Morgan just got up and started walking west. He did a little running and driving, too, but mostly he literally just walked from one show to the other. It was a transition that bled the two shows together.
Everyone originally thought Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) was going to be the character who crossed over, showing us what happened with Abe before he met up with Rick's group and had his noggin treated like a softball since Fear was on a timeline years before The Walking Dead. But that would have continued several of the problems Fear the Walking Dead had and wouldn't have allowed the show to fully reset, which was what the show needed the most. By pushing Morgan out of The Walking Dead's orbit — which the loner has done before so no biggie to The Walking Dead — those problems are avoided and Fear becomes a legitimate extension of The Walking Dead rather than whatever it was trying to be before. To use a comparison apropos to the franchise, The Walking Dead infected Fear the Walking Dead in the best way possible. If the initial imperative with Fear the Walking Dead was to make it as different from The Walking Dead as it could be, the new one was to make it as similar as possible.
4. The premiere wasted no time showing off new talent
Hey, if you've got it, flaunt it. The casting of Garret Dillahunt, Maggie Grace and Jenna Elfman suddenly gave Fear the Walking Dead's cast star power. You could argue that all three actors are more popular with the show's targeted fan base than any of the original actors (no offense Alycia Debnam-Carey, we loved you on The 100), and Dillahunt's John Dorie is already the series' best character after just one episode. That gun? That drawl? That backstory? He's awesome!
Dorie's opening conversation with the forest (but really with Morgan) is the best monologue Fear or The Walking Dead has had maybe ever, making it clear that this ain't your daddy's Fear the Walking Dead. Dillahunt was exactly the kind of talent Fear needed. His ability to juggle drama and comedy is sure to make him a fan favorite, the likes of which we haven't seen since around the time Daryl (Norman Reedus) killed Merle (Michael Rooker). And already, Dorie is a more complex character with more potential than grumpy old Daryl. (Dixon Vixens can send hate mail to @timsurette on Twitter.)
Grace's Althea also adds an interesting wrinkle as a journalist who wants to get people's stories. It's a sufficient way for a TV show to get inside people's heads (like how therapists are used in the same manner on Mr. Robot or The Sopranos), but we'll have to wait to see if this really works for the show. But hey, that S.W.A.T. truck is pretty B.A.D.A.S.S. And though we haven't yet met Elfman's character, I'm more than curious to see how comedy vet Elfman fits into a zombie show, so there's that.
5. The show finally has a flavor
Fear the Walking Dead never figured out what it wanted to be over three seasons, but there were hints of identity in Season 3 when things were dustier than normal. The series started in Los Angeles, spent some time on a boat for some reason, moved down to Mexico, lived on a military compound and later on a ranch. There was even a dam in there, because, well, I don't know. The Walking Dead was criticized from moving from one point to another too, but at least it stayed in the same state for many seasons. Fear was a rambling mess with a lot of mileage and no reason for it. It felt like it was always looking for a place to call home, which killed any consistency of identity.
But right from Dorie's opening chat, Fear had the feel it's always wanted: It's a zombie Western. ZOMBIE! WESTERN! Zombie apocalypses push civilization back a few hundred years, and the move to Texas makes Fear something somewhat familiar as a story of cowboys and zombies. It's a style that's much more suited to the show than what it had before.
All of this makes Fear the Walking Dead a new show and a real extension of The Walking Dead, which is exactly what AMC needed. Time will tell if it can keep it up, but it's a real good start for a show I had left for dead.
Fear the Walking Dead airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on AMC.