Huge props to the folks behind AMC's "Fear the Walking Dead" for exploring something we haven't seen yet on either show, giving us the most accessible and exciting premiere the franchise has had in years.
The first half of this season was a mishmash of ideas coming together, with Morgan (Lennie James) coming over from the parent series, a bunch of new characters showing up and the reintroduction of the original cast in starkly different iterations. On top of that, it played around with time making it an even more complex narrative.
After the midseason finale, though, "FTWD" has been stripped down to its new core, and with this premiere it felt very much like the opening act of a proper horror film, establishing the characters and their relationships, pairing them up in new and interesting ways, all the while teasing the hell that is about to break loose.
What makes this even more fun is that the hell is as simple as a massive storm. We're talking the kind that has local weathermen taking off their jackets and rolling up their sleeves to report on it, only there are no more weathermen. Instead, there are flying zombies.
Admittedly, the special effects team wasn't completely successful in selling the visuals of the zombies being tossed around by the coming storm, but they did a good enough job to get us excited about the chaos to come.
No matter how great Morgan and Althea (Maggie Grace) and Luciana (Danay Garcia) and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) might be at killing zombies, nobody is great in the middle of a Midwestern thunderstorm when it decides to start dropping high-speed winds and rotating clouds, as we see in the new intro sequence to the show.
Everything was about setting up the storm to come in this episode, with all the foreshadowing you'd expect to see in a classic horror film; clues that we in the audience get to see and then yell at the characters on-screen for missing!
The clear indication that some calamity was coming was how fragmented everyone had become in the aftermath of that bloody midseason finale that closed the chapter on the Vultures, the stadium and Madison Clark (Kim Dickens). Morgan making the rounds to announce he was leaving tomorrow to head back to Virginia was the classic setup that getting to tomorrow was going to be the real challenge.
The rest of the opening minutes revealed that John (Garret Dillahunt) and June (Jenna Elfman) had set up house with Charlie (Alexa Nisenson) in a school bus on a barricaded bridge, while Victor (Colman Domingo) and Luciana (Danay Garcia) were utterly despondent, living in an abandoned mansion. Victor was drinking himself into a stupor, while Luciana wiled away her hours listening to music and questioning her place in the world.
And then there's Alicia, every bit her mother's daughter, going on an ultimately fruitless quest to save a man trapped in a lumber mill. But it's not about saving the man so much as it is about trying to hate herself and her own recent actions a little less by doing some atonement. That's why she lashes out at the guy for dying before she could save him.
Horror films love to split everyone up into smaller groups so we can feel more of the tension as they each struggle to survive the terror. And so we have Morgan chasing Alicia, Luciana chasing a runaway Charlie while Victor and John look for her. Meanwhile, Al and June were headed upstream to figure out why zombies were washing into the river only to get trapped in Al's truck on the road.
Eight cast-members paired off into unique pairings we've not really had a chance to explore yet, offering an opportunity to explore new character developments and dynamics, while looking at the coming storm and its dangers through vastly different lenses.
Victor is drunk and John is still recovering from his injuries, making the vulnerable. Luciana holds a lot of animosity toward Charlie, who remains a silent enigma, so that pairing should create plenty of tension. Al will likely prove very beneficial to June finally becoming comfortable in her own skin, while Morgan and Alicia will discover they are more alike than either would probably like to admit.
It was a quiet episode, but if we think of this back half of the season like it's an eight-hour movie, we're just getting past the establishing scenes. One of the things that is remarkable about the episode and makes it feel so fresh and exciting is that there are no characters introduced beyond the eight remaining cast-members.
The only new "character" they have to contend with so far is the coming storm. And while that's not likely to remain the case throughout its entire eight-episode run -- as that's a lot of screen time to fill with flying zombies -- it created a beautifully serene foundation on which to build the rests of the story.
Probably the box filled with supplies and labeled "Take what you need, leave what you don't" will come into play later, as it's not like these shows to drop something interesting like that into a premiere without a payoff down the line. Whoever left that box will surely crop up, though on whose side remains to be seen.
We also finally started to get more of the promise that this show would have a little more humor than its parent series, with most of it coming from Dillahunt's fantastically pure and idealistic John. This week, when asked if he thought his cabin would even still be there, he shot back, "I locked the door before I left."
The new and improved "Fear the Walking Dead" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.