Nobody enjoys admitting they messed up, but AMC has essentially done just that with its major makeover of "Fear the Walking Dead," which includes importing one of the original's best characters. The gamble might have come a bit late, but faced with the alternative, there was nothing to fear but "Fear" itself.
The busy season premiere - positioned to piggyback on "The Walking Dead" finale -- brings Morgan (Lennie James) into the mix, pairing him with a strong trio of new additions, played by Garret Dillahunt, Jenna Elfman and Maggie Grace.
Adopting an approach similar to its sire -- which regularly introduces a plot, then leaves it dormant for a week or more to pursue another -- the series then shifts to surviving members of the core cast, featuring Kim Dickens and Frank Dillane.
The problem was that those characters never really popped, despite their slow-motion ordeal surviving the zombie apocalypse. So the delicate procedure is to keep just enough of the old show to satisfy its fans while broadening its appeal by opening the equivalent of an entire second front.
Based on the first two hours, the program does feel somewhat invigorated by the new blood. James is customarily good -- and pained -- striking out on his own, and has nice chemistry with Dillahunt, a cowboy type who provides a more expressive counterweight to his clenched persona.
That's grading on a curve, however, for a series whose initial conceit and execution -- chronicling the outbreak on the opposite coast -- has been most notable for its general lifelessness.
Simply put, "Fear the Walking Dead" exists because a mere 16 weeks of "The Walking Dead" per year meant leaving money on the table, at least at the show's apex. The spin-off strategy, though, seemed to take audience allegiance for granted, assuming those three little words would be enough to have viewers marching in mindless lockstep after them.
In theory, more directly linking the two series -- beyond just the title -- makes sense, but it also risks further diluting the original. While the cross-pollination could yield dividends, it's clearly a gamble, and with "Walking Dead" having cooled ratings-wise, AMC might not get another bite at the apple.
Granted, it's a big post-apocalyptic world out there, with a lot of different potential stories to tell. Yet if "Fear the Walking Dead's" past shortcomings demonstrate anything, it's that when you dip into the well a second time, even one of TV's most popular series might only have so much life in it.
"Fear the Walking Dead" begins its fourth season April 15 at 10:10 p.m. on AMC.
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