It's one thing to say you're the biggest show on television... It's another thing to premiere the sixth season of your show for 20,000 fans at Madison frickin' Square Garden. But that's exactly what "The Walking Dead" did Friday night (October 9), with a no-holds-barred screening of the first episode, a panel talk from 18 (!!!) cast members, and way more surprises.
The event kicked off early, with fans screaming for their fave characters as they played in a clips compilations on screen. They were already jazzed up on free "Walking Dead" flash tattoos, and very, very expensive themed food when the camera started playing a Kiss Cam riff called "Scare Cam," where actors in walker make-up -- or perhaps actual zombies, who knows -- ran up to attendees and pretended to bite them.
After a few minutes of that bit of fun, regular "Talking Dead" host Chris Hardwick came on screen to apologize for not being there -- he had a wedding to go to -- and instead super-fan Yvette Nicole Brown would be hosting.
The fan interaction didn't stop there... After a hardcore quiz, with first prize being a seat on stage with the cast (I came in 32nd, FWIW), the first big surprise of the evening was... T-Dog (IronE Singleton), surrounded by cosplayers dressed as Carol, Michonne, Rick and more. As if meeting T-Dog wasn't enough, they also got to sit in front of the stage for the rest of the evening! AND MEET T-DOG.
What followed is what, on any awards show would be the section you go to the bathroom for, but when the producers of "Walking Dead" entered, it was nothing but love from the audience. Producer Gale Anne Hurd told fans they made this happen, calling out that this is the first time ever a TV show has premiered at MSG. And director/producer/FX guru Greg Nicotero literally got the crowd on their feet to give themselves and the crew applause.
But the biggest reaction was left for series creator Robert Kirkman, who teased, "This is only the beginning of the most intense season of 'The Walking Dead.' No one, no one is safe."
When the crowd started to -- lovingly -- boo, he quipped, "Go ahead, boo, it's still going to happen! Who's your favorite? They'll go first!" to huge reaction from the crowd.
And then it was time for the screening! Having already seen the premiere, it was a unique experience watching it again with such an enormous crowd of fans.
It's also particularly weird seeing an episode of "Walking Dead," which occasionally has big action moments, but mostly relies heavily on character development above all, play in a large venue like MSG. Luckily? This episode is huge, and formatted for the biggest screen possible.
It's also one of the funniest episodes of the show, which means the reaction in the house was ridiculous. Every laugh line hit, every zombie kill elicited huge cheers, and pretty much any time Daryl (Norman Reedus) appeared on screen, the crowd went nuts.
Oh, also they looooove Eugene's (Josh McDermitt) mullet. So there's that.
And overall, the reaction was great. Like, really great. There's something special about these fan screenings, and I've seen a couple, that elevate them above most life events, including graduating, childbirth, weddings, or eating a really great slice of pizza.
It's that sense that not only are you watching and loving the thing you love, it's that you're in a room with people who understand it the same way you do. That's why the emotional beats landed much harder than they might inside your living room. The connection between the characters on "Walking Dead" is also the connection the fans feel, and being in the room to experience that pouring out of 20,000 hearts is exhilarating.
So that's when the cast showed up, and things went even crazier. Rock music blasted, smoke machines pulsed, and Norman Reedus rode up from the back of the Garden on a f--king motorcycle. I mean, come on. What? Seriously. Come on.
The cast, dressed to the nines, then talked about the episode and upcoming season -- including Michael Cudlitz, who was wearing a kilt and nearly flashed the audience multiple times. We're going to leave most of that talk out for spoiler reasons, but suffice to say the fans went nuts for everything.
That's including baby pictures of Steven Yeun, Norman Reedus and Andrew Lincoln -- who Brown quipped looked a little like Baby Judith, who looks a lot "Shane-ish." What do you think?
Yeah, Andrew Lincoln's Mom totally banged a time-travelling Shane. It's true. This is a true fact. #truth
That's also including former show star Emily Kinney ("Beth") showing up to help flesh out the girl's team during a game of "The Walking Dead" Family Feud. During that, we found out that the fans' #1 favorite catchphrase from the show is "Carl" -- which we could have told you:
But probably the biggest surprise? Chad Coleman, who played Tyreese on the show showed up to help fans ask questions (this is not the surprise, wait for it), starting with, "What would have been different if Shane had survived?"
"That's a good question! That's a good ass question," a voice said from offstage... Leading to actor Jon Bernthal, who played Shane, running on stage to hug the whole cast.
He left just as quickly, leading into another big surprise, as Scott Wilson (Hershel Greene on the show) receiving the first ever "Walking Dead Hall Of Fame" award... Only to get "Kanye'd" by The Governor himself (David Morrissey). "It was a pleasure beheading you," quipped Morrissey, before Wilson gave a heartfelt speech about how much the show, and the fans meant to him.
In case you thought the new cast would be over-shadowed by the old, don't worry: multiple Tony Award nominee Tovah Feldshuh did arm push-ups on her chair, and Ross Marquand did amazing impressions of Matthew McConaughey, Harrison Ford -- and couldn't quite get Michael Rooker, until the man came out on stage to teach him how.
Finally, because this is the way of the world now, the cast took a selfie -- and then encouraged everyone to break the record for most simultaneous selfies at the same time. We obliged.
And that was it! It's funny that despite the grimness that pervades the show, the fanbase is so pleased, so excited, and had so much fun just being with each other. The cast too, but really, that's the reason fan events are held: for the fans.
Sounds stupid to say, but often we get lost in a sea of franchises and ratings, and forget that every once in a while, it just comes down to loving things.
Clearly, there are a lot of fans who love "The Walking Dead." And after this season's premiere? There'll be even more.