I like to consider myself a bit of a zombie nut, but even I’ll admit I approached Fear the Walking Dead with more than a little trepidation. Its very premise—the dawn of the walking dead pandemic currently plaguing Rick in Georgia—is an obvious cash grab, and given the ever-increasing ratings for its parent property, you can’t really blame AMC for wanting to rake it in while they can. More to the point, The Walking Dead isn’t exactly a beacon of quality television. Entertaining? Sure. Solidly crafted? Mostly. Sharp scripts? Eh. Well-drawn characters with interesting backstories and consistent personalities? Rarely. TWD is the kind of show that wants to be Breaking Bad but is either unwilling or unable (or, likely at this point, both) to put in the effort. It’s no wonder people were so anxious about drawing from the same dry well but with a shiny new bucket.
In the premiere episode of The Walking Dead, Rick woke from his coma and found the world already gone to hell. In Fear the Walking Dead, drug addict Nick wakes from his heroin haze to find all of his other addict buddies dead and eaten or dead and turned. On the other side of town, his family are more worried about Nick’s absence than they are the mysterious flu going around. We know what that plague really is, but their world is staggeringly accepting of epidemics and violence.
Their world is darker than ours, one where brutality is expected to the point where the public is almost anesthetized to it. When a homeless man turns into a zombie and attacks a bunch of highway patrol officers, teenaged Alicia Clark and her friends denounce the cellphone videos as fake. Her brother Nick thinks the sight of his best friend eating the face off another addict is nothing but a bad trip. His mother Madison tells one of her troubled students he’s being silly for thinking the end of the world is nigh. Madison’s new beau Travis compartmentalizes finding a puddle of viscera on the ground as something bad but not worth calling the cops over. Everything is dismissible because violence is commonplace. If that’s commentary on American society, it’s both overdone and heavy-handed, but zombies and social critiques tend to shadow each other so it’s expected at least. Anyway, turns out Nick’s hallucinations were real and the creepy kid planning to use a knife to defend himself from his classmates was right all along. Not much happens in the pilot, a lot of looking for Nick, finding Nick, looking for him again, and finding him again, with zombie attacks in the periphery and boring family drama beats filling out the rest of the timeslot. Some of it is evocative, a bit is frightening, a lot is yawn-inducing, but overall it works.
The change of scenery and cast—from backwoods Georgia to bustling Los Angeles, from white folks and expendable African Americans to white folks and expendable African Americans and other assorted people of color—is a welcome change of pace. It was nice to end an episode and know that the dread I’m feeling is because I’m worried about the characters, not that I’m going to have to slog through another episode next week. There’s some good stuff in the premiere, not as much as there should be given the show’s pedigree, but still. I liked it more than I thought I would.
Fear wants to be its own show, but it’s steeped in the remains of The Walking Dead. At this point, my interest lies largely in seeing all the stuff Dr. Jenner hinted at way back in the first season of TWD. TWD struggles with a lack of innovation and creativity in its tales of survival, but there should be more room to explore in watching the world burn. How the plague spread—population malaise, virulent infection, incompetent governance—is arguably more important than patient zero. It’s also vastly more interesting than watching a broken, extended family work through their issues, especially given how thin each character’s archetype is.
Added to all that baggage is the frustration of having to sit through a prequel when we all already know the ending. No matter how hard the Los Angelenos try, we know their world will be overrun, sooner rather than later. About 5 weeks pass between the beginning of the outbreak and Rick waking from his coma. Being generous, the writers could get two or so seasons out of that stretch—remember, the first season of TWD took less than a week in the internal timeline—but that means two seasons of watching these new characters learn all the same lessons we spent five seasons watching the old characters learn. I am already not looking forward to having to sit through the arduous and accidental discovery that you have to destroy the zombie’s brain, that the disease spreads through biting contact, that it’s unstoppable, that the military is unequipped to contain it, et cetera, et cetera.
And the rub is that you really can’t skip that filling. The prequel characters have to learn the rules of the game, and since it’s early days they have to learn them the hard way. As much as the audience wants the story to get rolling, it wouldn’t make any sense if some talking head just popped up and infodumped all over the episode. It would speed up the narrative but crush the internal logic. It’s a lose-lose situation no matter how you look at it.
Equally as unmoving is the deep dive into the Clarks’ personal lives. Everything not directly about zombies (a precipitous amount) is ultimately sound and fury signifying a run-of-the-mill family drama. It’s hard to get invested in the emotional well-being of the Los Angelenos because in a few short weeks it won’t matter that Madison is a terrible guidance counselor or that Chris Manawa has daddy issues or that Nick is trying to drown his middle-class ennui with drugs. Kim Dickens was hands down one of the best actors in Deadwood and Treme, but here the writers saddled with a character who doesn’t do much of anything but fret and get annoyed. Cliff Curtis fares just as poorly, but here’s to having some Maori representation on television. In the US Curtis usually plays Hispanic or other assorted brown-skinned characters, but with a surname like Manawa, it’s likely Travis is intended to be Maori-American. Points for diversity!
That being said, the zombie stuff is pretty darn intriguing. The scene where Travis explores the gorey ruins of the abandoned church Nick was holed up in was striking and unnerving, as was their first real encounter with a zombie down in the LA River. I’d like to see them fold the family melodrama into the zombie horror a little more and with a little less shoehorning, but for a first episode it’s fine enough. In that way, it really is like TWD. Both shows are great at the dead, not so great at the living.
Of course, while Fear didn’t knock its premiere out of the park like TWD, it did hook me enough to want to stick with it. All the heavy lifting with worldbuilding was already done, and I’m chalking up lackluster character and plot development to the limitations of a premiere, but the most concernful thing is that I still don’t see a reason for the show to exist (besides making AMC execs enough money to swim in). Call it a prequel, spinoff, standalone, or whatever else, but it still needs to prove itself. So far, nothing I’ve seen makes the case that we need this show. Here’s hoping things get a little more even and cohesive as the season progresses. Then again, we’re talking about the same bloodline as The Walking Dead, so maybe don’t hold your breath.
- “You mean it?” “I always mean it.”
- “There’s no bodies. They couldn’t just get up and walk away.”
- I’m always fascinated at how unrealistic TV addicts are. I’ve known addicts before and none of them come close to Nick.
- Speaking of the devil, I’m pretty sure the diner Nick meets his dealer in is the same one where Louis Bloom interviews Rick in Nightcrawler, but with a Los Angeles backdrop instead of Culver City.
- Also, as much as I enjoyed the scattered callbacks to TWD, most especially how Nick’s journey paralleled Rick’s, I kinda hope that’s the last of them. Fear needs to stand on its own, not keep falling back on TWD as a crutch.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.