It’s time we as an audience admit that Fear The Walking Dead is not good television. The show is 42 minutes of a wasted premise, unfulfilled potential, and idiotic decisions. It is all of The Walking Dead’s worst attributes magnified. All my worries about the long-term quality of Preacher stems from how quickly TWD capsized, how long it took to finally right that ship, how much of a struggle it’s been to keep it afloat, and how eager AMC was to repeat the same mistakes with the spinoff. Yes, the second season is stronger than the first, but that was an awfully low bar to hurdle. And I’m not the only one to notice the quality issues. The show is practically hemorrhaging viewers. Now, 4.8 million sets of eyeballs is still a great number for AMC (though it pales next to The Walking Dead’s 14.2 mil), but that’s also a loss of nearly half its viewership since the season 2 premiere.
With last night’s midseason finale, we’re at a good point to stop and survey. It’s easy enough to note where FTWD has gone horribly awry, but I’d rather look at how it can improve. The show doesn’t suck (although much of the fun has been sucked out of it for me at this point) but it has a long way to go before it comes anywhere close to being Must See TV.
FTWD had a t-ball of a premise and totally whiffed it. A show about zombies in Los Angeles could have big, important things to say about compromised morality, exploitation, and ethics in an unethical world. All those complaints non-Southlanders have about LA would fit perfectly in a SoCal zombie show. A drama about a troubled family learning how to survive in the end of days is, if not original, at least interesting, and tweaking it with LA commentary should be fairly easy.
The family drama is melodramatic at best and contrived plot devices at the worst, all thanks to poor character development and an over-reliance on ciphers (more on that in a tick). While watching a group of people perpetually punish, thwart, and disappoint each other could be an intriguing tack to take, the show fails to muster any thematic weight, leaving it to rot under its own ambitions. Yet despite all the in-fighting, the family dynamic hasn’t shifted. Madison, Travis, and Daniel prioritizing their own offspring over each other’s is a fascinating way to drive a wedge between the survivors, but all they’ve done so far is dance around it. This is a show about the zombie apocalypse, for crying out loud. Where’s the suspense?
Of course, there doesn’t have to be a point to every TV show. Cotton candy for the brain can be just as enjoyable as serious drama. However, FTWD is the laziest kind of television: a nothing show with pretensions of being something. Again, there’s so much premise in a show like this that it could race through storylines faster than The Vampire Diaries and still have plenty leftover or, even better, take its time and relish the slow burn of building tension. But for all its braying, the show isn’t about anything. The writers desperately needs to figure out what their show wants to say if it is going to be anything other than an innocuous way to kill time as a lead-in.
Subtext vs text
Speaking of saying things, let’s talk subtext shall we? This ailment has plagued TWD since the beginning, and unfortunately the infection spread to FTWD. Why imply something when you could have your characters vomit out dialogue that sounds good in principle but is basically paragraphs of nonsense? Every point has to be lit up in neon instead of trusting the audience to come to the intended conclusion. When you’re beaten over the head with every bit of symbolism all the dramatic tension shatters into nothingness. Prestige dramas should make you think about what’s happening on screen instead of settling for in one ear and out the other. Making your audience work for its reward, even putting in just a little effort, pays off as they get invested in what’s happening.
Death and mayhem
Other than presumably Daniel in the midseason finale, when was the last time one of the core group died? Daniel’s wife and that nurse kicked it way back in season 1. A ton of secondary and tertiary characters have been eaten or shot, but other than that: nada. TWD is going through a similar glitch right now as well, with the fan favorites becoming increasingly unkillable. Time after time the Clarks, Manawas, and Salazars blunder into a herd of walkers and miraculously survive with nary a scratch. How do you go through a hiatus promoting water zombies and then don’t do anything with them? What a waste of a cool idea. The stakes need to be raised and quick. Without a sense of urgency or fear, what’s left?
Who are these people?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much of the cast dies off if the audience doesn’t care about any of them in the first place. Setting aside Strand and Nick, all of the characters are awful, and I don’t mean in that fun “Can’t wait to see what they do next!” way. Daniel forgot all of his gruff junta stuff from season 1 to turn into a short-sighted, self-sabotaging old man in season 2. Depending on the needs of the script, Maddie and Travis alternate playing tough guy swinging at windmills and wimpy complainer too mopey to see the forest for the trees. Alicia is basically Andrea but less compelling while Chris is early series Carl with bonus budding sociopathy, and both are so obnoxious I’m actively rooting for their deaths. Ofelia is a pointless and plotless character. I’d forget she even existed if she didn’t wander into frame every now again so Daniel can have something to fret over and Nick and Chris someone to flirt with.
Characters should drive the story, not the other way around. The show has made great strides with Nick since his grating debut, and Strand’s greatness lies in Colman Domingo rather than the script (see also: Melissa McBride and Carol). Obviously scenes like Chris killing the airplane crash victim and Alicia chatting on the walkie with Jack are meant to add layers to their characters, but it’s stuff we already know.
No one save Nick and Strand learn, grow, or change, nor do we discover anything new about them to alter how we perceive them. This far into a show I expect to know a cast well enough to predict how they’ll react to a situation but not enough that I won’t be surprised when they do something unexpected. FTWD, like TWD, would rather move its characters around like chess pieces, meaning what we’re left with is a bunch of cardboard people with no motivations or goals.
Part of the problem on the story structure front is that there is simply too much downtime. In the first season the writers skipped over the very story the audience was promised—how the world falls apart—so we could watch Ofelia hook up with a soldier. And just as they introduced another cool story idea—military takeover and suspension of democracy in the face of fear—they dropped it with the tease of water zombies which was another failed delivery. All of the exciting bits are pushed out in favor of filler and wheel spinning. Not only do the episodes need some serious editing to keep the dramatic tension up, but the storylines need to refocus on the excitement. Clearly the show knows how to do shocks and thrills, and when they let the story unfold on its own it’s actually fun to watch. But before you know it we’re knee deep in pained sighs, grumpy sniping, and aimless staring. Maybe it’s time for a new showrunner.
- “This is not apocalypse. This a beginning, Nicolas. The end of death itself. Life, eternal.”
- Two episodes for Dougray Scott? You hire Dougray Scott for two freaking episodes? What a preposterous waste of a fantastic actor.
- Travis is all over the place this season. Madison had some very valid concerns about Chris in “Sicut Cervus” and Travis responded by blaming her for…something… I still can’t figure out what his side of the argument was other than it was somehow all her fault. He does it again with Alicia at the fountain in “Shiva.”
- And if Chris’ new creepo murder thing is planning on coming to a point, the writers really need to get on that. His arc is going nowhere fast.
- Fun Rosarito fact: the beach there still has the shooting sets for Titanic and Romeo + Juliet.
- Are you telling me Travis went on walkabout in the dark in his socks?! There is always time for shoes, dude. I’m really starting to hate that guy.
- It was stupid when Rick was having fantasy conversations with his dead wife, and it’s stupid now with Daniel.
- The Madison that locked Celia in the cage, give me more of her!
- For the first time ever, I’m genuinely interested in what happens next. How will the show bring the group back together? More importantly, do I care enough to tune in this fall? That remains to be seen…
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.