The Walking Dead is one of the most successful shows currently on television and with good reason. It is a smart, character-driven drama that has captivated audiences by constantly developing their characters and letting us become invested in their stories as they journey through the zombie apocalypse. It seems that AMC is hoping to make lightning strike twice by creating a companion series for the popular show entitled Fear the Walking Dead.
Instead of in the south, Fear the Walking Dead takes place in Los Angeles in the several-week period that Rick Grimes was in a coma and is unable to witness the slowly descending horror. We are able to watch how things fall apart in a major metropolitan area as it crumbles under the weight of the hordes of the undead.
Unlike the original zombie show, the characters aren’t the somewhat random assortment of characters. Instead, we’re presented with what seems to be an extended family, including a mother, stepfather, two teenagers, assorted exes, and their relations. The idea seems to be that rather than showing how humanity can build new families in the wake of tragedy, we instead see how a fairly dysfunctional established family prevents itself from falling apart with the world around them.
The adult leads Madison and Travis (played by Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis) have just moved in together along with Madison’s children from a previous marriage, Nick (Frank Dillane) and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey). Alicia is distant and has trouble connecting with her mother while Nick is a heroin addict firmly entrenched in the LA underground drug scene. In fact, the pilot opens with Nick waking up after what we can presume to be a night of partying and stumbling around much like a walker (or “infected” in this series). That’s when he stumbles upon his friend Gloria who is eating another person.
What is particularly interesting about this is that Gloria looks entirely human at this point, reminding us a little bit of the rules of the show which are consistent in the spinoff. Series creator Robert Kirkman and others associated with The Walking Dead have mentioned that as the show goes on, the walker makeup becomes more decomposed. These bodies have not stopped rotting. Here, at the beginning of the outbreak, it’s hard to tell the difference between a zombie and somebody just incredibly high.
The family dynamic and “slow burn” of the series seems to work, at least in the pilot episode. Most stories really happen in the slow moments between set pieces where we’re given a chance to actually learn who these people are. Fear the Walking Dead is not afraid to give us plenty of time to learn about the people we’re supposed to care about. Fans of the show know where this is heading, so there’s no point in rushing things. Instead, it takes the the time to let us see everything turn to ashes around them.
About the only thing that doesn’t seem to work is the teenaged characters. This is not to say that the actors don’t do a fine job. In fact, they are both excellent. But the problem with teenagers in entertainment is that we expect them to exhibit a certain amount of selfishness in most circumstances, and that becomes annoying when it means life and death. A teen storming off in a huff on a normal family drama will take some time to cool off and everybody is fine. A teen storming off in a huff during a zombie outbreak costs lives of characters we do care about.
Ultimately, Fear the Walking Dead is compelling. It gives our characters places to go, flaws to correct, which is what will get us to love them. The setting is interesting and it gives us an opportunity to really understand who these people are. Fans of the original series should find themselves right at home with the spinoff. You can catch Fear the Walking Dead on AMC and cable TV every Sunday night. You won’t want to miss the new show of the undead.
Conceptually, it is a good idea to fill in the blanks of how this particular zombie apocalypse began and overall, I appreciate the fact that the series does not simply rush into the new reality (as was the case, with Rick in The Walking Dead) and teases the audience with hints of what is to come. However, there is a moment where I was unable to accept – when Nick is unable to describe what he saw, almost as if the concept of the zombie did not even exist in the Walking Dead universe – for a TV show that works hard on realism that moment fell flat. But overall, Fear The Walking Dead works. (KM)