I doubt I need to describe The Walking Dead – the series has been so successful, attracting stupidly large audiences who watch avidly to follow the characters’ journeys, seeing who will live and who will die. This is a show that has balanced the survival horror aspects of a zombie film with in-depth personal evolution more befitting of a fancy drama, and has done so to critical acclaim. What started as a little-known comic book has become one of the most popular TV shows in the world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the immense popularity of The Walking Dead has led to it being granted a spin-off, and the success of the mother show has raised the bar for Fear the Walking Dead. The show has a lot to deal with and, based on its pilot, I think it still has a way to go.
The series deals with the world before and as the zombie apocalypse strikes. It follows a dysfunctional family composed of high school guidance counsellor Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), her English teacher boyfriend Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), and her children, overachieving daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and drug addict son Nick (Frank Dillane). Later episodes will add Travis’ ex-wife and son, and Ofella Salazar (Mercedes Mason), who is described as a ‘hardworking professional’ (whatever that means) with immigrant parents. They find themselves having to confront their flawed selves in order to survive the end of civilisation.
Fear the Walking Dead severs all ties with its predecessor by setting it in both a different time and a different place – in this case, Los Angeles – but it still somehow feels like the same beast. Obviously, you’re expecting there to be some level of similarity, but this is not always a positive.
A corollary of setting this before the zombie apocalypse is that, pretty evidently, there is not that much in the way of zombies. This could turn out to be a positive – the opening sequence, in which Nick discovers a fellow drug addict all zombified and eating someone’s face, is quite tense and a nice change from the almost world-weariness that Rick Grimes would treat a zombie with – but it fails to really play with it. Using a drug addiction as a way to explain the ‘weird behaviour’ Nick witnesses seems a bit of a cop-out – an easy way to drag out the situation, rather than seeing the reaction to a more lucid person describing the scene.
One of the criticisms often levelled at The Walking Dead is that it often chose to focus on the characters at the expense of any action or zombies. This show’s set-up means that it is forced towards the former path, and this is a negative when it means little happens as a result. The pilot was an hour long, but it felt so much longer – I checked my watch a number of times to see how much longer was left, and I’m not sure that was the vibe Fear the Walking Dead was aiming for. This is not a criticism of drama in any way, but these scenes were often long, tedious and really very dull – having little happen on-screen is not the same as building mood, no matter what this show thinks.
However, this is a sole episode and I don’t think it would be fair to chastise the show so heavily based on this opening hour. It is worth noting that the central cast have good chemistry and instant likeability – it is very easy to root for them, and they help plant the show in whatever form of reality you find zombies roaming around. This episode was also the most watched premiere in US cable history – no doubt a lot of The Walking Dead fans tuned in, and those fans would not have been disappointed.
I got the impression throughout the episode that the pilot was taking its time because it knew it had the laurels of The Walking Dead to rest on, and although that seems a fair way to play it, I wished that it would strike out on its own terms. Instead, we had a dreary hour that you couldn’t wait to be over, suffering through it because the source inspiration is so popular. I don’t intend to judge the show solely on this episode – I know that pilots have a lot of work to do, building the world and introducing the characters as well as offering a cogent tale, and no doubt the show will pick up pace as it goes on. As it stands, however, taking the Fear the Walking Dead pilot on its own merits means deeming it full of promise, but completely disappointing and too frequently boring.