From Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic launched in 2003 to the phenomenally good Telltale Games video game (and its disappointing sequel) to one of the most popular shows on television, The Walking Dead has been a massive pop culture force. In a culture already over-saturated with zombie stories, The Walking Dead stands out as a major player across various media, with characters people truly love (or love to hate) in an adventure series that’s less Zombie Movie and more Soap Opera with Zombies. It’s often melodramatic, silly, and occasionally insane, but the TV series, driven by a strong cast and solid cinematography, has proven itself in spite of some true lows (Lori’s amazing car crash in season 2, pretty much all of the major villains) and has shown some amazing highs (Season 4’s brutal episode The Grove and Jennifer Lynch’s incredibly grotesque, wonderfully shot season 5 episode Spend.)
It’s no surprise that a second series would be green-lighted, though I was surprised to see that it would air while the original series was still going strong. Debuting a couple of months before the original series begins its sixth season, Fear the Walking Dead is a new series helmed by Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson that takes place in a very different time and place. Gone are the rural hills of Georgia in the years after the downfall of civilization; Fear instead takes place in Los Angeles, right as the outbreak begins to surface. My favorite Star Trek series is Deep Space 9, a spin-off of the massively popular Next Generation that, like Fear, launched during the sixth year of its predecessor’s run. Could this be another case of a spin-off that surpasses the quality of its big brother?
Fear the Walking Dead is currently slated to run for six episodes, with a potential (almost guaranteed) for a couple more seasons to follow if it’s a success. Aside from a new location and new cast, it also features a distinct look from the main show, with a warmer color palette and a heavier focus on nervous tension rather than survivalist horror. The pilot episode has a few moments of horror, but for the most part gives viewers a slower burn, with focus mostly settling on inter-family drama. If you just want to see zombie massacres and don’t want to deal with melodrama, you probably won’t find a lot to latch on to here. As for myself, I like melodrama and I like the new show’s slow pacing. In fact, it probably would have been best for it to be even slower, without a clear zombie reveal in the first episode at all (we see a couple here, though one is only seen second hand.)
A major aspect that sets Fear apart from The Walking Dead is its focus on a more vulnerable cast. By the end of the original series’ fifth season, regulars like Rick, Michonne, and Daryl feel utterly invulnerable. They’re strong, smart, and extremely competent (barring a few weird moments) and I don’t really have any worry that they’re able to take care of their group. Fear focuses on Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), a high school guidance counselor who has recently begun dating a teacher at her school, Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis.) Madison’s two children, the frustrated Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and the drug-addicted Nick (Frank Dillane) round out the rest of the family unit.
The first episode’s focus is mostly on Nick, who awakens from a drug stupor and has a near-death experience that lands him in the hospital. Dillane plays Nick as a nervous, non-stop Johnny Depp clone struggling to figure out if a horrific scene he stumbled across was real or the result of a fried brain. He’s not yet a likable character, but he is a sympathetic one, and the show doesn’t judge him for his drug abuse. There’s none of the weird shaming that happened with the original show’s Bob and his alcoholism, for instance. Nick wants to get out of the hospital, his mom wants him to go into rehab, his step father wants to believe his story and uncover the truth, and his sister wants to roll her eyes a lot. Alicia’s the weakest link right now, though it’s still very early.
We’re (thankfully) given no real information on what caused the zombie outbreak, but we’re shown early on that some sort of super flu has sickened a great many people across the country and that there are rumors online (from stories to videos that some assume must be faked) that the dead are rising. It’s mostly treated as hogwash by our lead characters. It’s treated as gospel by Tobias (Lincoln A. Castellanos), a proto-Eugene goon who could possibly survive and become the most endearing member of the cast if the original series’ favorite nerd is any indication.
Events escalate quickly and Nick’s eventually proven to be not totally crazy, as recently dead begin rising up more frequently and causing more trouble, leading to what looks like it’s going to be a three-way struggle between the people of Los Angeles, the infected, and the police as they begin to institute a lockdown on the city. I’m hoping we get more shades of gray here than an outright “the military are the bad guys” story, but the show could go pretty much anywhere from here. From The Governor to Terminus to The Wolves, the original show was absolutely terrible at showing its villains as anything but cartoon crazy men. Fear has a chance to do this right, especially since it’s not tied to any of the plots of the comic, and has an opportunity to show opposing sides who both think they’re right, without either being complete psychopaths.
The worst parts of the pilot are some shoddy special effects (using a big flashlight and helicopter noises in lieu of actually showing us a helicopter is really lazy and cheap) and the mostly wasted Alicia, whose minor plot regarding her boyfriend not showing up for a date isn’t very compelling. I’m hoping she gets a chance to do more, as neither she nor the boyfriend are interesting people as of this point. At least they (along with Madison and Travis) get to be an example of a positive portrayal of an interracial couple. That’s a nice thing to see, at the very least.
Overall I’m pretty pleased with this pilot episode. It’s very different from the action-horror of the excellent pilot to the original series, and that’s for the best. The show is establishing itself as its own thing from day one, and I hope it maintains its momentum without falling into the same cycles as the original series.