Though it has hit its stride in the last couple of seasons, The Walking Dead was far from a strong show in the early goings. The show took its sweet time to figure itself out, a process exacerbated by a revolving door of showrunners. The show spent years lost in the wilderness, figuratively as well as literally, visibly struggling to decide just what it was that it wanted to do and who its motley collection of ciphers were supposed to be. These were things the show eventually did start to crack, but only just fairly recently. However, The Walking Dead’s lone triumph in those early days was found in its fantastic pilot episode, which confidently set the stage for a series that didn’t seem to materialize in the episode’s immediate wake. In that 90-minute premiere, which aired Halloween Night 2010, Sheriff Rick Grimes is shot in the line of duty and goes into a coma, only to awake some time later in a broken world that bore little resemblance to the one in which he lived prior to his hospitalization. Society had crumbled, people were scarce and undead marauders shambled around menacingly. Rick’s struggle to make sense of this new world, to locate his family and ultimately to make an ill-advised trek into what remained of Atlanta gave the pilot a gripping structure, plugging us into Rick’s point of view as we experienced everything through his eyes. It would be quite some time before The Walking Dead would again conduct itself with this level of dexterity.
Fear the Walking Dead, AMC’s companion to its flagship show, doesn’t have nearly as strong of a pilot episode. This series, which takes us to Los Angeles in the immediate onset of the viral apocalypse, sets itself apart from The Walking Dead by examining the fall of society as it happened rather than the aftermath, bearing witness to all the chaos that Rick missed out on while he slept. Fear the Walking Dead looks at a world caught with its pants down, that can’t yet fathom the notion of the dead roaming the earth. Rick awoke to a world where people had a loose handle on what was happening, enough to where the dead had already been assigned nicknames (i.e. walkers) and the means to kill them were common knowledge. Fear, on the other hand, starts off in a world that has only just begun hearing reports of a mysterious flu outbreak. When dead bodies eventually do start shambling around, no one knows what to think. It doesn’t help that, unlike The Walking Dead, where the walkers have been around long enough to have experienced considerable, dehumanizing decay, the zombies in Fear are fresh enough to look just like regular people.
Fear sets its focus upon a single family. We’re first introduced to Nick Clark (Frank Dillane), a junkie who wakes in a heroin-addled daze in an abandoned church that’s become a drug den. Though his bleary fog, Nick attempts to locate his girlfriend Gloria, only to find her coated in blood and ravenously eating another man. Nick flees the scene in a panic and ends up being struck in the road by a passing car. Awaking in a hospital under observation and bound in restraints, Nick must confront his concerned family, including his exasperated mother Madison (Kim Dickens), her kindly, approval-seeking new husband Travis (Cliff Curtis) and Nick’s disaffected sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey). Nick’s wild story of cannibalism is sloughed off by everyone as the delusions of a drug addict, except for Travis, who is so eager to connect with his stepson that he decides to investigate the church himself (alone, at night; Travis doesn’t make strong choices) to locate evidence to corroborate Nick’s story. Poking around in the dark, Travis comes across a large puddle of coagulated blood, bolstering Nick’s claims.
Eventually Nick breaks free from the hospital, using the neighboring patient’s virus-based complications as a distraction. He attempts to score some more product from his dealer Calvin (Keith Powers) to get the horrific memory of Gloria out of his head, but Calvin has come to view Nick as a loose-lipped liability and takes him out to a remote area, intending to kill him. Nick figures out Calvin’s intentions far later than he should have, but still with enough time to grab Calvin’s gun hand and force a struggle, resulting in Calvin taking a shot to the chest. Nick flees in horror, and when he meets up with Madison and Travis, they all return to the crime scene with Calvin’s body nowhere in sight. As the family attempts to drive off, they find Calvin shuffling down a dark tunnel, where he animalistically tries to attack the family, forcing Nick to ram the family vehicle into him repeatedly until Calvin finally ceases getting up to resume his attack. Meanwhile, in the background of all of this, reports keep coming in of chaos ensuing all around town, with viral videos of crazed men absorbing seemingly fatal gunshots surfacing online.
The chief component of the Fear pilot that hobbles the series out of the gate is the decision to focus on the tribulations of this dull family. In addition to the struggles with Nick, Travis also must deal with his ex-wife and his resentful son, his attempts to reconcile his previous family with his new one not going swimmingly. We also spend too much time with Alicia and her adoring, art-loving boyfriend. By positioning itself in its inaugural bow as a tedious family drama first and foremost, Fear the Walking Dead shoots itself in the foot, especially since the pilot drags on for an arduous 90 minutes. The Walking Dead’s pilot ran at that same extended length, but it used each and every one of those 90 minutes with economical proficiency, sending Rick on a full journey. Fear sets up an utterly unremarkable set of characters and expects us to instantly care about their domestic strife. It’s not simply a matter of “get to the good stuff,” zombie-wise; it’s that what we’re given here is plainly uninteresting on its face. If the show wants to play the slow burn on the apocalyptic elements, that’s a valid decision, but the onus is on it to make the foregrounded material captivating on its own in the meantime. Thus far, Fear the Walking Dead fails on this front spectacularly.
There aren’t really any standouts as of yet among the cast, apart from perhaps the steeliness Kim Dickens brings to Madison, but The Walking Dead started off as, essentially, a one-man show before adding key supporting players later on. As the Clark family descends into the forthcoming societal collapse and walker infestation, the hope will become that they, too, will come into contact with people more interesting than themselves (a Daryl Dixon is sorely needed here). As far as spin-off concepts go, Fear the Walking Dead has a solid one. The question toward spinning off The Walking Dead had always been how another show could avoid merely being a regurgitation of something we’re already receiving a steady diet of (honestly, that feeling of constant repetition often plagues The Walking Dead itself), so tackling the point in time when the chaos first began is a sound idea for differentiating itself from the parent series. Fear the Walking Dead just needs to walk this path without collapsing into tedium. Asking people to invest another four years of hopeful faith while the show sorts itself out is a request that can only be asked of an audience once.
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