This review contains spoilers for the first episode of Fear the Walking Dead
I stopped watching AMC’s The Walking Dead at the end of the third season. I had had enough. Enough of the slow moving slog of a plot. Enough of the recycling of themes. Enough of the bleak, depressing outlook on everything. The season ended and it was a great opportunity to just walk away from the show. I had escaped the apocalypse and I was glad for it.
So, of course when season four premiered suddenly all I saw was people talking about how The Walking Dead had finally gotten good. Of course the buzz was about how season four was the best season yet. And of course all I saw was more positive buzz moving through the following season. But I resisted. I had escaped! The Walking Dead would no longer drag me down into it’s depressing zombie-filled pits.
And then I met a girl.
As many of your have already witnessed this particular girl has a great power to convince me to do many things I never thought I would. Well, she also happens to absolutely love The Walking Dead. So it was with great doubt and hesitation that I waded back into this cannibal infested train station.
Turns out, The Walking Dead did get good in the fourth season. And even better in the fifth. The showrunners have finally found the right formula: keeping the machine moving forward with a minimum quota of gruesome zombie kills per episode while also constantly tackling different themes. They’re using the zombie apocalypse in the best ways possible: exploring our own humanity. And best of all, they’re not constantly beating the same drum. Each storyline in the season is moving to different places. Each character is growing and changing. The ending of season 5, finding our heroes safe for the first time and exploring how they deal with that reality was fascinating. The Walking Dead is a good show! I’m not sure I can with good conscious recommend that you sit through 40 hours of subpar television to get to the point where it turns into a good show, but if you quit after season three like I did the latest episodes are at the very least worth your time.
But we’re not here to talk about The Walking Dead. I want to instead talk about last night’s premier of Fear The Walking Dead, AMC’s terribly named spinoff show. I will admit that it’s difficult to tell exactly where a show is going after only 90 minutes in its world, but the first episode of Fear already showed a lot of the problems that this format is going to have. For those of you that don’t know, the show is a prequel of sorts taking place in Los Angeles just as the virus outbreak that turns everyone into zombies is just kicking off. It centers around one family as they struggle to understand what is happening and survive the oncoming apocalypse. Each member of the family has their own issues and problems and these will be the primary dramatic forces as the world slowly descends into zombie-fueled chaos.
The biggest problem Fear has right now is it’s just really boring. The first episode mostly deals with standard pilot stuff, introducing us to our characters. The problem is they’re not really interesting given what we already know. I don’t care about these guys and their drug problems and family issues and how they might get in trouble skipping school when I know that right around the corner is a zombie about to eat their face. I don’t need to see a group of people discovering that the dead are walking, we’ve already seen that.
The episode mostly focuses on Nick Clarke (Frank Dillane) who, in a heroin haze, wakes up inside an abandoned church to find his girlfriend eating some people. Nick flees and is struck by a car and is found raving about people eating people, blood and viscera. This opening scene is great and by far the best part of the episode. When Nick wakes up in the church it looks like all the abandoned buildings we’re so used to in a post apocalyptic Walking Dead. We immediately assume the end has already come. The show does this intentionally, playing off the viewer’s expectations. As Nick flees his undead girlfriend and is hit by the car, the camera does a slow zoom out and a fully functioning non-apocalyptic Los Angeles is revealed, complete with traffic and airplanes. Despite knowing exactly what time period the show takes place, I was entranced by the cleverness and skill of this opening shot. I was in.
This goodwill this scene earned is then squandered over the remaining 70 minutes as the show transitions into what feels like a very standard drama. Nick’s family finds him in the hospital and immediately think he’s crazy. The episode then focuses on domestic squabbles between Nick’s Mother Kim (Madison Clark), her recently moved-in boyfriend Cliff (Travis Manawa) and his child from another marriage. This is intercut with Nick wandering around LA trying to figure out if he’s crazy or not. There’s no drama here. We know Nick isn’t crazy. We know there wasn’t something laced in his heroin that made him hallucinate. Nick saw a zombie.
Throughout the episode we get hints of what’s to come. A nerdy pimple-faced kid trying to sneak a knife into the school because he somehow knows what’s coming, news reports of increased amounts of violence around the city, and camera footage of a man getting shot several times and still getting up. All of this is played as a reveal to the characters and the audience. The problem is, like Nick’s zombie, we already knew all this stuff. The opening scene makes it clear that the target audience is regular watchers of its parent show, but do fans of The Walking Dead really want to watch people discovering what zombies are and how to kill them…again? I know I don’t.
This all comes to a head at the conclusion of the episode. Nick, still thinking he hallucinated, meets with his dealer to find out what was in the drugs. The dealer, seeing Nick’s decaying mental state decides he’s a threat and must die, taking him to the LA river to kill him (so for those of you wondering how long a show taking place in LA would wait before showing the LA river: about 70 minutes). There is a struggle and the dealer ends up shot dead. But of course, he gets back up. Nick, Kim, and Cliff all witness this. The episode ends with our main characters trying to understand just what the hell is going on. Spoiler: it’s zombies.
And that’s the main issue here: Fear The Walking Dead is a prequel. It could very well be that these characters get more interesting as the show continues. We might end up loving them just as much as we love Rick, Daryl, and co. But that doesn’t matter. We already know what happens. Society will fall, people will turn on each other, and pain and suffering will be had by all. We know where this goes, and we’ve been exploring these same themes for five years already.
At the end of the episode, my girlfriend, who loves The Walking Dead looked at me and said “I don’t get it. Isn’t this whole show just waiting for things to get to the place they were in the first show? And I like all those characters way more.” She’s right. Fear the Walking Dead is superfluous. It probably shouldn’t exist. The truth is that the only one that is really afraid here is AMC. They’ve watched their two biggest shows, Breaking Bad and Mad Men end and with it the majority of their ratings. All they have left is The Walking Dead, a show which realistically only has a couple more seasons left in it. Fear is a result of AMC watching their network go down the toilet and milking it for every drop as it goes.
I’m probably going to keep watching this show for the time being. I find my Sunday night time slot unusually empty and I’m curious enough that I want to see where they’re going to go with this whole thing. After all, it is still very possible that this show could wind up doing some new, exciting, and unexpected things. But the first episode did little to prove that to me. And this time around I don’t think the showrunners have 4 seasons to figure it out.