Less a spinoff and more a prequel, Fear the Walking Dead began its six-episode first season on Aug. 23. Securing a record-shattering 10.1 million viewers, the series premiere demonstrated the power of the franchise and will continue to prompt interest in U.S. audiences’ ever growing enthusiasm for pandemics and the undead. Has the series matched up with the reputation established by its parent show? Not even close. But it could get there in time.
Fear takes us back several years, showing us the events that took place before the beginning of The Walking Dead, and which set the zombie apocalypse into motion. It’s set in Los Angeles, providing a more urban backdrop as an interesting counterpoint to the other series’ rural landscape. But rather than root itself in mystery and symbolism, like the main show, here the plot is straightforward — to a fault, because it seems like an odd approach for a series that is supposed to be slowly unraveling the “beginning of the end,” as it were, for the audience.
The episode begins with the first zombie already causing mayhem, with others appearing soon afterward as the people of L.A. begin to realize that some sort of virus is infecting people. One “walker” is only witnessed in a classroom, on smartphones, in the form of a YouTube video that went viral, and to the show’s credit, this successfully taps into the very real way that news — especially tragic events — reach the eyes and ears of us millennials. But it seems that the writers are bull-headedly determined to push any and all unknown elements or subtleties out of the narrative, so that it almost feels like the main characters are experiencing this all vicariously. The writers trade what could have been a creepy slow burn for a mad dash to get us right into the thick of things.
And parallels drawn between one of this show’s characters and The Walking Dead‘s Rick Grimes don’t help the prequel to distinguish itself. Here, a drug addict wakes up to witness a walker feasting on an unwitting victim, while five seasons ago on the parent series, Rick awoke from a coma to see much the same thing, albeit on a grander scale.
That’s only one of the problems. The other is that the characters, as of now, aren’t all that interesting. The focus is on a family — a mother, her boyfriend, the aforementioned addict (who is her son), and her daughter. Each character has a mildly interesting backstory that the episode spends way too much time focusing on, and the best character, boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis), gets much less screen time than the worst one — son Nick (Frank Dillane). And yet, the roles seem well-acted; it’s not the cast that leaves something to be desired, but rather, what the showrunners are willing — or not willing — to do with them. Still, this is the pilot, so judgment on that part of the show ought to be reserved for now.
Despite these shortcomings, it’s the Walking Dead brand’s signature stamp of gripping drama and scenes of gore and viscera that hold my interest right now. The guys behind the original show know how to craft their scenes, weaving elaborate tapestries of suspense and grit, and that’s equally evident in the prequel. Other smaller scenes, like a troubled student’s ominous advice (“there’s safety in numbers”) and a man getting sick in the hospital (it’s insinuated that he’s “turning,” though never directly acknowledged), go a long way toward making things more compelling. It shows that less is more, and that credo, actually, is what the show needs to adopt going forward – both to differentiate itself from its series counterpart, and to build things up, thematically speaking, to a nerve-shattering crescendo.
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