Why I’m Watching… Fear the Walking Dead
by Thom Yee
Because I already watch regular The Walking Dead?
Ultimately that’s pretty weak reasoning, but it’s also the type of base reasoning that makes spinoffs possible: hope for a minimum guaranteed audience. Breaking Bad fans watch Better Call Saul. Cheers fans watched Frasier. Friends fans watched Joey. Actually, nobody watched Joey.
In its earliest incarnation as an indie comicbook (aaaall the way back in 2003), The Walking Dead wasn’t a horror story, but a what-happens-after-the-horror story that wasn’t concerned with where the geek/walker/biter/rotter/roamer zombie virus came from, how it took over, if it could be cured, or when things would go back to normal because the real monster is man himself…! Creator Robert Kirkman knew that the real story was less the cause, but more the ongoing effects, and when you think of our series’ villains — the Governor, the cannibals of Terminus, those Claimer jerks — all started from seemingly modest, relatively normal beginnings only to become the all-consuming sources of dread, intimidation, and death that would prove to be the undoing of the variously doomed members of Rick and his morose band of miscreants.
Fear the Walking Dead is the opposite, the origin story, what happened before, the prequel, and we all know how well those usually turn out:
But it’s only six episodes, and what else am I going to do on a Sunday night? Something worthwhile?
So here we are at the start of a brand new Walking Dead series. Though the Walking Dead comicbook has been a consistently compelling title through most of its run, it wasn’t until 2010 and the Walking Dead TV show that the property would find truly monstrous franchise status. Today it’s a show watched by millions of viewers, a comicbook read by more people than read X-Men, and even a series of toys bought by fanboys (and girls) and normal people alike. It’s a truly surreal moment when you can walk into a local, family-owned drugstore to pick up a bottle of Aspirin and walk out with a Governor’s Room playset complete with zombie-head fish tanks and undead daughter, but it’s all indicative of a world where zombies have become a consistent part of the ongoing conversation and a culture that’s moved so far towards embracing pop. In some ways it’s almost crazy that we’ve waited this long for the first official spin-off.
Fear the Walking Dead picks up at the beginning of the world-shattering zombie epidemic we all know and love, and after seeing the pilot episode, it remains to be seen what questions it will answer or what import the series will have to the overarching franchise. Right now, we’ve got Madison, a high school guidance counselor and single mother, Nick, her drug-addled runaway son, Alicia, her prodigal but whiny daughter, and Travis, an English teacher and Madison’s fiancé and co-worker, and for the most part it’s all very conventional family drama, almost to the point of the show’s detriment. Crucially, however, the pilot is also shot with a sort of knowing narrative focus that really messes with us as an audience that knows zombies are at least figuratively right around the corner if not yet literally. The opening sequence, taking place in a semi-abandoned, very haunted-looking church, is actually really effective, though It may also have played a bit better if we weren’t already familiar with what we’re getting into.
It’s that dichotomy that’s at the heart of Fear the Walking Dead as a series. For the first time, people like me don’t know what’s coming because there is no comic to read ahead with, but in another way all of us as viewers are already well ahead of the main characters because we already know what this world is. The pilot largely manages to avoid any especially egregious moments of people being stupid around zombies, but there are no doubt going to be times in this show where we’ll be screaming for our heroes to smarten up as they continually underestimate the dangers they’re in. As a prequel, that’s just kind of the way it is, but in placing the Walking Dead concept back in time, it also has to take a step back into a more recognizable reality. Unlike its parent show, Fear the Walking Dead has the significant advantage of having the full breadth of a recognizable reality to play in as we witness the breakdown of a world just outside our door, but it’s also that quality that can act as a significant disadvantage. This isn’t just a genre show where we’re comfortable with the undead being hacked to pieces or the rising of megalomaniac dictator and cannibal cults, this is our world, and though that affords the dramatic moments the chance to set in for the true horror they represent, it also means those moments have to make a little more sense. I mean, I can’t be the only person picking away at the fabric of this show on a meta level, wondering if this world somehow evolved without zombie movies to act as guides.
Really, you can’t tell they’re zombies? Really, you’re confused when they try to bite you? Really, you’re surprised when they rise from the seeming dead until a head wound finally finishes them off? Really, you don’t even have a word for zombies? I can kind of buy that in The Walking Dead because that show is somewhat removed from reality, but Fear the Walking Dead is significantly more in reality, and here in the real world we already know zombie rules.
More than The Walking Dead, the strength of Fear the Walking Dead will have to lie much more in the dramatic than the horrific, if for no other reason than it takes time to build up an army of the undead for our heroes to defeat or be defeated by. Pacing will be key for this show, especially because we’ve already seen how far gone this world will end up. At this point, Fear the Walking Dead has at least gotten the first part right in that I think I would care if (and when) one of the main characters dies, but I don’t think this is going to be a show that leaves you dying to see the next episode in the same way that The Walking Dead can.
Fear the Walking Dead — “Pilot” final score
Items of Note:
- iPhone 4’s! Way to stick to the correct timeline, production and prop masters!
- To think these people will never have the luxury of LTE. The horror!
- Haha, Nick has to wear old man clothes!
- Why do old people dress like that?
- What kind of a punk-ass drug dealer drives a sixth-gen Honda Accord?
- “Where’s your head at?” takes on a slightly different meaning in this universe.
- Here’s a sobering fact: that 90-minute broadcast running time? Was only 64 minutes of actual show.