As a television critic, I watch way too much TV. There are many drawbacks to this, such as not reading nearly as much as I’d like to, but there are also some benefits, such as that I feel I have a large perspective on what’s good because I have a wide understanding of what is out there. Even though I hate zombies, The Walking Dead is my favorite current show because it has the richest and most original characters and scenarios and the most complex, make-you-think writing on the tube, which, in my opinion, is what makes great TV right now. (It also has terrific acting and design, but so do many others.) So my expectations were high for FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, the prequel spin-off practically sharing the title, which premiered last night
FEAR THE WALKING DEAD is not The Walking Dead; this much is clear pretty early on. Someday it may be, but it is not from the get go. I’m not saying that in the way that The Walking Dead was great at the beginning, but took some time before it became as awesome as it is now. Pilot versus pilot, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD falls short, with its family being less compelling than Rick and their world being much more familiar.
But honestly, it only falls slightly short, still making it one of the best things on, and something I will look forward to tuning in each week.
Part of this inferiority may be necessary because of the structure of the first episode, given where the series is starting from. The Walking Dead had the luxury of a man alone in the world, which is easy to focus in on. FEAR THE WALKING DEAD begins in a bustling city, still very much alive and operating, so there is, by necessity, a lot more distraction.
The distraction is well used in most cases. The first sequence ends with a pull back on the lively city, and this makes an impact. It doesn’t make an impact on its own, because lots of series could show a similar shot with little effect. It makes an impact because the vast majority of viewers are familiar with what this world is about to become, and an impending sense of doom hangs over L.A.
Viewers see this again and again throughout the first hour, this program playing off the expectations and tropes of the other, with a wink and a nudge. A hunching administrator isn’t a zombie, but he could be soon. A dying man in the hospital hasn’t turned, but any time now, all dying men will. An attack on police by a motorist moments ago lying dead on the road is strange, but to the characters, it doesn’t spell the end of civilization, just the spread of a mysterious illness.
At first, I was a bit disappointed that FEAR THE WALKING DEAD wasn’t giving us a macro image of the descent of the city and the country. Then, I realized that was because of whose perspective it was being told from. The pilot opens with Nick Clark (Frank Dillane, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) high on drugs, then in the hospital. The other three core players, Nick’s mother, Madison (Kim Dickens, Treme, Friday Night Lights), his sister, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey, The 100), and his step-father, Travis (Cliff Curtis, Gang Related), are all focused on what’s going on with Nick. Of course they aren’t glued to the news. Not yet anyway.
I can’t fault these characters for their concerns, and I can’t fault FEAR THE WALKING DEAD for zooming in on them. After all, at the start of this review, I admitted that the characters are what drive the parent show, so choosing to keep the story personal in this other chapter is a smart move, one that will surely help it in the long run.
Then there’s the simple fact that these people and their lives suck me in so completely. The concern, the desperation, the frustration they experience is highly relatable and compelling because of the top-notch performances. Few shows have the power to grab my full attention and not let go. This is one of them.
So maybe it has a few flaws, skimming over some things, using a couple of characters for cannon fodder, Madison not being more interested in why the school is suddenly empty. But the pilot is very good, and being set in a densely populated city, I am incredibly intrigued to watch the collapse of civilization from people on the front lines, many of whom surely won’t survive. This is a family unit that cannot possibly make it out of the City of Angels without loss, and I already care enough about them to be invested in their continued survival. Great job, all around, for making a worthy expansion of a wonderfully wicked world.
My only question is this: where is our Talking Fear hosted by Chris Hardwick?
FEAR THE WALKING DEAD airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.