As chaos spreads across Los Angeles in “Fear the Walking Dead,” a high school guidance counselor invites one of her students to stay with her family until this all blows over.
The kid, though, knows an apocalypse when he sees one.
“This doesn't end,” he tells her.
As a spin-off of TV's highest-rated drama, “Fear the Walking Dead” (it debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC) isn't about to bring an end to the lucrative zombie nightmare. Instead, it's designed to go back to the beginning of it, both to cover some material that the parent show skipped over and to try to correct some mistakes that the original is still trying to work around after five hugely successful seasons.
“The Walking Dead” was designed as Rick Grimes' story, and because Rick was in a coma at the time the zombies began to rise, that show (and the Robert Kirkman comic book that inspired it) skipped right past the fall of civilization, plunging Rick right into this strange new world. And the intense focus on Rick, particularly at the beginning, left the supporting players with skimpy backstories and characterization. The series didn't really start addressing that until a couple of seasons ago, and even now, only some of the survivors get turned into well-rounded people, while others are just future zombie meat.
“Fear” picks up on the other side of the continent, and right at the start of the pandemic. The goal here is to not only fill in some of the blanks about the ways in which society utterly collapsed, but to show you who its main characters were back in the days gone bye. Do that, and suddenly it's a much richer vein to mine as they transform right along with the world. The parent show has done that at times, and been particularly successful with Carol's journey from victim to killer, but because so many of the regulars were introduced as ciphers, whatever changes they've been through haven't been particularly striking.
As a spin-off that borrows the world but not any of the characters from the original, “Fear” is here to keep AMC rolling in zombie money during some of the 36 weeks of the year without new “TWD” episodes. But it's also a chance for the shared creative team (the new series was developed by Kirkman and showrunner Dave Erickson) to identify some things they might have done differently in hindsight on the first show, or at least choices that are easy to make when they're not directly adapting stories from the comics.
But if “Fear” is a project with some noble intentions, it has uneven execution, with the prequel nature of it hurting as much as helping.
On the plus side, as teachers and would-be heads of a new blended family Madison and Travis, Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis provide a very strong center for the new cast. They have a lot going on before the world around them starts to crumble, including Madison trying to protect junkie son Nick (Frank Dillane) from his own demons and Travis's estrangement from his son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie). There's foundation for something here.
But even an actress as nuanced as Dickens, who plays all of her roles (whether in “Deadwood,” “Tremé,” or “Gone Girl”) with an innate intelligence, can only do so much when her character has to spend much of the first episode dismissing other people's warnings about people turning into monsters. From the perspective of a person living in the normal world in which we first meet Madison, she's being perfectly reasonable, even sensible (particularly since one of the people trying to warn her is Nick, shortly after police find him outside a heroin den). But from the perspective of a viewer who has watched almost 70 episodes set in this universe and knows how it works, she comes across like one of the rich swells in “Titanic” who keep insisting the boat can't sink. (Though she's still better than Picasso-hating Billy Zane.) That problem recedes a bit once she and other characters get first-hand experience with the walkers (I've seen the first two of the season's six episodes), but it still doesn't get her – or, later, her achiever daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) – off on the best possible footing. And it's going to be a while before the audience stops being way ahead of the characters in their zombie knowledge, meaning we once again have to watch people figure out that only head injuries stop them, that all dead people will turn into zombies even without being bitten, etc.
And building so much of the drama around this blended family (including Elizabeth Rodriguez from “Orange Is the New Black” as Travis's ex-wife Liza) is another reminder that teenage characters and adult thriller series rarely mix well. (See also “Terra Nova,” “Homeland,” “V,” “The Killing,” etc., etc.) As an addict whose withdrawal symptoms and drug-seeking behavior are at odds with basic zombie apocalypse survival activity, Nick at least adds a wild card element to things that makes sense. (And Madison's reaction to her son's ongoing struggle gives Dickens some of her best material.) Because Alicia is the family member kept in the dark the longest, it's hard to get a read on how well she'll fit into the dark future that's coming. But Chris is introduced in such a whiny, off-putting way that one can only assume the creative teams were big fans of Leo on “Smash.”
Through various creative ups and downs and changes in showrunner, “The Walking Dead” has always been able to rely on the technical brilliance of producer/director/makeup master Greg Nicotero and his team. There's a bit of that on display in the extra-long “Fear” pilot episode, where director Adam Davidson and the crew make excellent use of filming in real LA locations. Production moved to Vancouver after that, and the shift is jarring; there's a riot scene in the second episode that's unfortunately much smaller and less menacing than it's meant to be because the cameras have to stay in tight to avoid showing the very non-Los Angeles environs. And with zombies at this stage more of an isolated problem, and not in any significant state of decay like Rick and company have to deal with 2000 miles away and a few years into the future, the gross-out factor isn't particularly high. Instead, the show tries to rely more on traditional horror movie jump scares, with mixed success.
Given the huge ratings for “The Walking Dead” – and the way they've so often risen independently of the quality of a given stretch of episodes – everyone involved could have gotten away with making “Fear” a lazier and more naked cash grab. Just pick a different group of survivors in an overheated southern location with production tax credits (“The Walking Dead: New Orleans”?), put them through similar ordeals, and profit. It's to everyone's credit that they've tried to rethink the formula a bit with the new show, and there are good building blocks in Dickens and Curtis. Maybe by the end of this abbreviated first season, the prequel of it all becomes more valuable.
Or maybe “Fear the Walking Dead” becomes very much like its parent show not in structure, but in a perpetual state of unevenness, at times living up to its potential (and audience), at times struggling to make its living characters seem appreciably more complex than the dead ones chasing them.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com