Surprisingly, AMC may have another hit with ‘Fear the Walking Dead’

Spoiler free response to the surprising first two episodes of AMC”s “Fear the Walking Dead”.

Take a look at our video chat on the series in the player above.

To say that I had reservations when AMC announced that it was developing a spin-off series for ratings juggernaut “The Walking Dead” is an understatement of zombie horde proportions. As a business decision, the move is an obvious one for the network to make. “The Walking Dead” is an extraordinary success for AMC, so it”s not surprising that they”d want to invest in extending its life on television for as long as it continues to yield dividends. What”s better than one ratings triumph, after all, if not two?

Creatively, however, the choice seemed ill-advised. To be fair, despite the reservations of both critics and fans, the “Breaking Bad” spin-off “Better Call Saul” had an extraordinary first season. “Saul” creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould managed to craft a show that is both tonally cohesive with its parent series and functions as a distinct and unique story. So, it”s certainly possible to succeed in what on paper is a risky endeavor.

“The Walking Dead” has frequently been an uneven series alternating between moments of exhilarating entertainment and what feel like frustrating missed opportunities. Perhaps more saliently, it”s been challenging for many “The Walking Dead” viewers to conceive of a world in which one group of survivors fighting their way through this particular zombie apocalypse is radically different than another. In fact, “The Walking Dead” retreads story territory from season to season. As such, perhaps the most significant concern heading into “Fear the Walking Dead” was its ability to offer something that the audience hasn”t seen previously.

The solution that AMC found was to explore the onset of the rise of the Walkers (or Biters…or whatever nomenclature this group inevitably bestows upon the undead). As “The Walking Dead” fans know, protagonist Rick Grimes was in a coma when disaster struck the earth and civilization was already on its last breath when he awoke. “Fear the Walking Dead” takes us through the time that Rick was sleeping. Set in Los Angeles, the premiere pulls back the curtain on the early days of what appears to be a viral contagion. Ostensibly, that approach could read as a bit of a gimmick.

Here”s what surprised me: The series is really quite engaging. The strength comes down to the performances and its ability to be self-referential without devolving into self-parody. Cliff Curtis and Kim Dickens star as a couple who are working to integrate their blended family, and they”re each more than equipped to quickly establish the stakes of this world and get the viewer invested in their familial relationships. Without giving too much away, there”s already a fair bit of drama unfolding in their lives when the reanimated monsters make their presence known.

As fans will recall, this is a world where the term zombie has never existed. So when they begin to rise, and the living to fall, the characters are left bereft of direction and without context for the phenomena. This is where the bulk of the – surprisingly effective – tension is derived from. “Don”t go into the basement!” is a familiar horror trope. We have more information than the characters. We know what awaits them in if they descend those stairs. “Fear the Walking Dead” has a great time playing with our understanding of the “rules” of these creatures. We see all, while the characters are entirely out of their depth.

It”s nice to see this series enjoy exactly what it is – and not take itself too seriously – yet ride the line enough to ensure that the horror still plays. My one concern is how long it can maintain that balance before the “we know something they don”t know” of it all becomes a bit kitschy and trite. However, this cast, as mentioned, boasts some formidable talent. Ideally, by the time they settle into their fate, we”ll be more invested in the challenges that these particular survivors are facing than the novelty that the series inherently presents.

Particularly in the comic, the line between hero and villain – by necessity – blurs in this world. My greatest hope is that “Fear the Walking Dead” will find a way to tell the story of “The Rise of the Governor”. Not literally, of course. That ship has sailed. What I mean by that is that I”d love for the creative team to develop a fully fleshed out, human character that we can relate to and invest in, and then to explore their devolution into a ruthless dictator, willing to kill at will.

But hey, maybe that”s me.

I have some caveats, particularly in regards to the fate of two particular characters. That”s the kind of thing I”ll hold onto until the “Fear the Walking Dead” has aired and we can openly discuss spoilers, however.

“Fear the Walking Dead” premieres on AMC on August 23. We”ll have plenty more here on Hitfix about the series. For now, take a look at our video chat on the episodes in the player above.