Dead on arrival: ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ is a disappointing companion to the original

Cliff-Curtis-Kim-Dickens-Frank-Dillane-Fear-the-Walking-Dead-PilotBy JIM SABATASO

[A version of this review appears in the Sept. 10, 2015, edition of the rutland Reader.]

Given the immense popularity of The Walking Dead, it was only a matter of time before AMC attempted a spin-off. That it took five years for Fear the Walking Dead to reach us actually shows some surprising restraint.

It’s easy to roll our eyes at spin-offs as craven cash grabs dreamed up by ratings-hungry networks, but recent examples have proven they can also be good. AMC’s other franchise expansion Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel starring Bob Odenkirk, is easily one of the best series of the year. Meanwhile, over on ABC, Agent Carter, a prequel of sorts to Agents of S.H.I.EL.D. was another hit — better even than the original series. Season two is on the way, as well as two additional Marvel series. And NBC’s Hannibal, although recently cancelled, has been a critical darling, if not a ratings powerhouse.

Unfortunately, Fear the Walking Dead is not a spin-off of that caliber. This far into the parent series, one would think that showrunners Dave Erickson and Robert Kirkman would have a better premise (and title) than what we are given, which is a sun-drenched yet dull telling of the dawn of the zombie apocalypse seen through the eyes of a scattered family in suburban Los Angeles.

More a companion series than a spin-off, the show is far removed from the Georgia wilderness where the “The Walking Dead” been shambling about for the last five seasons. Those expecting a crossover best not hold their breath; given the timeline disparity and geographic distance, it’s unlikely Rick, Daryl or Michonne will be showing up anytime soon.

My relationship with The Walking Dead has been love-but-mostly-hate. The most recent season was, in my opinion, its best. But even at such a creative peak, the series still failed to stick the landing. After a season of questionable decisions that satisfyingly complicated our heroes, a cynical finale squandered that development as it justified the very behavior the season had previously asked us to question.

For better or worse, my dislike for this world spills over to Fear the Walking Dead. This is simply another corner of the same nihilistic universe I frankly don’t enjoy spending time in. I acknowledge this is a bleak world, but the show leans so far into hopelessness that you become numb to what’s happening onscreen. I’m long past flinching at the gore, but I’m also unable to make an emotional connection to the characters or even care about the stakes. In a world where death always wins, life doesn’t really matter.

Still, The Walking Dead pilot remains one of television’s best. It immediately set the tone for the series and hit all the right notes as it terrified and thrilled. By comparison, the pilot of Fear the Walking Dead is an uneventful drag that sets the table for the series by introducing it characters and attempting to make us care about them. The problem is there’s not much to care about. The characters here are flat and one-note, reduced to one or two traits, but far form being fully fleshed out.

At the core of the cast, we have the brave mother and school guidance counselor Madison, played by Kim Dickens. Frank Dillane plays Nick, Madison’s drug-addicted son and screw up older brother to Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) the family overachiever. Cliff Curtis plays Travis, Madison’s live-in boyfriend and English teacher with an ex-wife and despondent son of his own.

While the cast does a decent enough job with their parts, the material just isn’t there. Like The Walking DeadFear is either uninterested or unable to build three-dimensional characters, and fails to bring any emotional resonance to its scripts.

In its first two episodes, Fear the Walking Dead deploys some of the horror genre’s hackiest tropes. People run toward the danger, phone calls go unanswered, characters fail to sufficiently convey the gravity of the situation to other characters. Consequently, everyone comes off as incredibly stupid.

Another problem in Fear is that of plausibility. I’m fine with suspending disbelief, but things need to make sense. And this show fails at making me believe society would go to hell so fast. The span from the first zombie sighting to blackout and riots is only a couple days.

The Walking Dead smartly chose to open in medias res with Rick awakening from his coma to find the world in a bad way. While we can poke holes in how long a comatose Rick could realistically survive unattended, we never had to consider the exact timeline of events.

Fear the Walking Dead, however, forces us ask these questions, but fails to provide satisfying answers. The spread of the plague and the government’s inability to contain it is dubious at best. (A more realistic depiction of a government response to a global epidemic can be found in Steven Soderbergh’s great film Contagion.)

The rapid proliferation of zombies is equally problematic. Perfectly health characters we meet early on return as zombies in later scenes with no explanation as to how they either died or got bitten. We are led to believe that the plague was spreading among marginal populations, like the homeless and drug addicts, and was therefore being ignored. This makes sense, however, the jump to infecting general population happens so suddenly that it’s hard to accept it. Are there really that many dead bodies lying around L.A. and are so many people getting bitten that the city could be thrown into chaos in under a week?

Equally problematic is having the first three characters to turn all be black men. The Walking Dead has long been criticized for treating people of color (especially black men) as cannon fodder. It seems Fear is keeping that unfortunate tradition alive.

Leading up to the full-on crisis we see in episode two, we are subjected to some of the worst manufactured tension, dumb fake outs, and ham-fisted foreshadowing I’ve seen on TV in some time. The pilot cheaply builds drama by playing every siren, car horn and cough as foreboding. We hear a noise, the music swells, and … false alarm. Repeat.

Allusions to the coming apocalypse abound. At one point, we see Travis teaching Jack London’s To Build a Fire to his students. While the scene is intended to be a sly literary allusion about survival in the world to come, it reads as ridiculously heavy handed. “Nature always wins,” Travis intones ominously. Good grief.

After five seasons of The Walking Dead we know the score. We know how to kill the zombies, and we know the cost of survival. I’m not particularly interested in revisiting the early days to watch a new batch of people make the same old mistakes and die in the same ugly ways.

So what does Fear off us? Not a hell of a lot. For The Walking Dead fans, Fear is an easy sell. Indeed, according to Variety, the pilot episode smashed ratings records with 10.1 million viewers, the best ever for a series premier on cable. Unfortunately, ratings do not correspond with quality. If you’re eager for more of the same poor character development, emotional emptiness, ceaseless gore and crushing nihilism, you’ll find it in Fear. However, those searching for something more compelling best look elsewhere.

CHECK IT OUT: Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.