If you know anything about me, it’s that I’m not hyper-critical about sequels and spin-offs. I usually like them.
If I like the source material, I’m generally excited to see more adventures with the characters or see new angles of the universe through new characters and situations. If the creators of the “main” show, or original movie, are doing their jobs they’ve constructed a living, breathing world where all kinds of things can happen.
The Walking Dead does its job. Other than some logical and pacing missteps in its second season (rife with behind the scenes turnover and drama), TWD is a rich, fully realized world with a number of potential story paths to follow with our original cast and to explore away from them if they so choose. Unfortunately, Fear the Walking Dead mines the missteps from TWD season two as its concept—domestic drama.
The spinoff takes place in L.A., 3,000 miles away from where Sheriff Rick Grimes rests in a coma in Georgia. By all appearances, the new show takes place in the time when Rick was out of the loop. Society still exists. Kids go to school. Drug addicts get high. You get it.
The pilot introduces our main characters, a mixed-race family featuring Cliff Curtis (Travis), Kim Dickens (Madison), Alycia-Debnam-Carey (Alicia*), and Frank Dillane (Nick), in the midst of turmoil of the domestic variety – Nick is a drug addict and is in the hospital following a car accident precipitated by a proto-zombie attack. Of course, no one believes him because that’s crazy. This is another mistake FTWD makes – much of the show’s drama is based around the fact that the audience knows what’s happening and the characters don’t. In interviews, creators and cast cite this as a strength, but I think it’s a weakness. The show should stand on its own and create stakes based upon this story, not source cheap scares and suspense from the fact that we already watch The (superior) Walking Dead. What’s interesting about this story? Why should we invest in these people?
It’s unfair, but I have to compare the FTWD pilot to TWD pilot. When you do that, you see there’s no comparison at all. TWD pilot is cinematic, evocative, and tells a whole story in of itself – like a good pilot should. Rick Grimes is shot and goes into a coma; when he wakes up, he is alone and the hospital is abandoned. We enter this world with Rick as he discovers barricaded doors covered with a scribbled warning “Dead Inside.” The viewer is Rick’s companion as he stumbles deeper into a barren, empty, frightening world where the dead “live” and the only safety he finds is with a lone man and his son surviving in the abandoned suburbs near his empty house.
That pilot is highly visual, too. Rick riding down the highway in his sheriff’s uniform on a horse towards an apocalyptic Atlanta horizon, Rick weeping over an almost dissolved zombie body that still lives in unending torment, Rick shooting a zombified little girl in the head, and more! There’s hardly any dialogue, but the pilot communicates everything you need to know with powerful cinematography and crisp scripting.
Fear the Walking Dead’s pilot is nowhere near as strong. There’s nothing powerful happening here. Creator Robert Kirkman emphasized how this was going to be a story about a family and, man, he wasn’t kidding. Variety’s review suggested that FTWD is like Parenthood with zombies. The only problem with this is Kirkman and his co-writer, Dave Erickson, are not nearly as sharp as Jason Katims at crafting engaging family drama. But the question remains: why do we care about this family’s drama at all when we know there’s a zombie holocaust underway? One of the most fascinating episodes of the original show is “TS-19,” the first season finale where Rick and company arrive at the CDC and encounter the last surviving scientist who doled out tantalizing nuggets of mythology. I wasn’t asking for a show about chemistry, but some exploration of an outbreak that reanimates the dead might have been interesting.
FTWD’s focus on the family feels like a tease. I know Kirkman is dedicated to telling “ground-level” stories in his zombie universe, but he’s at a disadvantage here. After spending years with Rick Grimes and his motley crew, I have many questions about the zombie outbreak, the government response, what people knew and when, and so on. Since that show just threw us into the world after zombies, when we occasionally took a break to explore what family and friendships mean in this environment it was interesting (sometimes… I’m looking at you, Season Two). But FTWD has inverted that formula. We start with a family and, presumably, we will follow them into the apocalypse and see what that means for them. But there’s no hook. I have no reason to keep watching other than my foreknowledge about what’s coming. Kirkman’s insistence that he will give no answers or insight on the zombie virus (?) or sickness (?) is maddening. That’s the hook. That’s what would invest us in this story. Simply dropping us in a story of another group of people at a different point in time is just not a compelling reason for this show to exist.
Finally, if you forget the fact that The Walking Dead exists and evaluate this show on its merits, it’s OK. It’s not great. But if this had been the first show, I don’t think it would have done nearly as well. Again, what’s the hook? The measure of any great spin-off needs to be whether or not that show can be its own thing. FTWD would not have shattered ratings records if not for the fandom of the original show. I can’t begrudge the show for having a successful predecessor, but I can try to look at it objectively. If I do that, what was remarkable? Name a memorable scene. Name a character other than Nick and don’t cheat by going back in this post.
I’ll watch next week and, odds are, I’ll watch all the way up to The Walking Dead’s season six premiere. But, honestly, I’ll do so to pass the time until the exciting show I want to watch comes back. Maybe Fear the Walking Dead will grab me in the meantime.
*It’s distracting that Alycia Debnam-Carey is “Alicia.” Feels lazy even though I’m sure the name was set in the script before Debnam-Carey was cast.