AMC’s new zombie drama Fear The Walking Dead is being pitched as a “prequel” to cable TV’s most popular scripted series. But is that really the right term? The Walking Dead is set mostly in the American South, in the months and years after humanity has been decimated by a mysterious, undead-spawning plague. Fear is set in Los Angeles, right around the time that the trouble really starts. The two exist in the same universe, but don’t share any characters or locations. In other words: Unless Fear The Walking Dead runs for a long time and changes radically from what it is now, its events won’t connect to the parent show in any significant way.
That’s a bold choice by the series’ creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson, because right from the jump they’re sacrificing a lot of the resonances that a prequel promises. In the long run though, they may end up with a better show, which can shamble along on its own.
This not-quite-Walking Dead stars Kim Dickens as Madison Clark, a high school guidance counselor with a complicated home life. Her daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is an honors student headed for Berkeley, but her older son Nick (Frank Dillane) flunked out of community college, and now disappears for weeks at a time on drug binges. Neither child is fond of Madison’s new boyfriend Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), an English teacher who has his own estranged teenage son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie). In the extra-long first episode—one of two that AMC sent to critics—the Clark family is in the middle of dealing with its various domestic crises when individually they start to hear rumors of a connection between the especially strong strain of flu that’s been felling Angelenos and the rash of news stories about policemen shooting vagrants.
The Fear The Walking Dead pilot doesn’t make zombiphiles wait for the horror. There’s some gory carnage in the opening scene, and by the end of episode two (titled “So Close, Yet So Far”) a citywide panic has already set in. Too often on television these days, writers and producers look at all the minutes they have to fill in a season and become overly tentative, not wanting to waste their bullets too early. (Not unlike the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, actually.) It’s easy to imagine a version of Fear that creeps along, teasing a monster or two at the end of the first hour and then waiting until the end of the season to get serious. And it’s possible that future installments of this initial six-episode run will slow way down, as The Walking Dead itself has done far too often. But the intensity of Fear’s second chapter is encouraging. Kirkman appears to have learned something from the criticism of the first show’s at-time-turgid pacing.
That said, the first Fear The Walking Dead is nowhere near as sterling an introduction as The Walking Dead’s debut episode. There are a couple of reasons for this. At lot of what’s effective about the original series is its contrast between the familiar—a hospital, a small town, a highway, a city street—and the alien devastation that’s covered everything, everywhere the heroes go. This spin-off, on the other hand, spends too much time on the kind of blah melodrama that’d never sell if there weren’t cannibalistic hordes waiting in the wings. Fans got to know The Walking Dead’s main man Rick by watching him slug his way through doomsday. It’s harder to get involved with Madison’s problems, knowing that very soon they won’t matter very much.
Since Fear The Walking Dead isn’t featuring any pre-end-times people or places from the other show, it’s missing a sense of irony that might’ve made its early scenes more meaningful. Plus, most of The Walking Dead’s best characters connected immediately because they were already battle-tested. It takes a lot more faith in the show’s creators to watch heroes who haven’t done anything heroic yet.
But that’s where having Kim Dickens in the lead pays off—not to mention Rubén Blades as a barber who shows up at the end of episode two, and Shawn Hatosy and Colman Domingo still to come. Good actors can keep an audience engaged until the action starts; and in “So Close, Yet So Far” Dickens is especially good, as she has her first face-to-face encounter with a friend who’s “turned.” Dickens’ Madison is someone who’s spent much of the last few years cleaning up after a junkie, so her first impulse is always to try and help rather than running away. In a single scene of her unknowingly rushing toward danger, it’s clear what drew Kirkman and AMC to the idea of re-entering the Walking Dead saga from an earlier point (beyond the dollar signs, that is). There’s something exciting about following characters as they figure out the rules of survival for the first time, in the moment.
It’s less evident from the first two Fear The Walking Dead episodes what the show plans to do with its Los Angeles backdrop—though there are intimations from episode two that the LAPD’s at-times-iffy reputation is going to play a role in how the story develops. Also, there’s a sense throughout Fear’s first two hours that it’s taking a while for the locals to catch on to the plague because the city’s already such a shit pit. Some of the strongest images in Fear’s early episodes are of non-zombies in poses and situations that Walking Dead fans will recognize as having a more ominous meaning down the road, but that have no meaning to these characters yet—they’re not that different from what they see every day in a sprawling metropolis.
Otherwise, what makes Fear The Walking Dead so promising is that it doesn’t require any knowledge of The Walking Dead to jump in and watch. Too many prequels wink at a franchise’s fan base, or move very slowly toward a predetermined point. But even devoted Walking Dead watchers have no idea what’s to become of L.A. or Madison Clark. That’s why whatever Fear has lost in instant emotional investment, it gains in storytelling potential. There’s no doubt that the Clarks are about to have a very unpleasant experience, for as long as they can stay alive. But they’re stranded in a very different landscape, with more resources. They have so much more hope to bleed away.