'Fear the Walking Dead': TV Review

Richard Foreman/AMC
Cliff Curtis and Ruben Blades on "Fear the Walking Dead"
Zombies don't surf, so a breakout star is needed.
4/10/2016

The sister show to the zombie master is progressing well with visuals to make it different — but right now it lacks a breakout cast of characters.

As season two of Fear the Walking Dead kicks off Sunday night, AMC continues its hope that the zombie-adjacent series finds both an audience and a rhythm that will at least begin to come close to the mothership.

The effort to get there has been and continues to be a struggle. It's not entirely out of the question that Fear the Walking Dead can become its own thing — more than anything, the visual presentation of season two paints an intriguing contrast to The Walking Dead — but the chemistry isn't close to where it needs to be right now to make the show more compelling.

You can't fault creator Robert Kirkman (or co-creator and showrunner Dave Erickson) — and certainly not AMC — for wanting to capitalize on one of the most popular shows on television, even if the concept focuses on a period of time that's not that far from that of the original, and thus not quite a distant cousin.

Fear the Walking Dead in season one was centered in Los Angeles and saw the zombie apocalypse from its very inception, whereas The Walking Dead began with Rick Grimes waking up in a hospital and learning how bad things had become, how fully gone the world was. What helped Fear the Walking Dead last season was the sense of the world just about to turn rotten and witnessing it firsthand. Yet elements of that also hurt the show — there weren't enough zombies, and many of the side issues involving the show's cast were just not dramatically enticing to really stand out.

This season, Fear the Walking Dead has plenty of zombies, and there's been enough explanation for the characters to realize what's happened to the world and their former lives as they once knew them. It gives a lot more propulsive forward motion to a series desperately needing it.

And, perhaps best of all, we now get water zombies!

It's true — there's an allure to zombies in the water. There's no denying that. Even if you don’t care about this show but like the original, you should definitely get a look at the water zombies. They're like human sharks. You get the Jaws factor added to The Walking Dead factor, and it's hard to turn that down. More important, perhaps, is that centering so much of season two on the coastline of California, Fear the Walking Dead is taking its visual differences and running with them, stamping the show with a completely different look than the woodsy trappings of the original.

The directing and cinematography on Fear the Walking Dead deserves credit for going after this difference with real zeal — whether it's low-camera angles beautifully capturing the California surf with a brilliant sun behind it and then, uh-oh, a couple of zombies rising up in the waves, or filming underwater as zombies float (they don't need air, you know) and wait for dumb teenagers to go swimming in the ocean, it's a pretty mesmerizing visual gambit.

Which brings us, however, to a major issue with Fear the Walking Dead.

Teenagers.

Fear the Walking Dead has three of them. You've got Nick (Frank Dillane) and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) Clark, children of Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), who is blending her family with that of Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), who has his own teenage son in Christopher (Lorenzo James Henrie). Three teenagers (and Nick as a former drug addict, with a lingering bent for it) means an avalanche of bad decisions. Now, bad decisions are basically the fuel that drives both Walking Dead franchises, so it's maybe too easy to bash this problem, but at least Carl in the original is no longer dashing off unexpectedly, for the most part. In Fear the Walking Dead, the teens will pretty much do any dumb thing you can dream up — and seemingly not learn from it.

Perhaps a bigger problem for the show is that Dickens and Curtis, two fine actors, are not being serviced well at all in the first three episodes of the second season; in fact, if anything, both of their characters have regressed a bit. Madison and Travis were more intriguing last season reacting to the ever-changing carnage around them. Now they're basically standing around, watching.

These are your presumptive leads we're talking about here. But as last season so dramatically proved, it's Colman Domingo as Victor Strand who was the magnetic, breakout star. He solidifies that this season at the same time that Ruben Blades, as Daniel Salazar, continues his ascension.

Meanwhile, Mercedes Mason as Ofelia, Daniel's daughter, is virtually ignored for the first three hours.

In the same way that the original cast of The Walking Dead branched out to give us major players like Daryl and Glenn, among others, it's not unexpected for the same thing to happen on Fear the Walking Dead. Unfortunately, this series doesn't really have a Rick or anyone else to hold down the center, not with the writers failing to move Madison and Travis forward in these initial season-two episodes. That leaves the teenagers to take center stage, and although Dillane has infused Nick with a whole lot more likability now that he's not just a whiny junkie, the other two haven't really done much to make you care if they get eaten or not.

And yet, the teenagers and their erratic behavior are at the forefront of season two — while Domingo and Blades continue to make it clear that Strand and Salazar are the most interesting characters developed so far.

Until the writers figure out how to better serve Dickens and Curtis — who are reduced to passively reacting to things around them — there's a vacuum on Fear the Walking Dead that's undercutting its forward momentum, just as it has solved its lack of action issue with the zombies.

Part of the problem here stems from systematic structural issues with the premise — Kirkman and Erickson are keen to focus on the differences in behavior between the characters who are witnessing the flipping of the switch on the world as it happens in Fear and those who are way past that in the original. In Fear, the characters have to have a lot of disbelief about what happened because it just happened; there is by necessity a lot of early-days "what now?" wonder and fear, a lot of gray area on morality, etc. — whereas none of that exists on The Walking Dead.

Intellectually, focusing on this moment is conceptually intriguing — watching, at the precise moment it happens, the world go to hell (there is a scene in Sunday's opener that brings this home as the military carpet bombs the West Coast with napalm). But in almost every other instance, choosing this origin story creates a lot of standing around, thinking out loud, not acting fast enough, etc. To have characters already know it's kill or be killed like on The Walking Dead creates immediate, decisive action. To not have that yet, well, basically you've got a whole cast of Morgans and New Carols.

And last season the little things were interesting to witness — people let the zombies get up on them too quickly because they had no understanding of what to expect, of what was about to happen; thinking there was hope while the audience knew there wasn't going to be any was a different way to tell this story. But now, that's past — or should be — and the people in Fear, while more aware, etc., haven't yet figured out that, 'hey, I better arm myself and keep my head on a swivel.' Their lack of fast learning is, frankly, annoying. And it looks like a poor or lazy storytelling decision.

There are still opportunities for Fear the Walking Dead to truly be an entity of its own, unique and separated from The Walking Dead. Certainly water zombies is a start. Using the coastline and the blazing, beautiful California weather and beaches is effective and different (this whole series is much brighter than the original and uses vastly more color). But visuals are not enough to make it survive on its own — the show needs to take control of its characters and perhaps add new and better ones. Right now, Strand and Salazar are the only two people worth watching, with Nick a close third — and who thought that was going to be true given last season?

Time to focus and stand out before it's too late, Fear.

Cast: Kim Dickens, Cliff Curtis, Frank Dillane, Ruben Blades, Colman Domingo, Alycia Debnam-Carey,  Lorenzo James Henrie, Mercedes Mason
Created by: Robert Kirkman, Dave Erickson
Airs: Sundays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (AMC)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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