'Fear the Walking Dead': TV Review

Fear the Walking Dead Cast - H 2015
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Fear the Walking Dead Cast - H 2015

Obstacles abound, but so does dramatic potential. 

AMC's spinoff depicts the early days of the outbreak that eventually leads to 'The Walking Dead.'

No discussion of the AMC spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead can move forward without stating the obvious about the original's devoted fans: They will watch.

And they will watch in droves. Given that nearly 16 million people tuned in to this season's finale of The Walking Dead, it's a pretty safe bet that the Aug. 23 premiere of Fear the Walking Dead will be a hit. And ratings for the second episode — and likely for all six that comprise this freshman season — will be enormous, even if they don't quite reach the stratospheric heights of the original.

Finding viewers will not be an issue, and that's a wonderful safety net when you're working out the kinks.

And Fear is not without question marks that could hinder its quality and perhaps reduce great ratings to pretty great ratings.

The issue that's evident in the first two episodes that AMC made available to critics (with an extended clip from the third episode shown at the Television Critics Association press tour), is that there isn't a lot of carnage. In fact, actual zombies (just called "the infected" here as opposed to "walkers" in the original) are few and far between in the first two hours, which makes Fear much more of a traditional drama until the spread of the unknown virus really takes hold.

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Which is to say that the 90-minute first episode and the hour-long second episode — while not actually boring — are certainly less magnetic than the original.

That said, by simply changing its location Fear begins to set the hook and stand apart from the original. Fear takes place on the West Coast — specifically in Los Angeles — and begins well before Rick Grimes was first glimpsed in that Atlanta hospital, waking up to an apocalyptic zombie nightmare.

It's not quite a prequel, of course, but it gives fans a look at the very first outbreak moments when the world began to slowly realize something awful was happening.

There's rich dramatic material to be mined in that scenario, and Fear should get to it sometime within these first six episodes. 

But the truncated episode order handicaps some of the storytelling early on, because there are certain facts about a pilot that just can't be overcome. For starters, Dave Erickson, executive producer, co-creator and showrunner, has to introduce a whole new cast, and that takes time. But it's critical because a series really gets rolling when an audience knows the people involved and can either pull for them or against them.

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In Fear, we meet two high school teachers in Los Angeles who have fallen in love with each other: Madison (Kim Dickens) and Travis (Cliff Curtis), who not only have their hands full with their day jobs, but also with the work of convincing their resistant children that they are all still a family, just blended into another family. They're teens, so it's no surprise that they are annoyed by such an idea (while also being annoying).

Madison's daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), eye-rolls her mom's new love, while Travis's son, Christopher (Lorenzo James Henrie), feels pretty much the same, preferring to stay with his mother, Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez). On top of this conflict of blended family dynamics is Madison's other son Nick (Frank Dillane), a heroin addict who can't really be helped (because he doesn't want to be).

Erickson, fellow exec producer David Alpert and director Adam Davidson have to create a new and different Walking Dead universe, where the burgeoning and mysterious infection, pre-apocalypse, is riveting enough to sustain the slow build of figuring out new characters — and letting those new players have personalities that will lend themselves to episode-to-episode loyalty and interest.

That's not easy. And there are, undoubtedly, moments in the first couple of episodes where it's just not nearly as much fun as the original and, because viewers want to see zombies, the whole thing feels like a lurching story we already know being told too slowly.

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However, dramatically the appeal is twofold: seeing what hasn't been shown before — the confusion and then shock and then chaos of the early-days scenario; and, perhaps even more importantly, exploring (and toying with) the notion that viewers know more than the characters in Fear possibly could, so watching them be all-too-nonchalant when they should be running for their lives is fun and scary.

Erickson and company do a fine job of getting at that dangerous naivete — where people allow the newly infected (and "turned" but not rotting) zombies to get right up on them. It stresses out Walking Dead fans who know what's coming, while also making sense for the characters in Fear. This is all so new — mistakes of some consequence will be made.

Other elements worth exploring include that predictable yet dangerous belief that characters would have had at the beginning that the police or the government would protect them. Faith in institutions that are about to crumble is logical at the inception of the catastrophe. Also, characters in Fear naturally believe that whatever outbreak this is will be contained. Again, knowing more than the main characters is intriguing and creates a great deal of interesting tension between the viewer and the characters on screen.

Thinking that it will all go away is central to the actions of the people in Fear, and Erickson and director Davidson work hard to get at that simple, time-tested human belief, which has been essentially obliterated in The Walking Dead world.

But still, it's a challenge to make the slow dawning of trouble riveting to watch. Because, well, it's slow.

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Yet once the convoluted introduction of characters has happened — three others, including one portrayed by Ruben Blades, are brought into the story in the second episode — Fear can start playing with its potential (and there are 15 episodes scheduled for the already-picked-up second season).

Early episodes do hint at what ignorance means — allowing scenes which will make Walking Dead fans recoil in anticipation (in one, a girl hugs her bitten boyfriend who is about to turn at any second, though she's never seen anyone turn, and she's mad at her parents for pulling her away). Walking too close to stumbling zombies or patching up people who have been bitten and then riding in a car with them, etc., are some of the ways Erickson can build tension — and tap into a perverse sense of humor.

Dickens and Curtis shine in these early episodes; her actions convey that she'll be a survivor no matter what, and his indicate that he's got some Rick Grimes can-do as well.

But Fear has other stumbling blocks. Teenagers are generally annoying in television shows, and the ones here are no different. They just do dumb things. Some of this stuff is natural, sure, but much of it is not. And Fear is not immune to that awful TV trope where the parents don't impart the crucial information that they know. As in, "I just saw what is very clearly a zombie, and I need you to stay inside!" Part of this, specifically, is tied to the fact that "zombie" is not a term ever used in The Walking Dead nor, apparently, Fear — even though both take place in a time where, culturally, everyone would know what a zombie is.

But part of this lack of dispensing critical information is also just a dramatic crutch. Why say, "I saw people eating the faces off of other people so we need to run like hell" when you can say, "Just don't leave, I'll tell you when I get there"?

Then there's the issue of the timelines of each show. Not much time will have passed in the first season of Fear, but it's only logical to wonder how long the series can go before the shock of the new goes away and time marches on to create a landscape of rotted walkers, lack of food, barely anyone around and the stay-alive-paranoia of the original.

The real trick in Fear will be keeping the full weight and extent of the zombie insurrection at bay for some time and focusing on the early days of the outbreak in a way that makes it different but also equally original and entertaining.

Even if Fear falls short creatively, there must be some solace for its creators that millions of viewers will still embrace it. That's the benefit of a good bloodline.

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