'The Walking Dead: World Beyond': TV Review

The Walking Dead World Beyond
Courtesy of AMC
More of the zombie same, to diminishing returns.
10/4/2020

The second spinoff from AMC's 'The Walking Dead' picks up 10 years after the start of the zombie apocalypse with a new cast of characters in Nebraska.

Timing and brand equity play a big role in the success or failure of any spinoff.

If The Walking Dead: World Beyond had premiered maybe five years ago, my review probably would have been something along the lines of, "It's not very good, but I'm invested enough in the show's world that a glimpse of a different corner of that world inherently interests me." Heck, I made it through nearly two seasons of Fear the Walking Dead on residual curiosity, and even then I didn't make it to the point where people I trust allege that it got good, or at least better.

But Fear the Walking Dead numbed some of my engrossment and the wheel-spinning of the Walking Dead mothership blunted most of the rest. Spinoffs require runway and World Beyond, which has no direct narrative or character connections to The Walking Dead, has basically none. It just isn't very good.

Created by Scott Gimple and Matthew Negrete, World Beyond begins in Nebraska 10 years after the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. A community of survivors, some with no memories or limited memories of what went down (much less life before), is living at a college campus. Our protagonists are part of a city that's in an alliance with Portland — don't ask me why — and generally under the watch of the Civic Republic, a well-armed set of authorities operating out of an unknown location, with unknown goals, at least partially under the watch of Elizabeth Kublek (Julia Ormond), the highest-ranking figure we meet.

Our protagonists are sisters Iris (Aliyah Royale) and Hope (Alex Mansour) Bennett, teenage daughters of a famous scientist who is participating in some sort of exchange program with the Civic Republic, working who-knows-where to find a cure. And yes, that means that walkers are still prowling the terrain, though the enclosed campus is guarded by soldiers including Nico Tortorella's Felix and Annet Mahendru's Huck.

The campus environment is, if nothing else, different, and there's a whisper of amusement to getting the fresh lay of the land: learning the new terminology, seeing how a different pack of survivors might have approached self-defense and self-governance, glimpsing the way the trauma we've seen play out in one way over 146-and-counting episodes on the mothership has unfolded elsewhere. There's actually a little levity and a modicum of comfort in this enclave, and it feels like it might be — God forbid – fun to see how encroaching mortality might impact people who saw the worst that could happen to humanity, made it through and attempted to rebuild.

Instead, World Beyond ditches a potentially fruitful setting before the end of the premiere, having barely done anything with it at all. By the end of the first episode, it's a series of parallel road-trip journeys through a zombie-filled wasteland, so basically exactly what the mothership has been for most of its duration. Critics have only been sent two episodes, and I can basically pinpoint the transition in the first episode between a show that had my attention and a show that looks like a cheaper, worse-acted version of a show that has basically — not quite, but close — lost my attention already. You can practically see World Beyond slipping from my grasp and falling into a chasm as I yell, "Noooooo!" like Stallone at the start of Cliffhanger. Of course, I wanted a story about the problematic restoration of civilization in an uncivilized world, and given that the mothership has had a hard time sustaining focus on comparable themes, why should I have expected renewed commitment here?

Royale and Mansour are likeable enough as leads, and I guess the backdrop of the show explains all of the stupid stuff that they keep doing — stupid stuff that most of the characters on The Walking Dead either learned to stop doing or that led to their consumption. As she was in CBS' The Red Line, Royale is unforced and authentic, awkward in a way that's realistic, while Mansour is more polished and styled. They're like the contrasting central characters in a CW version of The Walking Dead. Their travel sidekicks are Nicholas Cantu's quirkily nerdy Elton and Hal Cumpston's Silas. I never for a second understood either why Iris and Hope wanted Elton and Silas accompanying them or why the show's writers thought these were the correct companions; they don't yet feel like developed characters or complementary foils.

The show's main grown-ups are perhaps even less rich as characters. Tortorella's Felix has one character detail that the show can't decide whether or not to treat as a twist, and even with a full episode of flashbacks in the second hour, there's little here. Maybe eventual flashbacks will help Mahendru's performance make more sense, because after two episodes I can't tell you anything about Huck — including what accent she's doing — though I've rarely been conscious of this much dialogue being recorded after-the-fact through ADR. I think Huck may be Southern, but by the time the premiere airs, she could be Russian in homage to Mahendru's should-have-been-Emmy-nominated work on The Americans.

So if the untapped context is swiftly abandoned and none of the characters is likely to be instantly embraced, what is World Beyond even left with? Zombies, I guess. There are couple of OK set pieces. Mostly it isn't scary or creative with the lone exception of a single gross-out moment in the second episode, a five-second zombie introduction that yielded one line of all-caps excitement in my notes and then left the screen never to return. But seriously, there's one great zombie concept that's every bit the equal of the fleshy blob that nearly got Glenn in the well.

It's not enough. My Walking Dead enthusiasm tank is running on empty. The mothership, even with its end in sight, is on notice and I think I might be willing to give World Beyond, itself designed to last only two seasons, only one or two episodes more. You know what your own fuel supply is like, but if you've already checked out on the franchise, this one won't bring you back.

Cast: Alexa Mansour, Aliyah Royale, Nicolas Cantu, Hal Cumpston, Annet Mahendru, Nico Tortorella, Julia Ormond

Creators: Scott M. Gimple and Matthew Negrete

Airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC starting October 4.