After months of teasing and anticipation, The Walking Dead prequel Fear the Walking Dead started Sunday and maybe it’s because we’ve had five blood-soaked seasons of The Walking Dead as lead up, but it was a disappointment. Very slow, very obvious and very long.
Basically, Fear the Walking Dead takes place before The Walking Dead, on the other side of America. It’s a prequel to the Atlanta-centric show and, hypothetically, will show us how Los Angeles reacted as the zombie invasion—that’s now years old in the big show—started.
First we meet Nick (Frank Dillane), a young drug addict who sees his girlfriend, Gloria, eating someone. He runs away, gets hit by a car, and we meet his family. That’s how the show starts. There’s his mother Madison (Kim Dickens), sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and mom’s new boyfriend/pseudo stepdad Travis (Cliff Curtis). This obviously isn’t the first time Nick has had these issues and everyone is only partially sympathetic at this point. Their family dynamic, which also extends beyond just the four of them, is the heart of the pilot episode and, frankly, slows things down a lot. It’s basic, necessary character building, but in the pilot, it mostly detracts from the promise of global annihilation.
Taking a quick tangent from the recap, that’s the most disappointing thing about the pilot to Fear the Walking Dead. It develops too little of the zombie story we want to see, instead focusing on character stuff that feels superfluous this early in the run of a show. Okay, maybe wanting to see zombies in the first episode of a zombie origin story is greedy. But blame it on The Walking Dead.
On The Walking Dead, over five seasons, we’ve been desensitized as the characters mow down dozens of zombies every episode. In Fear the Walking Dead, it’s a lot of foreboding and brooding leading up to the wowed reaction of the characters to a single zombie being created, not even killed. That absolutely makes sense in the narrative sense but from a pure entertainment standpoint, it’s boring.
The ultra-deliberate pacing also feels like the show is being made with an eye on an inevitable second season. Of course, that second season has already been announced but it wasn’t when they made this episode. When the show spends its crucial first episode doing almost nothing of narrative significance, and the whole season is only six episodes, you have to wonder if it’s not setting its sights a bit too high. I’d prefer the first six episodes blow our minds leaving us desperate to know what they could possibly do in season two, rather than set up a story that’s already aiming there.
From a character standpoint, it’s nice to see that Madison feels inadequate as a mother, Travis inadequate as a father and the Nick and Alicia both rejecting them in certain ways. The performances are good too. But we get it. This show should feel different from The Walking Dead, but not this different.
And it didn’t even have to go too far over the edge. We don’t need to find out where the outbreak came from (a mystery that’s likely being held for another potential spinoff, or maybe a bigger reveal on The Walking Dead), but I did need to see more than one zombie interaction with our main characters in an extended, 90 minute pilot.
Anyway, back to the recap. Nick being in the hospital gives each character a chance to showcase themselves. Madison is questioning what she did as a mother to deserve a druggie son. Travis is dealing not only with Madison’s kids, but his own son who - surprise, surprise - it also mad at him. Alicia feels sad for Nick, but also superior. And of course, there are minor side characters around all of this. Alicia’s boyfriend who goes missing, the principal who gets teased as a zombie. But when Travis and Madison go visit the location Nick saw his girlfriend eating someone, they realize something is up.
Nick then escapes from the hospital and sends everyone on a race to find him. It leads Travis and Madison to see one of Nick’s friends, Calvin (Keith Powers), who says he hasn’t seen him, but we soon realize this is Nick’s drug dealer. Calvin bugs out, meets up with Nick and tries to kill him. Nick turns the tables and, well, people don’t really die in this world, do they?
There are also a bunch of asides that hint at the world around them. A student named Tobias brings a knife to school and tells Madison he’s worried about a virus or something that’s already spread in five states. A school bus arrives with only five kids, because the rest are sick. Teachers teach Jack London’s themes of man vs. nature (where nature always wins) as well as chaos theory, where there’s a situation that’s impossible to control.
That’s all well and good but none of it feels immediate or dramatic. It’s all just set up for a story that, at this pace, won’t come for another season. Which is pretty disappointing.
On the plus side, Fear the Walking Dead looks beautiful. The cinematography by Michael McDonough truly makes the show feel more way more cinematic than it should. Whether or not that’s just the pilot or will continue, we’ll see. Also there are also a few interesting story beats, such as the characters first really seeing zombies in a viral video (which would probably be the way we would see it) and the show’s more rural representation of Los Angeles.
Because Fear the Walking Dead is The Walking Dead, I’m going to stick with it. The showrunners on that series have proved season after season that a slow start can be saved by a strong finish. But on its own, this pilot didn’t inspire confidence that Fear would beat Walking Dead in terms of excitement or momentum.
Photo credit: AMC/Justin Lubin
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