Fear the Walking Dead, the new spinoff of the hugely popular zombie drama The Walking Dead, relies almost entirely on you knowing what its title is.
Leave aside the opening few minutes (which promise a bloody, gore-soaked outcome) and the ominously droning score, and you could be forgiven for thinking what happens on screen is part of some other family drama entirely. Indeed, the main story of both episodes I've seen (the first of which premieres Sunday, August 23, at 9 pm Eastern on AMC) is less about avoiding zombies and more about an estranged family trying to pull itself back together.
See, the spinoff takes place in the time before the zombies rose, and though it does feature zombie attacks, they're few and far between. That could sap the show of any tension whatsoever.
But then there's that title, and all of that blood, and that score. Fear the Walking Dead exists almost entirely in a space where there are only a couple of zombies — but you've seen the parent show, so you know eventually there will be more. It doesn't always work, and the pace can be a bit ponderous. But there's been real thought given to how to do a pseudo-prequel to The Walking Dead that nonetheless stands on its own.
Can you watch it if you've never seen the original? Absolutely. Since it's a prequel, essentially no knowledge of the former is necessary. Will you want to watch it if you've never seen the original? It seems unlikely, but it might be worth a shot.
Watch the first three minutes below, then read on to find out five things to expect from the new show.
WORLDWIDE EXCLUSIVE: #FearBeginsHere this Sunday at 9/8c.Posted by Fear the Walking Dead on Thursday, August 20, 2015
1) The show is basically Parenthood with zombies
If I were to boil this show down to the classic "It's X meets Y!" pitch, it would be exactly that. Remember how much you loved watching the warm 'n' cuddly antics of Parenthood's super-close Braverman clan? Think about how much you'd love watching them if the threat of a zombie apocalypse were constantly threatening to break out in the background!
To its credit, Fear the Walking Dead has realized that one of the things that held back its parent series for so long was that the characters were ciphers. Some of that stemmed from the terrific pilot, which was an action-packed episode of TV but didn't feature much in the way of character development beyond "Here is a man who doesn't want to die."
Thus, Fear has spun up the family dynamics, as a way of exploring who its characters actually are when the comforts of society still exist around them. At its center are two families, united after guidance counselor Madison (Kim Dickens) moves in with her English teacher boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis). Trailing in their wake are their kids — two for her, one for him — as well as his ex and a variety of other potential future zombies.
That emphasis on family drama serves the show well, especially whenever Dickens or Curtis is on screen. The emotional stakes — kids who disappoint their parents and vice versa — are easy to understand, while the dramatic stakes — there are zombies, ahh! — up those emotional stakes considerably. It's a neat trick.
2) The performances stay excellent — for the most part
Walking Dead wasn't expected to be much of a hit when it first premiered, so its initial cast wasn't exactly crammed full of star players. Eventually, a number of those actors rose to the show's status, turning Norman Reedus (Daryl!), Melissa McBride (Carol!), and Steven Yeun (Glenn!) into fan favorites — but let's be honest: Most fans' favorite characters were introduced in season three or later, after the show was a bona fide hit.
Fear doesn't have that problem. In Curtis and Dickens it has two of the best performers the franchise has ever featured, and it knows how to use them. Both are able to balance the sense that they're simultaneously terrified for the state of society and worried they won't be able to save their kids from becoming zombie chow. Every zombie story requires characters to make stupid decisions that make you howl at the TV. Curtis and Dickens will actually have you believing those stupid decisions make a kind of sense.
Plus, there are plenty of other great performers in the cast, from Orange Is the New Black's Elizabeth Rodriguez as Travis's ex-wife, Liza, to Frank Dillane as Madison's drug addict son Nick. Indeed, Dillane's performance is so intense that it sometimes breaks the show. It's kind of hard to focus on the post-apocalyptic wackiness when there's a surprisingly accurate portrayal of addiction's terrible power in the foreground.
Unfortunately, not all of the performances are to that level. In particular, Lorenzo James Henrie is stranded by the script in the role of "whiny, petulant teenager who won't just listen to his parents," a character type cable dramas need to retire immediately.
3) The sense of dread builds impressively slowly
TV doesn't always do "slow" well. The natural inclination of the medium is to have story points unspool faster and faster with every new episode, every new season, because finding enough stories to fill dozens to hundreds of hours of TV time is a huge challenge.
Fear, however, is sometimes slow to a fault. There are going to be plenty of complaints that nothing really happens in the show's first two episodes. But I found that weirdly admirable. The characters on the show know something is happening, and a few of them are pretty sure society is breaking down.
But there's been an impressive amount of thought into how a zombie apocalypse might actually overwhelm a major city like Los Angeles. Knocking out communication networks would lead to lack of information, which would lead to political unrest, which would lead to demonstrations and riots, which would lead to lots and lots of people for zombies to bite. Fear probably can't do the slow-pocalypse thing forever, but for a first season of just six episodes, it might be just about right.
4) Los Angeles stars in all its glory — for one episode, at least
Setting the show in Los Angeles also gives Fear new visual elements to play with that its parent series doesn't have. Just having the characters mostly confined to an urban area works wonders, as do the sun-dappled streets and the gorgeous beaches of the city. It's also far enough away from the southeast (where Walking Dead is set) that we don't have to worry about characters from that series showing up here.
The show is also mostly set in east Los Angeles, the less opulent part of town that's rarely depicted on TV, which gives the show a different vibe from other, similar shows. Being set in east LA ups the show's diversity quotient, with plenty of actors of color popping up in the cast. Unfortunately, the series has the same weird habit as its parent of killing off essentially every black man who appears on screen, which would play almost like a sick joke if the producers didn't seem so unaware.
But forget everything I just said, because the joys of Los Angeles location shooting are present for only the first episode. By episode two, most of the shooting has relocated to Vancouver. You can tell. It's really too bad AMC wouldn't pay what was required to film the spinoff to its biggest hit in the city where it's actually set.
5) The series boasts a surprising amount of opportunities for public policy discussion
From attempting to curb illegal immigration by sealing borders to the ways our public health system is susceptible to epidemics to the protests of the many grassroots political movements of the past few years, Fear brushes up against a great number of current hot-button issues, without overtly commenting on them.
This is, of course, a staple of the zombie genre. Night of the Living Dead ends, famously, with one of the most gut-wrenching commentaries on US race relations in American film. (You can and should watch it now.) But Walking Dead has mostly avoided talking about these sorts of things simply because it's set after everything has already crumbled.
Fear, however, is really interested in how society crumbles, and to do that, it has to dig into occasionally political territory. It doesn't dominate the show, but it's there for the examination. What's more, the show does a surprisingly credible job of suggesting that in the face of an existential threat, solutions proposed by both the right and left would be little help, because people would rather argue than jump out of the way of the oncoming truck.
That might seem a little cynical — or it does to me, at least — but, hey, look at that title. We know what's coming, even if the characters don't. Cynicism isn't just recommended. It's practically required.
Fear the Walking Dead premieres Sunday, August 23, on AMC at 9 pm Eastern. It will air over six weeks.