I really like Fear the Walking Dead, AMC's prequel spinoff of its zombie-infested hit The Walking Dead. And I think the second season of Fear the Walking Dead, beginning Sunday, April 10, is a big step up from a first season I already enjoyed.
I don't terribly trust that reaction in myself.
That may be due to my general weariness with Fear the Walking Dead's parent series, which just concluded a sixth season that featured occasional bright spots but lacked internal logic and a coherent plot. Or perhaps I'm suspicious because I worry the merits of Fear the Walking Dead's exemplary cast are smoothing over another sloppily told story.
I also have a hunch that I just like having a Walking Dead series set in my southern California stomping grounds. (The season's second episode takes place on what's obviously Catalina, an island off the California coast that will be of limited interest to anyone but southern California residents.)
Still, I believe Fear the Walking Dead is worth embracing in season two, even if you gave up on The Walking Dead long ago. Here are five good reasons to tune in.
1) That cast really is something else
Fear the Walking Dead's two leads are Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis, two actors who've been the best thing about so many flawed projects up until this point that there are times when episodes of Fear the Walking Dead feel like a casual competition between the two actors to see who can be the best thing about this flawed project.
But there are plenty of great actors supporting them as well. Alycia Debnam-Carey (also of The 100) is great at playing a moody teen while still signaling that her character's impertinence is very much an intentional choice on the show's part. Colman Domingo is perfect as the mysterious Strand, who may as well have wandered in from the Others' compound over on Lost. Rubén Blades has a total cliché to play — he's the seemingly gentle man with a Dark Past that makes him a stone-cold killer — but he's great at it.
Yeah, the series' other teenage characters still need some work — though I enjoy how season two has slightly retooled Frank Dillane's Nick so that he's less of the junkie pain in the ass he was in season one and more of the comic relief — but most of this cast is strong enough to compensate for weak material.
2) The show is overcoming a challenge The Walking Dead still hasn't quite figured out
By far the strongest stretch of The Walking Dead came in the second half of its fourth season and the first half of its fifth, when the characters, scattered to the winds, set off on a journey through a zombie-infested hellscape. Where the show's other seasons have often felt stuck in the mud or even claustrophobic because the characters stayed in one location for so long, those two specific half-seasons proved to be breaths of fresh air.
Fear the Walking Dead seems to have taken that lesson to heart, sending its characters on the road in the immediate wake of the zombie apocalypse. While the series' decision to set its story in the midst of zombies taking over the planet means it's covering well-trod ground, that decision has also given its early episodes the quality of a show like The Fugitive or Route 66, where the characters stop in to some new destination, chat with the locals, and then head on their way.
That more episodic format serves Fear the Walking Dead well, and leaves it feeling like a short story anthology set amid the end of the world.
3) Plus, season two is set on the high seas!
AMC has obviously increased the series' budget, as season two takes place aboard a yacht, in the middle of the high seas. It looks like nothing else on TV, save maybe Starz's pirate drama Black Sails, and that show frequently appears to be trying to leave the blue water out of onboard shots entirely.
Now, granted, Fear the Walking Dead's cast and crew aren't sailing the world; the whole thing is being shot just off the coast of Baja, Mexico. But the sea-centric storyline offers something vastly different, and it allows for the sort of zombie tale that hasn't been done before. Can zombies swim? You'll soon find out.
The second episode of season two — as stated — finds a way to mostly ground the boat for onshore antics, but in a way that neatly examines what more ocean-based populations might do once the world ends. It's all surprisingly compelling and well thought out.
4) There's at least some attempt to grapple with the apocalypse in progress
The world hasn't completely fallen waste to the zombie menace as season two begins, but it might as well have. The season premiere's teaser opens with a haunting image of a napalm-bombed Los Angeles, all aflame, and it's clear where the story is headed.
But where The Walking Dead mostly slept through the apocalypse (literally), Fear the Walking Dead has no such luxury. It has to pick up the morning after the bombing, with the characters safely at sea but very much aware they don't have many safe ports of call to visit. That leaves a bunch of people who've just watched the world crumble, trapped together on a boat, wondering what happens next. It's fertile ground for interpersonal conflict.
Does the series do much with that fertile ground? Not yet, really. But it does at least hint at the ways the apocalypse is weighing on these characters, particularly via Alicia (played by Debnam-Carey), an A student with a promising life ahead of her and a boyfriend she was in love with (who ended up one of the first zombie casualties). Now she has none of those things, and it's making for some interesting moments for the actress to play.
5) I don't know what's going to happen next
Okay, yeah, I've watched enough TV to have some pretty good guesses. But unlike its parent series, Fear the Walking Dead doesn't have more than 100 issues' worth of source material to inform the action. Its characters are all new, and I don't have the slightest clue as to their ultimate fates.
Now, that's only useful if the series finds a way to make them all as compelling as they could be — something it hasn't achieved yet (beyond casting incredibly skillful actors playing them) — but it's also not boxed in by source material the way The Walking Dead has been now and then.
Or, put another way, as The Walking Dead began its second season, the characters became mired in an endless storyline at a small farm in rural Georgia, a farm where they stayed for almost the entire season. The comics had done it, so the show did too. Fear the Walking Dead tells what appears to be a similar story, but it's over within an episode. Sometimes not having anybody to copy is the best thing that can happen.