AMC’s The Walking Dead may now be the network’s most reliable ratings juggernaut, but back when it debuted in 2010, things weren’t so certain. Zombies were arguably a played-out cultural trope (in many ways that hasn’t changed), and there was no guarantee that audiences would be drawn to the show’s grisly, weekly emotional grind. But masochistic TV watching was just getting into full swing — Game of Thrones would debut a year later — and Dead went on to become a runaway hit.
A big part of that first season’s allure was the simple question of what the hell would this thing actually be? Then-showrunner Frank Darabont pulled off what amounted to a six-episode magic trick, extending a well-worn premise into a show with real legs, and now five years later it’s time for AMC’s latest prequel series, Fear the Walking Dead. Rather than telling another set of stories in the post-zombiepocalypse, the new show takes place in Los Angeles just as things start falling apart. It’s territory that’s largely been glossed over in the original series, providing a new playground to explore while audiences wait for zombies to create the devastated world they’ve been watching these past few years.
Judging from the first two episodes, waiting makes for some pretty good TV.
Like its predecessor, Fear the Walking Dead is an ensemble show, but rather than pulling a ragtag group of survivors together over the course of a few episodes, it starts right off with an extended family. Gone Girl’s Kim Dickens (continuing her run as one of our greatest unsung character actors) plays high school guidance counselor Madison, who’s been struggling with her drug addict son Nick (Frank Dillane). Nick was recently caught by the cops after running into traffic, smacked out of his mind and raving about how he’d just seen a friend eat somebody’s face off (dun-dun-dun!). Nick is put into the hospital for observation, where Madison’s live-in boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis) and daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) come to help. Madison and Travis slowly begin to unravel the mystery of Nick’s ramblings, while at the same time students mysteriously stop coming to school. Word of a strange outbreak starts to spread, and as the public grows concerned and authorities overreact, things inevitably go sideways.
In a sense, it feels likes Fear is mashing four or five different shows together. There’s the story of the addict son and his struggle with withdrawals; there’s Madison’s attempt to hold her family (and school) together; there’s Travis’ complicated relationship with his own son and ex-wife; there’s Alicia’s adolescent need to distance herself from her mom. And then oh yeah — there’s also that whole thing about people starting to come back to life and eating you.
The banality of real life set against a zombie backdrop
It’s a lot to parse — and that’s before Ruben Blades shows up as a barbershop owner with a family of his own. But the arcs all coalesce into something that feels dense and familiar, the banal issues of real life heightened and set against a supernatural backdrop that brings a constant sense of stakes and danger. Even when the show wobbles — I found Dillane’s over-affected performance as Nick to be particularly distracting, even within the Beautiful People With Drug Problems subgenre — Dickens and Curtis anchor the show by building two strong, believable character that I found myself involved with incredibly quickly.
That’s a big part of what makes the original show work too, of course. The Walking Dead has been notorious for its slow, deliberate pacing, to the frustration of many fans that want a more action-oriented show — but taking the time to build characters and relationships is what makes the whole thing work. Nobody gets upset when a cardboard archetype is felled in the midst of zombie battle, but when you fuck with Hershel, people get pissed.
But if knowledge of The Walking Dead helps set expectations for what the new show will be dramatically, it also lets Fear surpass the original in terms of sheer tension and anxiety. When walkers are afoot in the original series, you’re already half-expecting that somebody you care about will get hurt, maimed, or killed — but when you’re dealing with the dawn of the apocalypse, every moment is loaded. A simple shot of a crowded school bus had me holding my breath for a zombie reveal. The show’s long, lingering looks at the Los Angeles skyline are full of implied menace. Every single moment of Fear the Walking Dead, big or small, is filled with the dreadful anticipation that this could be the precise moment when things finally go off the rails.
It’s operating off a premise that our scariest films and shows understand. Fear and terror aren’t created with jump scares or grisly murder scenes; they live in the moments before the bad things happen. The empty space where your mind can fill in the most horrible event imaginable. That’s when you ask yourself Why is this character walking down this hallway? and Shouldn’t they know better? and Dear god just look behind you!
The waiting is when you really get scared. Everything else is release. And whether by design or happenstance, Fear the Walking Dead is filled with that pending tension in almost every single scene.
But it also raises a problematic question for the series, one that’s just slightly different from that asked of the original: How can this thing differentiate itself? According to the show’s creators, the first season of Fear the Walking Dead is going to take place in the four to five months when, in the chronology of the universe, Sheriff Rick Grimes was unconscious in a Georgia hospital. It’s unexplored territory, and as long as we’re waiting for the final shoe of civilization’s collapse to drop, Fear will be able to distinguish itself from its predecessor. But what happens after that goes down? The show’s already been renewed for a second season, and at first glance there are two different directions things could end up going.
One would be to eke out additional storylines in the time before the world collapses. The other would be to follow a group of survivors as they struggle their way through a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. The first has potential, but seems unlikely; the second is something we’ve already seen. It’s called The Walking Dead, and it airs Sundays on AMC.
Fear the Walking Dead premieres this Sunday, August 23rd, on AMC.