When AMC’s Walking Dead spinoff Fear the Walking Dead debuted last year, it tried to distinguish itself with a very simple premise. Where the original hit series follows Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes as he roams a landscape ravaged by the zombie apocalypse, Fear would explore the tick-tock of a world falling apart, as the zombie outbreak begins and society starts to collapse. Showing the first signs of a pandemic rocking daily suburban life? Check. Portraying the public reaction as military forces try to step in to quell the panic? Check. Focusing on characters that refuse to believe zombies are real, because who could really buy into such a thing? Check, check, and check.
All of that seemed to go out the window in the first five minutes of last night’s mid-season premiere, as recovering addict Nick (Frank Dillane) walked down a deserted highway on his way to Tijuana. For fans of the franchise, it was a wink and a nod; a callback to Rick riding his horse into Atlanta in an almost identical shot in The Walking Dead’s pilot. But it also played as a kind of sad admission: You want the original show? Fine. Here you go.
You want the original show? Fine. Here you go.
Fear has always exhibited an intentional symbiosis with its parent series, but last night marked an unusual turn — the show started running through plot points that were beat-for-beat copies of scenes we’ve seen in The Walking Dead. Nick tussled with a zombie trapped in a car as he searched for water. Nick ran across gun-toting outlaws. Nick even ended up in a walled-off enclave that could have been a sister city to Terminus or Alexandria. (Five bucks says they’ve got some weird, dark secret, too.) As a bottle episode of television, you could have literally just swapped Rick for Nick and things would have played — albeit with some slightly tweaked flashbacks — and it speaks to the larger creative conundrum that the show, and Hollywood at large, finds itself in.
The Walking Dead wrapped up its sixth season as the highest-rated television show amongst people aged 18–49. If you’re a network, you simply don’t walk away from that kind of success; you look to expand it — so much so that AMC president Charlie Collier told Vulture earlier this year that he’d be open to a third Walking Dead series if comic creator Robert Kirkman had a pitch for one. And while Fear took pains to establish its own unique characters in its first season, as time has marched forward, it’s found few new places to go. If anything, last night was proof that Walking Dead has become a full-fledged subgenre unto itself, with the same shots, story beats, tropes, and interactions appearing across both shows, the comics, the games, and the web series. No matter where you go in the zombie apocalypse, there you are.
Of course, using one show’s success to launch another isn’t a new idea in the slightest, and originating as a spinoff doesn’t necessarily lead to creative doom. A sitcom like Happy Days gave us both Mork & Mindy and Laverne & Shirley, shows that were able to forge their own identities to such a degree that it’s almost been forgotten where they came from. (We’ll leave Happy Days’ lesser-known spinoffs unmentioned and forgotten, where they belong.) More recently there’s also been Angel, CW’s The Flash, and AMC’s own Better Call Saul.
Each of those shows have worked because they found motivated ways to distinguish the new program from the original. But Fear is starting to feel like AMC’s attempt at a CSI or NCIS franchise — an endlessly renewable template. Each iteration stars different characters with ostensibly different motivations, but the bones are the same, and each story ends with the same climactic battle in the same cinematic style. It’s a new way to enjoy the same thing you already like. We only need to look back at Fear the Walking Dead’s midseason finale for proof: Rubén Blades’ Daniel Salazar, emotionally ravaged by the death of his wife, appeared to kill himself and a slew of zombies in a fiery blaze. But the same night it aired, series creator Dave Erickson was quoted as saying that it wasn’t really the end of Salazar, and that the character would return in some form in the show’s third season. Fans of The Walking Dead weren’t surprised, of course; it was just Fear’s own riff on the Glenn Is Dead Fakeout™.
No matter where you go in the zombie apocalypse, there you are
What could still help Fear set itself apart is its characters. From the very beginning, the show boasted a much more diverse and interesting cast than the original attempted in its first season, but as the episodes have ticked by and characters have been killed off one by one, that’s diminished, and people have started falling into patterns and caricatures lifted straight from The Walking Dead. (The world falling apart is certainly going to cause characters to have a specific kind of reaction, but I defy anyone to watch the slow-motion breakdown of Lorenzo James Henrie’s Chris without having it recall any number of younger characters from TWD losing their grip.) If Fears’s tone, setting, and style are going to remain steadfastly faithful to the original, character is the only element the show has left to play with — but it’s also the most important one when dealing with a longform medium like television.
Most interesting of all is that while the show is unquestionably a hit for AMC — the first season was the highest-rated first outing in cable TV history, and the third season is already greenlit — nothing stays fresh forever. Ratings for Fear the Walking Dead have steadily trended downward since the series premiere, with the mid-season finale pulling in less than half of the viewers that the show snagged in its initial debut. That’s what building a show dependent on something else can do: permanently relegating you to also-ran status, because you’re never more than a pale imitation of the thing that people really want to be watching. If Fear decides to reject the philosophy that was so prevalent in last night’s episode, and uses the rest of the season to build its own unique storyline and complications, it may have a chance to change that. There’s ironic precedent in the fact that the original show’s second season was also beset by troubles with focus and static storytelling — but as it showed, when those problems are overcome, audiences are more than happy to come along for the ride.