(Main image source: Heavy)
Before we get started here, I’m going to be blunt: I haven’t been the hugest fan of The Walking Dead as of late. Like most of you I really enjoyed the first few seasons of AMC’s flagship horror series, and, like most of you, I started to tune out around Season 4’s halfway point when I realized that every season followed the same basic story arc: Our heroes seek out a new refuge. They locate a veritable sanctuary which provides them with everything they need. They get settled in and everything is perfect. Something goes wrong and zombies attack. Characters get killed; our heroes escape to repeat the same vicious story cycle forever and ever, amen. And while I’ve heard the show has improved in its 5th season, no reaction has been enthusiastic enough to prompt me to jump back on the bandwagon.
Regardless of my personal opinion, The Walking Dead is as popular as ever, and with a franchise’s great popularity comes great need to milk it for all its worth, which brings us to the new spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead, developed by The Walking Dead’s original creator Robert Kirkman and Sons of Anarchy producer David Erickson. Fear the Walking Dead serves as a prequel of the main series, detailing the events which will lead to a horrifying, apocalyptic world overrun by grody flesh gobblers. It’s an interesting concept undermined by shoddy execution and dreadful characters. Nothing that happens in this pilot episode is compelling enough to hold our attention and since we already know what’s coming, the feeble attempts to build suspense and atmosphere come across as yawn-inducing more than nail-biting. The entire episode is all build up and no payoff. Perhaps the remaining episodes will fulfill whatever potential this spinoff has, but with a limited six-episode season, Fear the Walking Dead needs to pick up the pace and fast in order to be considered a worthwhile endeavor.
Showrunners Kirkman and Erickson (who also penned the pilot) kick things off in a church which looks like it was pulled straight from Danny Boyle’s classic zombie flick ’28 Days Later.’ We’re introduced to Nick (Frank Dillane, a.k.a. Lord Voldermort at age 16 in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), who wakes from a drug-induced slumber to find his lady friend munching away at the face of some poor soul. Nick rushes out into the street in a mad panic, making sure to keep his shirt unbuttoned so the citizens of LA and the viewing audience at home can get an outstanding view at his pecs, and is almost instantly hit by a car, which puts him in the hospital. The camera cranes up from the accident to give us the first of many shots of the Los Angeles skyline, which become increasingly superfluous the more they happen over the course of the episode. (I’m guessing director Adam Davidson wanted us to be 150% sure that we knew this was taking place in California as opposed to Georgia.)
Across the city, Nick’s mother Madison Clark (Kim Dickens of Sons of Anarchy and House of Cards fame) gets a call about the accident and rushes to see him at the hospital with her new boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis of Boyle’s Sunshine and the TV series Missing) and Nick’s obnoxious sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey. Yes, Alicia is played by Alycia. That’s about as meta as this episode gets). Travis, a recent divorcee, has just moved in with the Clarks and he’s still not particularly welcome in their household, as evidenced by the whiny ‘You’re not my dad!’ comments thrown at him by both Nick and Alicia. (It’s tough being a surrogate father to stock, angsty teenagers.)
Madison questions her son about the drugs and what he was doing running about in the streets of LA dressed like a Calvin Klein model. Nick is maddeningly vague about what he was doing at the church and what he saw that spooked him so.
During the hospital visit, Travis gets a call from his ex-wife, who passes along the message that their son Chris has no wish to spend the weekend with him (Travis). Travis talks with Chris over the phone and their conversation confirms that, yes, every single teen in this show has been inspired by Hayden Christensen’s whiny take on Anakin Skywalker.
It’s around this point I started to check my watch (a.k.a. my phone). We’re a good half-hour into the episode now and other than the brief zombie encounter at the start, the episode has been almost entirely devoid of action or meaningful plot development. It would be okay if the main characters were interesting, but they’re not, and their ‘no assembly required’ types are pulled straight from the stale cereal box of bland characterization. The performances fluctuate from sheer boredom to slight disinterest with hardly any extreme on either end of the emotional spectrum. (Just look at those faces in the article’s main image. ‘Nuff said.) I gave the episode the benefit of the doubt, though – a pilot’s primary function is to setup the rest of the series, after all – and decided to stick with it in the hopes that something exciting or compelling would end up happening.
But it never does.
Over the course of nearly 90 minutes it simply treads water, circling the same spot over and over again. We can see the shadow of the shark beneath them, but it’s not getting any closer and the characters just keep swimming in circles. The focus on the dull familial drama is maddening, as it never breaks any new storytelling ground nor does it develop in any meaningful way. A whole ten minutes is devoted to Nick’s mom and Travis heading to the church just to confirm their suspicions that he is, indeed, doing drugs. WE ALREADY KNEW HE WAS DOING DRUGS. His parents already knew it! Why did we have to spend all that time re-confirming something everybody already knows?! All this procrastination and recycling of information makes the absence of zombie action all the more glaring.
And, yes, I get what Kirkman and Erickson were going for here – a kind of ‘back-to-basics’ approach which re-emphasizes the horror of the Walkers over the excuse for excessive video game-esque kills they’ve become in the main series. It’s an admirable concept, to be sure; it’s just not a particularly successful one because the characters are so thin and the dialogue and plot contrivances are so silly. By the time we reach the pilot’s underwhelming conclusion, in which a number of overwrought plotlines converge in order to bring our main characters into contact with a zombie, it’s hard to remember why we bothered spending so much time getting there in the first place. It’s a shame that what seemed like a revitalizing take on The Walking Dead ended up being just as inane as the series it is so desperate to differentiate itself from. I might give Fear the Walking Dead one more episode to win me over, but if it fails to correct the issues of this pilot, I’ll take a pass.