If I were a teacher grading “Fear The Walking Dead” as a student paper, I’d write: “After turning in such good work in the past, this is uncharacteristic for you. Very uneven work. I’m giving you a B- and hope your future work will return to form.”
Perhaps, the letdown was to be expected because there been so much hype centering on “Fear The Walking Dead” from the moment when it was announced. If there’s good news, it’s that we as viewers won’t have to speculate about why civilization fall so fast after the zombie apocalypse. That’s because “Fear The Walking Dead” takes place during the 30-45 day period when Rick Grimes of “The Walking Dead” was in a coma — effectively missing the whole rise of the zombie party.
Since “The Walking Dead” began its successful run, one of the overarching themes has been about when civilization collapses, the brutish side of human nature dominates our relationships with one another. We, as viewers, know what’s coming for the characters of “Fear The Walking Dead” and we fully expect the worst will happen to them. We also know that while zombies pose a seemingly unending, but predictable threat (i.e. they just want to eat your flesh), other human beings are the ones who show themselves to be an unpredictable and even more volatile threat to the existence of the main characters. And so it will eventually go for the characters in “Fear The Walking Dead.”
The story centers on a blended family headed by Madison (Kim Dickens) and Travis (Cliff Curtis), whose children are in their teens. Madison’s oldest son NIck (Frank Dilane) is a 19-year-old heroin addict who witnesses one of the first instances of people turning into flesh-eating zombies. Because he’s a known addict, everyone (including Nick) believes what he saw was a drug-induced hallucination.
The First 3 Minutes of the Series Premiere: “Fear the Walking Dead”
Nick’s sister, Alicia (Alycia Debnam Carey of “The 100”), is a high school junior who is more interested in getting away from L.A. and her family. Alicia is a stereotypically brooding teenager who will most likely evolve into one suited to survive in the new reality (if her character survives). She’s smart, but immature and petulant enough for her character to grow. Nick? It’s possible the zombie apocalypse will snap him out of what fueled his spiral into addiction, but as fans of “The Walking Dead” know, there are no guarantees when it comes to characters living or dying. There are other characters who will figure more prominently in the next five episodes — namely Travis’ ex-wife Liza and son, Chris — but for starters, the story is about the relationship between Madison, Travis, Nick, and Alicia as the zombies start to multiply and wreak havoc upon Angelenos.
The first hour gave viewers very little they haven’t seen before in “The Walking Dead” universe, but the creators of the show feel it’s important to show the contrast between everyday life and what awaits the characters on the proverbial “other side.” Or as one of the characters says, “When civilization ends, it ends fast.” Well, it doesn’t end that fast in “Fear The Walking Dead.” We’re treated to both the drama and mundane aspects of life. Both Madison and Travis work at the high school where Madison’s daughter is student. Travis is an English teacher, Madison a guidance counselor, and they live fairly middle class lives. Travis wants to be supportive and involved in the lives of Madison’s children, but predictably, the kids push him away. Most of the pilot is about Nick’s addiction and how it intersects with the rise of the zombies. By the last 30 minutes, the show’s pace and anxiety level picks up as more and more of the characters realize all is not okay in the world. There’s also a nice contrast the story sets up between technology that tends to separate us from one another (i.e., our phones, music players, and the like) and how it breeds cynicism and apathy. It’s blood, viscera, viruses, and microbes that breaks down the barriers our civilization has built up through the walls of technology and forces the characters to reestablish human to human connections. And to put a fine point on the whole thing, Travis’ lecture to his students about Jack London on the classic conflict of Man vs. Nature is key because on the one hand, he’s telling his students that London is showing his readers “How not to die” in cruel world with the knowledge that, in the end, “Nature always wins.” Bleak, huh. But this is The Walking Dead world, and there are no Christmas episodes or musicals, so we go along this anxiety riddled trip knowing people will die in sometimes horrible ways.
However, before we get to the extreme bleakness of the short and long term conflicts that will befall the characters, the pilot episode of “Fear The Walking Dead” resorted to ginned up drama and anxiety without much of a zombie pay-off. Instead we get some head fakes here and there, and a lot of talking and worrying during 60 very long minutes of the 90 minute show. Overall, “Fear The Walking Dead” is a rather tepid start to the fall of civilization. One can hope that we’ll soon see why, for example, the most powerful military in the world isn’t able neutralize and contain unarmed hostiles — whose only weapon are their chompers.