Summer 2015 Review: AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead

26 Aug

AMC's Fear the Walking Dead

I have been fearing AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead. Not being afraid of the gruesome zombies, but rather dreading watching it. I have a complicated relationship with the original. I don’t think it’s nearly as bad, on the whole, as its detractors do, but I’m not a huge follower either. I sit somewhere in the middle, watching week after week, but never quite really looking forward to it either. Just when I start to consider walking away, the show delivers a standout episode or a brutal and incredible moment, just enough to keep me going through a number of poorly-paced and on the nose episodes.

For whatever its faults, AMC’s The Walking Dead’s pilot was excellent television, still the best episode of the series to this day. That pilot made a structural choice which worked out brilliantly. The protagonist, Rick Grimes, was in a coma while the zombie revolution started to take place, so when he came out it zombies were already a reality of life, not something for the general populace to slowly grow used to and reckon with. This helped us skip a lot of what would have ended up being completely unnecessary exposition charting the zombies’ general rise and people having to figure out that zombies are real and such. It was already happening.

AMC’s Fear of the Walking Dead, inarguably trying very hard to be unique and necessary to fight the accusation that many people (myself included) make, calling it an unnecessary sequel, takes a different tack. This one starts at the beginning, at the very first appearance of zombies, back when nobody has a clue what the world would turn into shortly. Rather than initially focusing on one man, this focuses on a family. Underrated TV rock star Kim Dickens plays Madison, a high school guidance counselor and mother of two kids. Her new beau, played by underrated member of the can-play-any-ethnicity John Turturro Hall of Fame Cliff Curtis, is a teacher at her school, and has just moved into the house. Her kids are high school junior and super bright overachiever Alicia and 19-year old drug addict Nick.

So, at first, it’s a family drama with only a very limited impact of zombies. We know that Nick saw a zombie attack at the church where he does drugs, causing him to run out in the street and get hit by a car. Everyone else, largely including himself, however, thinks he’s hallucinating due to the effects of the drugs, or that, probably due to a life of drug consumption, he’s simply lost his mind. The kids already resent Madison’s new beau, and the family is struggling to try to help and believe Nick, but he’s an addict, tried and true, and he always wants to go back to that life. Alicia can’t wait for high school to be over so she can get the hell out of dodge.

Secondary characters mention the notion of zombies (without using that word – of course – for some reason no one in the AMC’s The Walking Dead universe calls them zombies, which obviously everyone would in real life) but they’re dismissed out of hand, which is exactly how normal people would react. A videotaped zombie incident causes a huge traffic snarl on a freeway (classic L.A.) and eventually the family runs into their first zombie when Nick accidentally kills his dealer in self-defense, only to find the body is gone, and that he’s somehow still alive after continually taking a beating and being run over by a car.

AMC’S The Walking Dead did us that service of skipping the awkward phase that almost any show with magic, science fiction, or supernatural events has to go through, where reasonable people disbelieve, disbelieve, disbelieve, to show us they’re doing what normal people would do, and then eventually come around to believing the unbelievable, because the show would either be boring, or simply not make sense, in the case that they didn’t. This journey from skepticism to belief is rarely interesting and usually only serves a narrative purpose of showing us that the characters are rational like us. It’s not any more interesting here.

Now, there’s absolutely a potentially interesting element in starting off earlier in the zombie epidemic. Seeing the early stages of the response by the military and private individuals and groups, and how they conflict and interact, and how quickly morals fray as people begin to realize that there’s no going home again, certainly not any time soon. And hopefully we’ll get there eventually in AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, and I’m sure we’ll more towards that over the course of the season. Unfortunately, in the tedious hour-and-a-half (with commercials) first episode, we don’t get anywhere close as a shockingly little amount happens.

AMC’s The Walking Dead went all out with its pilot; no one having known it would be a huge hit, and that pilot got people talking and inevitably got people watching. AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead probably feels more secure in its place and felt okay about slowing it down and pacing its plot leisurely over the course of the season. Unfortunately, pacing has never been AMC’s The Walking Dead’s strong suit, and almost destroyed the show in the second season. Slow, slow, slow, until a huge event or two has often been the order of the day and has made the show difficult to keep up with at times. Sure, characters are important and in theory slow burn of character development can be telling (see: Rectify), but this wasn’t the case here and we really could have used to get more from a pilot.

AMC’s The Walking Dead often thinks it’s being important and interesting when it’s not, and while it’s just important and interesting enough to keep me watching at the best of times, it feels like it’s trying really hard without getting results throughout the pilot here. The creators know deep down that zombies are their hook, their modus operandi, what makes their show go, but they want to show off the personal family drama that they believe is the core, and it really doesn’t impress. Without the zombies and the imminent destruction of the known world, there wouldn’t be any reason you’d want to continue watching this show after one hour.

Will I watch it again? You know what, I have agency. I say here I’m not going to watch the second episode, at least for a while. Someone has to take a stand against the ballooning of this show. Since this inevitably will become super popular and I do love Kim Dickens, I’m not pledging to never watch more. Just at least a couple of weeks of silent protest before I give in.

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