When The Walking Dead premiered on AMC back in 2010, viewers didn’t have time to ease into the dystopian, zombie-ridden world that has come to dominate cable ratings for half a decade now. We were jettisoned well into the aftermath of the apocalypse, forced to confront the ever-present threats to survival in an unforgiving world. Sure, Shane. Rick Grimes, and Michonne had lives before civilization went to hell, but their tales are only made captivating because of the tribulations endured and compromises made against their codes of ethics to remain alive and well for at least another day. Those characters are hardened because by this point, they’ve seen just how bad things can and will get.
In a way, this makes the premise of Fear the Walking Dead, AMC’s recently released companion series to The Walking Dead, sound somewhat refreshing. Set during the early onset of the zombie apocalypse in Los Angeles, Fear doesn’t provide audiences with a cast of hardened survivalists. None of the characters are prepared to make it through the workweek, let alone hordes of undead ghouls. These are normal, flawed and emotional people who are more concerned with repairing strained romances, dealing with drug-addicted family members or comforting their children when no one attends their birthday party than the news reports of a mysterious illness hanging ominously in the background.
The first two episodes do well in capturing the ignorance of this unfolding nightmare. When heroin addict Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) finds his girlfriend Gloria devouring someone, he rationalizes the horror as the product of bad drugs. When his mother, Madison Clark (Kim Dickens, of Gone Girl fame) and her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis) find out about the incident from his doctor, their reaction is to get their son help.
There’s still confusion amongst this family as to what Nick really saw, and certainly no idea that this incident is a harbinger of things to come. It’s a good way to give viewers a reason to be invested in these characters; their world didn’t need decomposing monsters to come undone, and unlike Rick Grimes’ misfit band of unrelated survivors (and the revolving door of supporting characters that get killed off) on The Walking Dead, it remains to be seen how this biological family will hold up when the worst of the zombie apocalypse comes.
Despite these refreshing deviations, Fear still repeats a number of mistakes made by its companion series. The first two episodes, while decent, struggle at times with pacing, giving too little time to the reactions of Angelenos to the spreading virus. In each of these episodes, one of the main characters acts unrealistically at the expense of propelling the story forward smoothly (i.e. Travis calling his ex Liza to tell her that he’s driving over to her house and must warn her about something urgent, then promptly telling her “I’ll tell you when I get there” instead of just telling her about the zombies). Other scenes that might have carried greater emotional resonance are barely given time to linger on-screen, as characters are hastily pushed along to further the plot. Even the setting prevents one from from fully immersing in the story—while the pilot was filmed in Los Angeles, the remainder of the show was filmed in Vancouver, and the second episode doesn’t hide this very well. Though Fear certainly has its strengths, it’s hard to ignore some of these mistakes when they have been recurring since The Walking Dead’s first season.
Still, Fear has the potential to be a scarier show than the series it is derived from thanks to one element in particular: the slow buildup to the inevitable fall of human civilization. Fear isn’t just about the storm, but the moments preceding them just before panic breaks out.
Streets and neighborhoods in Los Angeles, a densely populated metropolis, start to feel really empty. Law enforcement begin firing on protesters unaware of infected in their midst. The government remains tight-lipped, and it becomes unnerving when only the cops are stocking their cars with water and food while ordinary citizens are kept in the dark about what’s actually going on, and when the shambling cadavers do appear, they’re genuinely alien and terrifying. There’s a citywide panic in Fear’s Los Angeles, yes, but martial law has yet to be enacted, the military has yet to be called in, and the city’s populace have yet to realize that this inscrutable disease has already won.
We already know how this story ends. The real challenge for Fear now is to make the journey better than its destination.
Featured Image Courtesy of AMC Studios