For those familiar with creator Robert Kirkman’s popular comic-book and television franchise The Walking Dead, the opening shot of the pilot episode for Fear the Walking Dead depicts a familiar sight: an upside-down image of a silently still man slowly opening his eyes. Whether he’s a human or zombie isn’t immediately clear. It turns out that the aura of deadness that grips Nick (Frank Dillane) is a result of his drug addiction, and that the real zombie is the girl he tries to save from the drug den she turned into a blood bath while he was passed out. The scene is eventually understood to represent one of the first confrontations between the living and a re-animated corpse; it’s also a rare such encounter in the early goings of Kirkman and co-creator Dave Erickson’s pseudo-prequel to AMC’s flagship series. Of course, as Fear the Walking Dead proceeds, plenty more flesh-hungry corpses will show up to wreak havoc on the world. But the series—taking place during the early stages of the mysterious outbreak that causes the dead to feed on the living—relishes in the anticipation of civilization’s breakdown. Whereas The Walking Dead left viewers to contemplate the grisly events that led to civilization’s demise, here the attention is squarely on the minutia of how a society spirals into chaos.
Like its parent show, Fear the Walking Dead filters the zombie apocalypse through the perspective of a family, in this case one marred by separation. The pilot is methodical in its introduction of a large cast of players, including Madison (Kim Dickens) and Travis (Cliff Curtis), whose romantic relationship also encompasses distant relationships to their children from previous marriages. But the characters are rarely afforded the opportunity to break out from the lumbering mechanizations of the story, and the situations into which Kirkman and Erickson place them are often equally banal, most noticeably during an encounter at a diner between Madison’s son, Nick, and his friend/dealer, Calvin (Keith Powers). Following the well-worn “subordinate knows too much” conceit nearly to a tee, the scene sees Calvin consoling an emotionally vulnerable Nick as he quietly realizes that Nick has become a liability. Soon they’re in a car on their way to an unpopulated area where Calvin intends to kill him.
In addition to such unimaginatively rendered scenarios, the writers have no qualms indulging tired genre tropes, including a self-aware gag in which a concerned character slowly approaches another character whose back is turned and hunched over to look like a zombie (all scored with tense chords), only for the whole thing to be played off as an in-joke for viewers. Mercifully, a handful of strong performances help to compensate for the narrative platitudes that abound throughout the first couple of episodes. Dickens in particular stands out as the fully dimensional Madison, a woman of both immense strength and vulnerability, whose sense of mystery and spontaneity may prove to be the show’s saving grace—that is, if the character is intended and allowed to prosper as a rebuke of the myth of a woman needing to balance motherhood and a successful career.
Fear the Walking Dead is arguably most potent in its portrayal of the slow unraveling of social structures and institutions. There’s a sense of dread throughout as the characters (and the world at large) are forced to accept the seismic nature of the extreme events taking place. The background elements, like the constant and growing presence of sirens over the course of the first episode, are especially evocative. In a modern urban setting, sirens are as common as the chirping of birds, but here they give the proceedings an increased sense of disquiet as the thin line between order and anarchy begins to be erased. Some of the show’s most memorable images are the conspicuously thinning numbers of people amid the ordinary circuits of everyday life, from a mostly empty school bus arriving at a school, to a scarcely attended children’s party with an empty bounce house blowing in the wind.
The series also highlights how communities and individuals respond during times of uncertainty and crises, such as in scenes showing communal unrest over the police’s violent response to re-animated victims. But Fear the Walking Dead is too preoccupied with syncing up with its parent show than actually exploring these angles. Of course, the similarities to The Walking Dead are entirely by design, as AMC seems to be following the Marvel doctrine of serialized universe-building. New shades to the zombie genre fleetingly emerge, but too often they’re smothered by the writers’ slavish devotion to their own established norms. Thus, Fear the Walking Dead still feels as if it’s half-heartedly leeching off of the style and themes of The Walking Dead, even responding to it in a counterintuitive fashion that will ultimately help neither show. In short, it feels like a mystery-zapper, making explicit the very thing—society’s wide-scale collapse—to which Rick Grimes and his motley crew of survivors have been existentially responding for five seasons now. One senses that the series, a cash-in through and through, is driven to provide the very explanation whose negation has been among The Walking Dead’s greatest attributes.