AMC’s Walking Dead companion show Fear the Walking Dead proceeds in its second season as a borderline shrill theater of types, with the motley-ness of the survivors who flee a burning Los Angeles on Strand’s (Colman Domingo) yacht announcing itself as an organizing principle. That the walker apocalypse may be the best thing for the vulnerable Nick’s (Frank Dillane) recovery is a point the series understands it doesn’t need to make, but such a gesture would at least imply a serious consideration of the character’s condition that isn’t evinced by the young man’s ability to tell, and quite helpfully, that a bunch of pills on a nightstand are poison. In the world of Fear the Walking Dead, addiction and withdrawal are tantamount to Scooby senses.
The series fails so spectacularly on the level of characterization that its occasional grace notes, mostly concerning how catastrophe changes the circuitry of family dynamics, feel accidentally stumbled upon. Daniel Salazar (Rubén Blades) spends the majority of the season’s first few episodes fulfilling what seems like a quota for a Latin version of a magical Negro. In one scene, he tells Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) that the latter’s son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), will one day understand that Travis killed the teen’s mother, Liza, at the end of the last season as an act of mercy. It’s one of Daniel’s stock homilies, but the moment pointedly complements a later one wherein Travis balks at the ease with which Chris takes an ax to a bunch of walkers. The shock on Travis’s face is both that of a father who believes he might have done wrong by his child and that of a man who’s still ill-equipped to handle the vicious and often impromptu demands of an apocalypse.
From its very first episode last season, Fear the Walking Dead’s challenge to stake out its own identity while building a world—or, rather, destroying one—in a way that credibly syncs up with the events leading up to the start of The Walking Dead felt like a fool’s errand. Throughout this season, more nuggets of information detailing the collapse of society’s infrastructure are dropped by the persons that Travis and his fellow survivors encounter, and shocking as some may be about what they reveal about human folly, there’s still a sense that we’re being provided with an explanation for a world-obliterating crisis that satisfies only the most trivial curiosity. Previously proffered by countless disaster movies, these explanations are most successful at ensuring that the characters appear perpetually dumbstruck. And it’s a particularly awkward look for individuals who otherwise feel as if they’ve already learned all the lessons about living through an apocalypse that The Walking Dead’s characters are still trying to figure out after six seasons.
The electronic droning that slinks throughout the soundtrack during the season premiere’s first sequence is gleefully pulpy in ways that are only intermittently embraced. The show always appears to be course-correcting its aesthetic tenor, waffling awkwardly between the sort of B-movie delirium redolent of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and the more sober and earnest realism that similarly informs The Walking Dead’s more O. Henry-esque morality tales. A marriage of the two might still prove winning for the series, but whatever tone it strikes at present only succeeds at skimming the surface of the horrors that don’t involve a walker lurching for someone’s neck meat. Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and others argue to save a group of people stranded at sea, but because the camera never gets close to any of these people’s faces as they scream for help, the scenes carry no frisson of anger or heartache for them to function as a blistering metaphor for the immigrant experience.
There’s a scene in the first episode where Madison’s daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), must give news to someone over a walkie talkie that leads to a response that becomes chilling only in retrospect—for what it reveals about the horrors this person must have seen. The only thing that dulls the scene’s effectiveness is the show’s propensity toward flip characterization, in this case the suggestion that Alicia is choosing to have this particular conversation as much out of empathy as flirtation. Then, in the second episode of the season, the writers delight in the irony of a survivalist family’s beliefs being proven right by the walker apocalypse before then mocking them for said beliefs. The show’s cynical purview, it seems, is to call everyone out as a twit, a sucker, or worse. And how the season dully and predictably intersects with the 16-part streaming series Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462 is weirdly damning for reinforcing how The Walking Dead itself is most effective when homing in on micro-scale events within macro-scale ones.
Season two of Fear the Walking Dead takes to the waters, revealing quickly that humanity is no safer at sea than it is on land, as the borders between the ocean and land must be protected as fiercely as those between the Alexandria safe-zone and the world outside its gates. Your guess is as good as mine how long Strand and his crew will continue to live and sail aboard the Abigail. But unmistakably clear is the idea that the yacht has been conceived as a device that, as long as it stays afloat and full of gas, will allow the characters to travel distances far greater than the Atlanta metropolitan area and as such increase our chances of meeting even more disparate personalities than have been seen on The Walking Dead. And, as of right now, always to reinforce the characters’ belief that their doom is inevitable. Indeed, if Fear the Walking Dead were at all funny, at least intentionally so, one could at least begin to appreciate it as a companion to Gilligan’s Island.