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Before I get into the review portion of this review, I wanted to get something out of the way. Fear the Walking Dead is a critic proof show. No matter what any critic thinks (myself included), the show will be successful (at least in this initial six episode run- as there are plenty of ways to screw the show up so that people run away from it eventually). The Walking Dead is the highest rated scripted series on television. If even a quarter of those viewers make the jump over to this spin-off, the show will be among the most successful shows on television (and I cannot imagine the show not pulling in numbers on par with its mothership). So, I fully realize that my criticism of this show likely won’t change how fans of the Walking Dead franchise feel about the show. But for those out there on the fence about whether or not to continue with the show following the pilot episode, I’m going to try and make sense of what worked well within the episode (and, despite what some critics have to say, there were things that worked well) and what didn’t work (again, despite what some other critics have said, this was hardly a perfect pilot).
As for the good, there are some interesting and complex performances and characters within the series. I’ve been a fan of Kim Dickens for years (if you haven’t watched the HBO series Deadwood yet, get on that ASAP), so I am particularly thrilled to see her getting to take the Rick Grimes role within the series (one of the biggest takeaways from the pilot is that when things really start to get hairy down the road, Madison will be the character to lead this family to safety, as she’s clearly the character least inclined succumb to the bullshit that inevitably emerges during a zombie apocalypse). Dickens takes on the role of the harried mother of ungrateful teenagers with aplomb. And, even though she’s the “tough” one out of the show’s central couple, Dickens adds enough compassion to the character to help us relate to her.
I didn’t particularly care for the rest of the blended family at the heart of the story. Cliff Curtis (Travis) and Alycia Debnam-Carey (Alicia) were fine, but nothing special. To be fair, they weren’t really given all that much to do, but they were more background characters than leads within the pilot. As for Frank Dillane (Nick), I’m waiting with bated breath for when he finally becomes zombie food. The show’s supporting characters fared a great deal better. Maestro Harrell was engaging and fun as Alicia’s boyfriend Matt in the brief moments we were given with him. And I’m looking forward to seeing more of Elizabeth Rodriguez (Travis’s ex-wife Liza), although not looking forward to any more time with the incredibly annoying Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie). So, from a character stand point, Fear is a bit of a mixed bag. But there are more than enough characters to root for (and root against) that I don’t feel bad recommending the series to people.
Now, for the major issue with the show. For viewers who aren’t particularly familiar with The Walking Dead, this won’t be an issue. Those viewers can safely watch this series and feel the heightened suspense the rest of us feel while watching the original. But viewers who have watched the entirety of The Walking Dead might have a harder time getting into the show. I know I did. I found myself rolling my eyes at the naivete of the show’s characters. I was bored watching the characters try to understand what was happening. To the show’s credit, it made quick work of offering up some zombie rules it took the original series years to reveal (kill shots to the head are the only way to take the zombies down and you don’t need to be bitten to become one). But as interesting as it is to see a world slowly come to terms with the horrific situation it is facing (and I am interested to see if the show explains the scope and source of the outbreak- it apparently started in five US cities, but I want to know how it spread to the world at large), it’s less interesting when we, as an audience, already know the results of the apocalypse. We’ve seen what humanity becomes several years down the road. We already know the bleak future these characters face. Seeing the source of the fire is cool, but it’s less effective when you have spent five years watching Rome burn to the ground.
Knowing what is happening while the characters are trying to understand can make an audience feel smugly superior for a bit. But right about the time Travis and Madison waltzed into Our Lady of Heroine Church, I felt my teeth start grinding in annoyance. My major worry for the series moving forward is that the characters will keep making what we, as an informed audience, know are stupid decisions. It’s one thing when Daryl and Glenn head into an abandoned church armed to the teeth to clear it out. It’s another when naive Travis investigates a church in the middle of the night with only a flashlight. Is it suspenseful? Sure, depending on how you feel about Travis. But if this keep happening over the course of the next six episodes, it will get old pretty fast. You can only watch a character run upstairs away from the serial killer so many times before you start rooting for her stupidity to be punished rather than rewarded.
Having said all that, a pilot episode is almost never the best episode of a series. And judging a show based on a single episode is never fair. So, I’m not about to stop watching Fear the Walking Dead simply because I wasn’t blown away by the pilot. There are a number of issues with the series (including the major issue that is baked into the DNA of the show), but, considering how The Walking Dead has managed to successfully understand its limitations and work around them, I have faith that Fear will be able to do the same.
— While it was a bit on the nose, I enjoyed the symbolism of having the heroine den be in an abandoned church. And having Nick repeatedly saying Gloria? Way to commit to it.
— Just when I was getting excited that the show would be free of Carl-esque annoying kids, we were introduced to Chris. Ugh.
— Less successful from a symbolism stand point? The “Call of the Wild”/Jack London discussion.