For the most part, I’m not a huge fan of The Walking Dead and I feel like over the years I’ve made my opinion known here. I haven’t done a lot of television reviews on this site in some time due to my coverage over at The Liberal Dead and then HorrorSexy, but overall The Walking Dead has been a sticking point for me: sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s really bad, and that often averages out to be a mediocre show all around. One good episode in a series of bad ones doesn’t excuse poor characterization and development, something that I think quite a number of viewers choose to ignore.
So when Fear the Walking Dead was announced, I had two kinds of feelings. The first was annoyance at the title, and I still stand by my thoughts that it’s a terrible moniker for the show; the second was a slight anticipation, because Fear the Walking Dead could start over and rectify some of the things that bugged me about the Original Blend. And based on the hints that the show would start at the beginning of the walker apocalypse instead of in medias res like The Walking Dead did, there was potential for Fear the Walking Dead to have the scares and tension that its predecessor has lost through familiarity with the post-apocalyptic world.
Here we are – Fear the Walking Dead is now on the air, recently debuting its second episode (and the first was an extended 60 minutes). And to be honest, I’m not only unimpressed, but upon completion of the pilot, I was actually angry.
“Pilot” is terrible. I’ll come right out and say it, so if there’s anyone reading who found themselves entranced with the initial episode, you can probably tune out now. It’s not terrible in that the production is poor, or the acting is bad, or that the crew have no idea what they’re doing. It’s that they know exactly what they’re doing, and what they’re doing is overemphasizing the slower aspects of the start of the zombie apocalypse. At an extended 90 minutes, or 60 without commercials, “Pilot” is stuffed with characterization, exploration, and subtle hints that the end is coming, but all of this really amounts to nothing.
I’ve read a few reviews of the pilot since I was a week behind watching, and some of them mention the fact that Fear the Walking Dead seems to be making up for The Walking Dead‘s lack of character development early on. So the extended pilot takes the time to introduce the unconventional family life of Madison, Daniel, Nick and Alicia, opting to spend much of its opening moments dealing with Nick’s drug addiction and Daniel’s other family. That’s a great start, I’ll give the show that, except by the end of the pilot the only thing Fear the Walking Dead has managed to do for its characters is paint them in the most generic colors possible.
Nick is a druggie, a fact that the show drives into our heads again and again. The pilot, and even “So Close, Yet So Far,” wants the viewer to know that he’s relapsed time and again. They might as well label it on Nick’s head because it becomes so prevalent. Unfortunately, that’s all we know about Nick from the first two episodes – except maybe that a kid from school named Tobias had once met him and thought he was “nice.”
The same goes for Alicia, who, for much of the first two episodes, is defined by her relationship with her boyfriend Matt. It becomes a driving impetus for her – she’s got to go out and see him because he’s sick, and everyone refuses to tell her that she should stay away from him because he’s probably going to be a zombie soon. “So Close, Yet So Far” does a slightly better job of giving her something to do – though it’s only looking after the withdrawal-wracked Nick.
Daniel’s family presents another dilemma, where Fear the Walking Dead now has to juggle two families with indistinct people. His ex-wife Liza is unfortunately the typical generic one – angry, upset, and refusing to believe anything her ex-husband says. Along with her is his son Chris, also rejecting his father. Throughout these two episodes, we learn nothing about either of them, but with “So Close, Yet So Far”‘s concluding trajectory, it looks like we might get a little bit more info about them.
That leaves Madison, the most well-defined person of the group. She’s struggling to keep Nick from ODing, to keep Alicia in their lives despite her growing distance, and she’s also a guidance counselor. She gets the most to do in these two episodes, saving a kid from what some have termed Zombie Principal Obama and adapting to the post-apocalyptic lifestyle in the most realistic ways. She’s a strong character, but she’s also not going to be able to carry the show on her own.
The biggest problem, however, is Fear the Walking Dead‘s pacing. While “So Close, Yet So Far” does a better job of introducing the zombie conflict and getting characters to recognize that some serious shit is going on, the slow shuffle of events is easily summed up in a couples sentences. “Pilot” is much more egregious – with its extended running time, it lingers on unimportant events, with not one but two explorations of an empty church Nick used to squat in. The start of the apocalypse is important and I don’t blame Fear the Walking Dead for wanting to depict the decline before things really get bad, but it comes at the expense of excitement.
I don’t want it to sound like “So Close, Yet So Far” is awful, because it’s a step in the right direction, especially considering how bad the pilot is. But Fear the Walking Dead is making the same mistakes its predecessor does, making time for characters to talk about the virus that’s wreaking havoc and not actually saying anything. No one talks about, or they just don’t want to believe, the inevitable. The lack of conversation, of simply exposing the fact that bad and unexplainable things are happening, is more a way to keep the characters in Fear the Walking Dead in the dark. It’s a plot device, one that’s prolonging what should be obvious to the characters, and though the show has tried hard to distance itself from the problems of The Walking Dead, it circuitously falls into the same traps.
It’s hard to say whether sticking it out in Fear the Walking Dead will be worth it. As the apocalypse continues to grow, I would assume that the show will touch on most of the same themes as the original, just with an earlier timeline and a different setting. That’s not going to be a problem if the show can overcome its monumental weaknesses, but if the writing in the first two episodes is any indication, things look pretty bleak – and I’m not talking about the outlook on life.