Fear the Walking Dead opens on the real walking dead: heroin addicts. A young man, who we learn is Nick (Frank Dillane), wakes up alone in a church, his red eyes betraying his illicit late night activities. He struggles to get up, shambling, stumbling, providing a template for the zombie shuffle, looking for his lady friend Gloria. When he does, he finds her eating their companions. Nick freaks and runs away, right into the middle of the street, getting hit by a car, waking up in the hospital with cops and his estranged family nagging him for answers that he doesn’t have, in a world that has no idea what’s about to come.
Part of the appeal of AMC’s The Walking Dead and Robert Kirkman’s comic book source material is that it started in the middle of the madness. There was no calm before the storm: the series threw us into the eye of it. We didn’t need answers, or an origin story, an explanation of the zombie virus. That wasn’t the point: The Walking Dead is named after the survivors, not the zombies, after all, and its how mankind become worse monsters than the living dead they’re forever combating.
When AMC made the, ahem, no brainer decision to spin-off (excuse me, create a ‘companion series’) from cable’s most popular show this side of Game of Thrones, I was skeptical on several levels. Do we really need more zombies? I liked the idea of seeing how another part of the world was dealing with the zombie apocalypse, but why did it have to be Los Angeles? Perhaps most egregious, Fear the Walking Dead flies in the face of how The Walking Dead first captivated us, providing us a glimpse of how it all began. We’ve seen innumerable zombie apocalypses begin; it was The Walking Dead that revealed what comes after was the interesting part.
But Fear the Walking Dead teaches us the same lesson that the best parts of The Walking Dead does: it’s not about the zombies, it’s about family. It’s about the characters, and in Fear‘s pilot, Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson have established the foundation for a diverse and widespread family ensemble, focusing on the Clark clan, led by high school counselor Madison (Deadwood‘s Kim Dickens), her two kids, ‘perfect’ Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and heroine addict Nick, and the new stepdad in the picture, English teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis). We catch glimpses of Travis’ son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) and ex-wife Liza Ortiz (Elizabeth Rodriguez), and don’t even meet the Salazar family, but it’s clear these three families will provide the foundation for Fear the Walking Dead, at least to start, considering the survival rates on its predecessor.
Fear the Walking Dead is clever; it plays off the audience’s expectations of The Walking Dead, and the fact that we as a viewer know a helluva lot more than the characters about to get in it in Los Angeles. There’s a profound sense of dread that feels fresher here than it has for the past couple seasons on The Walking Dead, which still flaunts moments of greatness, but also feels manufactured in its suspense. Sometimes in Fear’s pilot, you catch Kirkman and Erickson being too clever, even if I enjoy the moments when Alicia angrily texts her missing boyfriend, “You better be dead!” or when Travis mutters, “There’s no bodies. They couldn’t just get up and walk away.” Au contraire. At least when an early incident makes traffic even worse, no one makes a LA traffic/405 joke.
Travis, first seen stubbornly fixing the plumbing in the house rather than calling the plumber, is quite clearly the Mr. Fix-It, a nice guy who wants to save Madison, Nick, everyone. With a mysterious virus driving up the number of absences at school, Travis remains, lecturing his students on Jack London and the author’s lesson: “to not die,” one that they’ll all obviously hope to learn over the course of the series. Travis is set up as this show’s Rick, and I’m sure Kirkman and company will play with the audiences expectations that comes with that.
Early on, I suspect that Fear the Walking Dead will be seeking to invert expectations, but to its credit, the pilot successfully introduces a fractured family with redemption potential that I found myself caring about. And that’s all that really matters.
“What the hell is happening?” Madison asks, glimpsing the new normal.
“I got no idea,” Travis responds. We do, and for now, that actually makes Fear the Walking Dead more interesting than it should be.