Think of “Fear the Walking Dead” as a zombiefied “Better Call Saul,” and not just because the “Walking Dead” prequel rewinds a popular AMC show’s story to fill in the gaps. Like “Saul,” “Fear” seems intent on taking its time, exploiting its built-in audience to build character in a way that the mothership’s carnage-intensive pace rarely allows. That’s not to say its first two episodes are light on gore: the pilot ends with a drug dealer, whom teenage junkie Frank Dillane does not yet know is one of the undead, getting shot and repeatedly run over. The relatively modest state of the newly made walkers’ decay — their eyes are an incandescent blue rather than sunken hollows in their skulls — even allows the show to slip a little sex into the mix, as Dillane’s recently deceased girlfriend wanders a shooting gallery in a blood-smeared slip. But with a cast that includes Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis, the show can afford to lean more on its actors than on latex effects. Dickens already has the soulful gravitas it took “Dead’s” Melissa McBride three seasons to latch onto. It’s going to be a joy watching her character suffer.
Given its setting at the onset of the zombie outbreak, “Fear” at least begins with a less nihilistic worldview than its forebear, and its pre-limited time frame — the series won’t surpass the month “Dead’s” Rick Grimes spent in his coma — it’s to be hoped that won’t deteriorate too quickly. “The Walking Dead” strains to paint characters who look past their own survival as anything but naive chumps, but “Fear’s” characters — the initial focus is on Dickens and Curtis’ romantic partnership, and their children from previous marriages — don’t know that society is doomed. The audience, of course, knows that whatever way they turn, they’re headed for a cliff, and managing that inevitable punchline will be one of “Fear the Walking Dead’s” biggest challenges.
Initial reviews, some based only on the pilot, some on the first two episodes, are mixed, with some critics welcoming the more leisurely approach to character building and others feeling like it’s just misdirection until the flesh-eaters start showing up in force. The initial six-episode mini-season seems like an awfully brief starter, but show has already been renewed for a further 15 episodes, to be slotted in between halves of “The Walking Dead’s” sixth season. “Fear the Walking Dead” premieres August 23 on AMC.
Reviews of “Fear the Walking Dead”
Kevin Fitzpatrick, ScreenCrush
For the most part, “Fear the Walking Dead” aims to pick up something the mothership lost along the way, specifically an existential horror behind all the gore. On its own, “The Walking Dead” emerged as creator Robert Kirkman’s answer to questions of life after the garden variety zombie flick’s runtime, where “Fear” addresses the other unexplored side of the equation; the rarely-seen collapse of civilization in the first place. It’s one thing to watch individual characters forge themselves (or more often than not, die trying) in a brutal new world, it’s another to see the individual layers of shock and paranoia peeling away at our comfortable lives. “The Walking Dead” itself forsook true horror early on in creating a sort of serene, melancholy focus, while “Fear” tends to embrace a much purer panic.
Brian Lowry, Variety
The wisdom of situating “The Walking Dead” spinoff in a different place (Los Angeles) and time (at the very beginning of the apocalyptic outbreak) sounded like a shrewd move, and might still be. Yet the 90-minute premiere for “Fear the Walking Dead,” the eagerly anticipated offshoot of AMC’s megahit, initially feels too much like a snore, narrowly following a single, not-terribly-interesting family, and leaning heavily on musical cues to stoke a sense of suspense. A second episode, fortunately, improves matters considerably, mostly in charting how the uncertainty of what’s happening begins to break down society, from civil unrest to rampant fear of the unknown. This hour points in a more promising direction, although as yet the characters still seem a little malnourished, particularly compared with the original, which niftily wedded a horror motif to an ongoing, evolving soap opera where no one is completely safe (OK, maybe just a few key people).
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
What Erickson, fellow exec producer David Alpert and director Adam Davidson have to do is create a new and different Walking Dead universe, where the initial, burgeoning and mysterious infection, pre-apocalypse, is riveting enough to sustain the slow build of figuring out new characters — and letting those new players have personalities that will lend themselves to episode-to-episode loyalty and interest.
That’s not easy. And there are, undoubtedly, moments in the first couple of episodes where it’s just not nearly as much fun as the original and, because viewers want to see zombies, the whole thing feels like a lurching story we already know being told too slowly.
Dave Trumbore, Collider
The aim of this series is to follow a modern-day, ordinary family – think guidance counselors and teachers, not law enforcement and military veterans – as they attempt to understand, come to grips with, and then survive the undead scourge. What’s more interesting than a rehash of the original series’ conceit is the subtext that’s present in this spin-off. Without giving away any major plot points, it’s surprisingly anti-authority. It explores the “powers that be” on multiple levels – parents, teachers, news reporters, and police – and shows how perilous it can be to put your trust in the wrong people.
Roth Cornet, HitFix
The strength comes down to the performances and its ability to be self-referential without devolving into self-parody. Cliff Curtis and Kim Dickens star as a couple who are working to integrate their blended family, and they’re each more than equipped to quickly establish the stakes of this world and get the viewer invested in their familial relationships. It’s nice to see this series enjoy exactly what it is – and not take itself too seriously – yet ride the line enough to ensure that the horror still plays. My one concern is how long it can maintain that balance before the “We know something they don’t know” of it all becomes a bit kitschy and trite. However, this cast, as mentioned, boasts some formidable talent. Ideally, by the time they settle into their fate, we’ll be more invested in the challenges that these particular survivors are facing than the novelty that the series inherently presents.
Ben Travers, Indiewire
“The Walking Dead” is a ratings juggernaut, and its prequel is poised to help the cable network stay afloat during a lean post-“Mad Men,” post-‘”Breaking Bad” era. But “Fear the Walking Dead” is far less satisfying from a creative standpoint than Vince Gilligan’s prequel offering. It’s neither as original or relevant, and it certainly failed to break free of any formal restrictions. Perhaps most importantly, though, the new series lacks a beating heart — even a black one. When civilization ends, it may end fast. But by moving too quickly through rich dramatic territory and doing so without much action, “Fear the Walking Dead” doesn’t seem to get why anyone would care.
Cheryl Eddy, io9
What you do get is the sense that something huge, sprawling, and nightmarish is on the horizon, and it’s starting from this pinpoint place of one otherwise unremarkable family. MSure, we’ve seen the zombie apocalypse imagined onscreen many, many times before. But in Dead, we’re experiencing it alongside characters that’ve had time to develop; we actually like them, for the most part, and we’ve seen them battling everyday chaos.
Brandon Davis, Comic Book Resources
As an overall television episode, “Fear the Walking Dead’s” premiere is great. It wisely uses the audience’s knowledge of what’s coming against the characters who don’t have that luxury. Questioning what will happen next and a hunger for answers builds major momentum in the pilot and the door is left open for a number of possibilities. We don’t need all the answers in one episode. It looks like we’re going to take our time and really explore what happened when the world ended, and that’s exactly what makes “Fear The Walking Dead” so much fun.