“That’s what they don’t get. When civilization ends, it ends fast.”
So claims a high school student during a city-wide crisis in the second episode of “Fear the Walking Dead.” Now, it’s hard to definitively say how quickly the world would crumble if a zombie outbreak raged through Los Angeles, and, to be fair, this kid reacted properly given the circumstances surrounding him. The only issue with his statement — and it’s a big one — is in how series creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson construct said scenarios in the first two episodes: the story isn’t designed realistically or even for maximum horror. Instead, “Fear the Walking Dead” seems only concerned with speeding through the downfall of humanity so this series can look more like its predecessor.
But even with the show’s overeager nature, nothing all that gripping goes down in the first two episodes. Considering the number of sequels, prequels, and spinoffs to existing zombie properties (one needs look no further than George A. Romero for examples), adding an addendum to “The Walking Dead” doesn’t seem like a difficult task. Establish some new characters, set up an objective for them to strive for, and throw in a bunch of flesh-eating undead monsters. Yet when Kirkman and Erickson set out to make a prequel, they accepted more of a challenge than they may have realized. Sure, audiences don’t know where these new subjects (ably embodied by Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis) will end up — unlike AMC’s other prequel series “Better Call Saul” — or whether or not they’ll even survive the season. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any expectations.
Dickens stars as Maddie, a school guidance counselor who’s fallen in love with Travis (Curtis), a teacher who’s eager to discuss Jack London with his students so they all become familiar with the battle between man and nature. The couple represents a modern romance, AKA one pieced together from previous relationships responsible for kids who are now step-sons and daughters. Driven apart by the difficulties associated with forming a new family, the Manawas are then faced with a whole new challenge when people begin getting sick…and then violent.
While the pilot isn’t poorly made, it does establish a story reliant on two questions: How did the virus start, and when will people realize it’s out there? The first is still utterly unknown after two episodes, and the second is answered before Episode 2, “So Close, Yet So Far,” wraps up its subtly manipulative segment. Relying on lots of forced moments of isolation for tension (just like its predecessor) “Fear the Walking Dead” proves early on that these aren’t sustainable questions, and that may be a record for how fast a show can debunk its own allure.
Looking elsewhere for points of interest, Dickens and Curtis are largely wasted opportunities. Both have enough charisma, presence and talent to carry a show, but neither are given a lot to work with here. (I’m still hoping they’ll get a chance to flex their dramatic muscles later on.) The writing is tepid, with tried and true horror cliches driving the simple if serviceable action. (It would be impressive how often these characters find themselves alone, if “The Walking Dead” staff hadn’t showed off these writers’ tricks too many times already.)
Adam Davidson’s direction doesn’t fare much better. The veteran television director does a suitable job creating a world similar to that found on “The Walking Dead” (except, you know, with people), but he fails to lend the series a bold sense of self. Remember when “The Walking Dead” began with Frank Darabount behind the camera? The three-time Oscar nominee opened his zombie drama with a scene both horrific and human, as Sheriff Rick (Andrew Lincoln) discovered an innocent, lost little girl was actually a bloodthirsty zombie and had to make the hardest choice imaginable. With a methodical pace that led to a powerful, controversial and thus memorable resolution, Darabount imbued his series with the promise of something new.
The only thought that came to mind during the opening of “Fear the Walking Dead” was, “How is that homeless heroin addict’s white shirt so clean?” These early episodes promise more scares and deeper plots only by their connection to “The Walking Dead,” rather than providing any glimpse at lurking potential. Yet fans of the original series probably won’t care. Even if they find it too slow, predictable or boring, Kirkman’s follow-up still feels very much like its predecessor, and that’s probably enough to keep fans of the franchise happy.
In that regard, AMC has crafted exactly the show they set out to create. “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.