Perhaps, like a dawning zombie outbreak, skepticism over “Fear the Walking Dead,” has been slowly but imperceptibly spreading for weeks, but there’s a pronounced difference in tone between early reviews of the “Walking Dead” spinoff and the recaps of last night’s premiere. Perhaps expectations were raised by the warm(ish) notices, or perhaps limiting themselves to a single episode rather than the two that were sent out in advance has critics more frustrated with the show’s leisurely pace, but there’s a good deal more concern about how long “Fear” can sustain its slow burn without making its character seem like clueless ninnies — the kind who on “The Walking Dead” would be swiftly reduced to walker chow. “Fear’s” entire purpose, after all, is to fill in a space deliberately left blank by the original series, and by Robert Kirkman’s original comic books, undoing one of its niftiest tricks: putting protagonist Rick Grimes into coma and allowing us to effectively skip past the first act of the story where people slowly come to terms with how the world is changing. Where “The Walking Dead” gave us an abandoned hospital and a door marked “Don’t Open — Dead Inside,” “Fear the Walking Dead” gives us whiny teenage junkies and parents who just don’t understand.
It’s early on, of course. But with AMC bizarrely limiting’s “Fear’s” initial run to a scant six episodes, the clock is already ticking. (A 15-episode second season has already been ordered, but there’s no guarantee the audience will stick around.) The “Walking Dead” franchise has never harbored much in the way of illusions about what its audience wants — kills, the gorier the better — and there’s every chance “Fear” will get around to providing them sooner rather than later. But it’s hard to know whether the show is moving towards being something different or more of the same, and which would be the more desirable scenario.
Reviews of “Fear the Walking Dead,” Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
The prequel embraces the sort of conventions the original mostly avoids. Robert Kirkman, the mastermind behind the “Walking Dead” universe, has said the new series will “show people coming to grips with society crumbling around them in a way we mostly skipped over on ‘The Walking Dead.'” The thing is, that skipping was the thing that made the original feel fresh, both in comic book and series form. It picked up where most horror tales leave off, exploring the contours of a broken world rather than fixating on the breaking itself. Instead, here we get versions of things we’ve seen plenty before — a pulsing, tension-raising soundtrack, panicked traffic, police helicopters and boyfriends ominously missing appointments. Characters do that infuriating thing in which they decline to share incredibly relevant information for no good reason.
Josh Modell, A.V. Club
The best course for “Fear the Walking Dead” would be an examination of how a densely populated place like Los Angeles will deal with what’s coming: How will regular people react immediately? How quickly will martial law be declared? How fast will people turn into survivalist monsters — and against each other? What lengths will these parents go to keep their own children safe? It’s the “Contagion”-like aspects that interest me most, though I’m fine with a bunch of setup as long as there’s some eventual payoff, either with the promised emotional resonance or some truly frightening action. Hopefully it’s both, and hopefully the latter won’t be sacrificed in the interest of not looking too much like “The Walking Dead.”
Todd VanDerWerff, Vox
One of the pleasures of “Fear the Walking Dead,” then, might be these characters figuring out how to deal with the zombie outbreak on their own, on the fly. You can see the show sprinkling bits of information to different characters — like how Alicia knows a shot to the head will kill a zombie — but since they’re not yet comparing notes, they’re not yet ready to truly deal with the monumental task ahead.
On the other hand, that’s incredibly dangerous territory to spend time in. Any time the audience knows more than the characters, it can be a problem, as we wait for the characters to catch up to us. It’s not necessarily the case that this will happen here, but the show has to be concerned about it all the same.
Matthew Chernov, Variety
Too many characters on “Fear the Walking Dead” withhold vital info from each other, putting everyone in jeopardy because of it. It’s an easy way to add drama to a story, but inciting millions of viewers to shout “Just tell her already!” at their TV sets isn’t the best way to kick off a series.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
Even an actress as nuanced as Dickens, who plays all of her roles (whether in “Deadwood,” “Tremé,” or “Gone Girl”) with an innate intelligence, can only do so much when her character has to spend much of the first episode dismissing other people’s warnings about people turning into monsters. From the perspective of a person living in the normal world in which we first meet Madison, she’s being perfectly reasonable, even sensible (particularly since one of the people trying to warn her is Nick, shortly after police find him outside a heroin den). But from the perspective of a viewer who has watched almost 70 episodes set in this universe and knows how it works, she comes across like one of the rich swells in “Titanic” who keep insisting the boat can’t sink.
Noel Murray, Rolling Stone
Dickens is the rare actor who can sell even the most hackneyed material, thanks to her ease in front of the camera; her characters always seem to be taking their troubles in exactly the right stride. She’s not straining too hard for our sympathy or attention, and if she’d started “Fear the Walking Dead” at too high a pitch, Dickens would have nowhere to go emotionally when rotting ghouls start shambling toward her.
Still, most of the first episode is about establishing Madison’s various relationships, which slows the pace waaaay down. And it doesn’t help that Erickson and Kirkman’s script relies so much on characters saying things like, “Did you just throw up in your mouth?” and, “The Merriam-Webster definition of crazy is doing the same thing and expecting new results.” We don’t need killer cadavers yet, but we could do with less clichés.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
The first two episodes hit a baseline of “pretty good” while serving up a couple of solid jolts and some memorable performance moments. And that’s about it. Despite superb photography and editing, a touch of John Carpenter in the pacing and scoring, and solid lead performances, this Los Angeles–based prequel to AMC’s long-running smash doesn’t hit any original notes; it just strikes the old ones again, in a different register. It’s deliberately slow, drawing out what would be the first five minutes of other zombie films and stretching it over the course of a season, or two seasons, or however long this show ends up running, until civilization is in tatters and the world looks more or less like the one we saw when Rick Grimes woke up from his coma in the pilot of the original “Walking Dead.” This sounds like faint praise, but I guarantee you AMC is reading this and thinking, Yes! We nailed it. If the prequel were amazing, it would be catastrophically off-brand. Fans wouldn’t know what to make of it.
Sean T. Collins, Decider
Even the most uninspired post-“Sopranos” series about the inner turmoil of men who murder people for a living generally pay lip service to the idea that their cathartic explosions of violence do more harm than good, and that our vicarious thrills must be priced against the moral cost of killing. For Rick Grimes and company, however, gore, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, is good. Yes, the show frequently toys with the idea that the former sheriff and his roving band of zombie-apocalypse survivors have Gone Too Far This Time; in fact, the frequency with which this question is raised indicates the inconsistency of the writing. But far more often, the story serves as an ersatz endorsement of brutality in the name of survival, justice, and revenge, concepts frequently treated as indistinguishable. For “The Walking Dead,” killing is bad, unless you really really have to or unless they really really deserve it, in which case it’s extremely good. The frequent recourse to redemptive violence in a world where virtually none of its massive audience will experience such situations reads as decadent at best and downright immoral at worst, a nasty and unnecessary exponent of the reactionary potential that’s been buried beneath the zombie-horde metaphor from the start. To treat “What would you do to protect those you care about?” as the central ethical question of our time is to invite the creation of imaginary enemies to justify our mental murderousness against them; the consequences of this paranoid mentality for America are as thick in the air as teargas in the streets of St. Louis.