“Fear the Walking Dead,” which returns Sunday with its third season premiere, has always struggled to justify its own existence.
Not financially, since ratings are solid enough (albeit dwarfed by the numbers for “The Walking Dead” proper, even after that show’s viewership slide during its execrable seventh season). The troubles with “Fear” have always been creative, since it abandoned the show’s initial high-concept of viewing the zombie apocalypse through the lens of a single Los Angeles family. By the end of its six-episode first season, society had collapsed and the show’s main characters were on the run across a ruined America, looking for a safe harbor.
Save for the locale and the amount of decomposition on the zombies, the situation seemed awfully similar to what viewers were used to from the orginal series’ Rick Grimes and crew.
That first season was pretty bad, and nothing I heard about Season 2 made me regret dropping the show. Still, “Fear the Walking Dead” does have its upsides, especially two strong lead actors in Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis. It was worth revisiting some of the show’s lingering questions: Would Nick (Frank Dillane) still be a total pill? (Yes.) Would Victor Strand, the weirdo Nick met at the end of Season 1 still be around? (Yes!) Most importantly, did the show kill off Chris, TV’s Most Sullen Teen? (YES!)
The third season premiere, “Eye of the Beholder,” is rather dire, as our heroes fall into the clutches of some military types led by Daniel Sharman’s psychopathic Troy – whose interest in experimenting with the undead is about as grotesque as you’d expect.
It’s a situation audiences have seen dozens of times already in this franchise, as unnamed strangers are horribly murdered while the series protagonists (who are conveniently last in the murder line) seethe about the injustice of it all. I grant that it must be difficult to come up with new dangerous scenarios in the zombie apocalypse, but it doesn’t make the scenes any less tedious. On both “Fear” and “The Walking Dead,” when it comes to man’s inhumanity to man, the point has already been made, and the episode suffers for it.
The good news: Circumstances quickly change and the Clarks fall in with a survivalist group led by Russell Otto, a man with his own hilarious VHS video series about surviving the collapse of democracy.
Russell is played by Dayton Callie, best known for his major roles in “Deadwood” and “Sons of Anarchy.” It’s a visceral thrill to see Callie share screen time with his former “Deadwood” cast mate Kim Dickens again. The two actors have a lived-in chemistry that helps boost all of their scenes together, even if it’s just echoes from a far better show.
The survivalist camp is an intriguing setting, as the new characters turn out to not be as two-dimensional as you might expect. There’s plenty of storytelling potential, especially if the show lingers in the camp for a good chunk of the season. Hopefully “Fear” can do more with the camp and its residents than “The Walking Dead” has done with Alexandria, a place where Rick and his friends live, with numerous interchangeable extras who mostly serve as cannon fodder.
Despite “Fear’s” focus on the Clark family, the show still periodically checks in with Strand (Colman Domingo), probably because he’s the closest thing to a break-out character. Strand stands apart because he lives on his wits and seems to enjoy putting one over on people, even those he considers his allies. It comes with the role, but Domingo appears to be the only actor who’s enjoying himself, delivering most of his lines like he’s only half-kidding.
The closest analogue elsewhere might be Wentworth Miller as Captain Cold in the DC TV universe; both he and Domingo are actors who know they’re in schlocky genre material and ham it up accordingly. He’s a welcome presence even though it’s unclear at this point how Strand figures into the show’s ongoing plot.
Episodes 2 and 3 are an encouraging start, and the new setting has promise, with plenty of possible character dynamics to explore. If you’re just here for zombies to leap out of the darkness and get their brains bashed in as graphically as possible, there’s plenty of that, too. Provided you’re not exhausted by the franchise at this point, you could do worse.