AMC’s The Walking Dead largely began (following a brief prelude illustrating his near-death experience) in media res with Frank Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) waking after the zombie apocalypse was already well underway. Frank’s unconsciousness and subsequent revival was a good way to quickly integrate the audience into the new world and quickly introduce them zombie gore. Its spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, has a trickier setup as it details the beginning of the new zombie order in the culturally diverse setting of Los Angeles.
While it doesn’t necessarily skimp on the Dead‘s familiar thrills and gore, Fear inevitably suffers in comparison because it needs to give us something new in this extremely familiar world. Dead‘s characters, and to a great extent the audience as well, are mostly numb to the potential that anyone could die at any given moment. Fear doesn’t know that gruesome reality yet, so its characters are still in this perplexed and horrified state as they gradually wakens to the terrors around them. As a viewer who has been there/done that, I grew slightly impatient with Fear‘s finished product.
To its benefit, the show introduces us to an extremely multi-cultural cast, something that the Los Angeles setting necessitates. Kim Dickens (Gone Girl) and Cliff Curtis star as dating teachers who must deal with her druggie son’s recent accident and hospitalization. Much of the pilot is spent with this fraying family unit, sort of an emotional deep-dive into these characters with whom we need to quickly sympathize. Dickens’s son, played by Frank Dillane, is a heroin junkie living in an abandoned church when he has the series’s first encounter with a zombie, his former girlfriend. He spends the next several scenes trying to determine if that was a side effect of bad drugs or if it was reality. The question is definitely resolved for him by episode’s end when he shoots and repeatedly runs over his zombified drug dealer. Meanwhile, Los Angeles slowly begins to crumble as a mysterious virus begins attacking healthy humans.
The most effective scenes of Fear are not the traditional zombie scenes because, frankly, The Walking Dead does them a lot better. The Fear zombie attack scenes are small and contained. There are no hoards, yet, so it’s typically restricted to one-on-one encounters. But the show rises in tension because the living have no idea what they’re facing. They do dumb things like walk into dark rooms and approach lumbering people because they don’t expect what we know is the obvious outcome. What I personally found the most interesting in Fear was one of the closing scenes in which a zombie attacked EMT after a car accident, captured on camera by local news affiliates. It reminded me of the recent round of police brutality captured and published on You Tube, and that association was truly chilling.
Still, you can’t help but feel like you’ve pressed reset on The Walking Dead. Granted, I’ve only seen the pilot, so I’m hoping for a different tone to the remainder of the series that would differentiate it from the original. It certainly has a more unique look to it with amber hues and graffiti-stained walls giving us a vastly different canvas than the back woods of Georgia. If Fear can effectively establish itself as a different entity, then only then will it deserve to stand with The Walking Dead without seeming like a cold and calculated money grab (which it most certainly is, but the creators need to at least try and hide that fact).
As it stands now, Fear is a mildly interesting diversion that will live or die by its originality alone – a tough task given how much zombie material has come before it.