Airdate: August 23, 2015
Directed by: Adam Davidson
Showrunner: Dave Erickson
Written by: Dave Erickson, Robert Kirkman (creator); Dave Erickson, Robert Kirkman (written by); Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore (based on the graphic novels by)
The anticipation for the spin-off series from The Walking Dead has been building since it was first announced over a year ago. Set in LA, set as events first begin to unfold as the zombie epidemic takes off, Fear the Walking Dead promises to show viewers the one thing the original series (and the graphic novels) skirted around: how did it all go down when the dead first began to rise? After the extended (90 minute) opener tonight, that question still remains largely unanswered, but it does hint at interesting things to come in this short, six-episode season. Click through below for my thoughts on the premiere.
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss plot points from the Fear The Walking Dead Series Premiere, Season 1 Episode 1, “Pilot” – read on at your own risk!>>
Unlike the tried-and-true opening of Rick’s emergence from a coma (an opening used by approximately half of all zombie films), Fear opens with a young man awakening from a drug-induced stupor. Okay, that sounds pretty similar, and there are more connections, such as his weakness and confusion at finding his world changed from how he left it; however, this is not your Rick Grimes. The drug-addict (heroin his trip of choice) – Nick Clark [Frank Dillane] – is a little freaked out, looking for his girlfriend Gloria [Lexi Johnson]. He’s in an abandoned church, and on his way to the nave he comes across a dead body, it’s throat torn out. He finds Gloria – but she’s chowing down on another “parishioner,” turning to come at Nick before he makes his flying, screaming escape. Remember that name – should Fear turn out to be the cultural phenomena its parent is, Gloria/Lexi Johnson will be the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first walker shown on FTWD?”
Nick runs from the church, and at first the desolate nature of the path he takes seems to indicate we’re in the same post-apocalyptic landscape fans of the original series are familiar with. But rather than a jump scare from a sudden walker attack, we’re shocked by a motorcycle whizzing by Nick as he catches his breath, followed immediately by a car slamming into him. People run to help, and the camera pans up to show the thriving metropolis of Los Angeles in the background.
This is a solid opening that establishes the show’s origins and suggests the direction it will take. We have all the obvious connections to Rick’s beginnings (awakening alone, confusion, finding dead bodies and zombies, physical weakness and fear, a post-apocalyptic milieu), combined with later scenes that place Nick in hospital, likely the last place a person would want to find themselves in this kind of crisis (and tying together with the importance of hospitals in TWD, both as the origination of Rick Grimes, and for the Beth storyline through the first half of last season). The zombie virus, much like many modern diseases such as HIV/AIDS, is first apparent on the fringes of society, attacking the downtrodden and weak, and largely ignored or belittled by the middle class “haves”. This is made most apparent in two scenes: first, the unwillingness of anyone to believe Nick’s story (with all the “drug-addict-hallucinating” handwaving one might expect), and in a later scene when Nick’s school counselor mother, Madison Clark [Kim Dickens], pooh-poohs suggestions of something more sinister going on made to her by an obviously troubled and bullied teen, Tobias (played with a kind of sullen anti-zeal by Lincoln A. Castellanos).
After the cold open, we’re introduced in short order to what will likely make up the core of the group of survivors the show will travel with: Madison, her daughter Alicia [Alycia Debnam-Carey], live-in boyfriend (and teacher at the same high school) Travis Manawa [Cliff Curtis], as well as his ex-wife Lisa Ortiz [Elizabeth Rodriguez], and son Chris [Lorenze James Henrie]. There’s a lot of tension in this would-be blended family, but most importantly the apparent central duo of Madison and Travis comes across as largely sympathetic, although this may play against the younger demographic that would be more interested in the Nick/Alicia/Chris storylines.
Things mostly seem to be going normally in L.A., although the school principal mentions to Madison that there are a bunch of students calling in sick (“I got my flu shot,” she quips). We get some character building, as the aforementioned Tobias comes through the school metal-detector, failing to stop even though the alarm goes off. She covers for him, sliding a few cents into his jacket pocket before steering him to her office. Once inside, she makes him give up the knife she felt in the other pocket, and Tobias proceeds to tell her just how much everything is about to go to hell. He’s been watching the news, reading online sources, and has read between the lines – something big is underway, and it ain’t your common flu. Madison tries to reassure him, but he just pays her lip-service before heading to class.
A day or two later, and things are visibly worsening. Nick leaves the hospital during the confusion of a Code Blue, Travis and Madison search all over for him, and attendance continues to decline at the school (and on their arrival the next day, Travis this time quips about flu shots when talking to two security guards). On their way home from a futile search, Travis and Madison come across a police incident on the highway. Upon hearing shots fired, Travis drives around it and gets them home. The situation was videotaped from several sources, and the videos go viral. They show a man, an accident victim, appearing to come back to life and attack several First Responders. The police pump him full of lead, but he keeps coming until he takes a headshot. Alicia and her friends, viewing the video, don’t believe it’s real, but before they can discuss it, school is suspended for the rest of the day.
This sequence of events has a very coming-apart-at-the-seams feel to it, with problems gradually snowballing and accelerating. When Madison confronted the nurse about Nick’s disappearance, the nurse [Lynn Chen] unapologetically told her it wasn’t her problem – they’d had two Code Blues on the ward, and everything was chaotic. She makes it clear that this is not a normal situation, and we see this echoed in little touches like a playground that’s full one day, and then empty (save for a lone, shuffling figure) the next, missing posters plastered to one of its brick fences. When the school is being closed, Madison makes eye contact with Tobias as he sits in a bus. His look says “told you so” clear as day, and she’s more than a little uncomfortable as she tries to give him a friendly wave.
The close of the episode takes us back into Nick’s messed up world. He’s trying to figure out if what he saw at the church really happened, or if it was a drug-induced psychotic break, as the doctors and his family insist. He tracks down his dealer Calvin [Keith Powers], a clean-cut former classmate that Madison and Travis actually approached earlier in an attempt to track Nick down. This innocent attempt sparks concern in Calvin, who doesn’t want his identity blown, so he takes Nick down to one of the L.A. spillways in order to silence him permanently. Nick sees the gun, and in the ensuing struggle, Calvin is shot in the chest and dies.
Nick calls Travis, who comes with Madison to collect him. He tells them what he’s done, and takes them to where it happened…only, there’s no Calvin. As they back out of the spillway entrance (why didn’t they bother to drive the truck all the way through and simply turn around and drive out? DRAMA!), they see a figure in the rearview mirror. It’s Calvin, looking dazed and hurt. Travis and Madison exit to try to help him, but Nick starts to freak out again – he’s figuring things out, as crazy as they are. Sure enough, Calzombie tries to take a bite out of Madison’s arm, and the two struggle to keep him off. Nick comes to the rescue, backing into Calvin hard, and then when he gets back up again, riding him up on the hood and out into the spillway. The episode ends with the three – Nick, Madison, and Travis – looking down at Calvin’s broken body, as it begins to move and stand up again. They ask the question any one of us would be asking: “What the hell’s going on?”
Showrunner Dave Erickson has said that Fear is intended to be more of a slow-burn than the intense from the get-go TWD, and this largely comes to pass despite the opening in a drug haven with masticating walker, and the closing on the drug-dealer-who-wouldn’t-die. In between, its mostly a bunch of fairly normal, if nice and nice-looking, people acting fairly normally as they fail to assess the true magnitude of the situation they find themselves in. And who could blame them? The only warnings are coming from a drug-addict and a socially awkward teen who tries to smuggle a knife into school; the other warnings, those right in front of their eyes, are easily waved off as being minor aberrations from the norm.
Unfortunately, this slow-burn approach also tended to ramp down the tension built in the cold opening. I actually found myself wandering mentally at a few points in the middle third of the episode, and I was thankful that they returned to more familiar ground by the end.
What’s usually most interesting about zombie movies is the human element: how do ordinary people react to extraordinary circumstances? We see this in every episode of TWD, where the question often adapts to “How would YOU choose to survive in a desperate world?” Here, the world isn’t quite desperate enough yet, and the characters just a little to ordinary. Nick, who had the most interesting arc of the night, is not particularly sympathetic despite his all-star smile, and the key focus couple of Madison and Travis just seem a little too rigidly obtuse to gain much sympathy either. Madison’s daughter Alicia, who appears to be intended to be a main character, is the worst kind of entitled, appearing to judge and be sullen on the surface, with an apparent heart of gold that we’re supposed to notice in touching scenes with her boyfriend Matt [Maestro Harrell], and as she feeds jello to her brother Nick in the hospital, neither of which actually does much to make her more sympathetic.
Given a couple more weeks and time to build on character arcs, I suspect that this situation will change, but as it stands currently, there really aren’t a lot of reasons to be cheering for these people to survive quite yet. Travis and Madison are likable, Nick and Alicia really aren’t, and the other possible core group members (Tobias, Lisa, Chris) are only briefly shown and have little impact. The preview for next week, which included several more characters and what appears to be a megalomaniac National Guard officer, shows some promise in creating more likable (or at least interesting) characters. For now, mostly bland, ineffective, and annoying characters rule the day. The adults have two basic emotions – concern for youth, and exhausted love, whereas the young actors all seem to have gone to the Sullen School of Sullen Acting.
Production values are topnotch, and the few effects used were used to great effect. Visually, then, this show will be the equal to its progenitor right out of the gate. Where it will need work is in creating tension, developing multi-dimensional characters that grab our attention for all the right reasons (or the wrong – everyone loves a good bad guy!), and that creates a sense of what stakes are being played for here. The show has an excellent pedigree, and I suspect it will find its feet. Hopefully, this happens sooner rather than later – but I’ll be watching as it goes on, waiting for that moment to click.
Steve’s Grade: C+
Not a terrible start to the new TWD spin-off, but not nearly as strong a start either. A lack of a clear protagonist to attach one’s sympathies to hinders the show at present, and will need to be remedied before we go too much further.