Sunday, August 23, 2015

REVIEW: 'Fear the Walking Dead' - A Blended Family Slowly Realizes the Zombie Apocalypse is Upon Them in 'Pilot'

AMC's Fear the Walking Dead - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

A highly dysfunctional blended family is forced together when they realize a reported virus is actually the onset of the undead apocalypse.

At first glance, Fear the Walking Dead seems like no more than a cash grab by AMC to capitalize on the growing zombie tread. The Walking Dead is the biggest show on all of television. No matter what its quality is throughout the seasons, it pulls in numbers unlike most things elsewhere in the medium. It's understandable why AMC would want to try and spread that financial success across the entire year. The Walking Dead has found a successful pattern of being on the air for 16 weeks of the year. And now, AMC has added six more weeks of strong ratings performance to its schedule. From a totally business perspective, this show is the safest bet of the year to launch well.

But there's certainly problematic aspects about the core narrative of the actual series. Fear the Walking Dead takes things back in time to the very beginning of the zombie apocalypse. The world is operating like business as usual. And then, slowly the world starts to change. The dead awaken and crave human flesh. Civilization as everyone knows it will soon fall. It's an interesting concept to show how the fall of society actually happened. But it also comes with the struggles of the audience knowing a significant more about the rules of the universe than the actual characters. The audience knows what is coming. That takes a crucial part of the tension out of the narrative. No matter how smart each of the characters is suppose to be, the audience knows more. This virus will not be contained. Anyone who has been scratched will die in a few hours. Head shots are the only way to kill the zombies. Everyone will turn once they die. And most importantly, there is no cure for this disease. It will become survival of the fittest in a radical changed world.

The parent show was able to take its time figuring out these rules of the world. Rick Grimes and company didn't know that everyone turns until the end of the second season. But that's time that cannot be utilized again here. On the original series, the story was able to take its time because the audience was living in the reality of the characters. It wasn't known until they had figured it for themselves. Even if it was obvious, the characters had to confirm that it was true. Here, any kind of resistance will be seen as dumb and naive. That's not a strong way to introduce characters - even though it would be the exact way that most regular people would react to the idea of a zombie apocalypse.

It's an awkward situation that the show has created for itself. This premiere is able to somewhat use the audience's understanding of this world to scare up some cheap thrills. But it never evolves into more than that. These are completely new characters. This show does have the luxury of establishing who each of them are before the world goes to hell. Characterization has always been a struggle with the original series - even though it has gotten better in recent seasons. The contrast of who these people are and who they are going to become will probably be the core overarching narrative of the series. This outbreak forces so much change. In this premiere, that largely manifests in Nick thinking he is losing his mind while high on drugs. It's a tragic circumstance for him to be in. The world will soon be short on heroin which will force him to change whether he likes it or not. He starts the premiere seeing this virus up close. The infected eat flesh and go after any human that comes close to them. That's a lesson that everyone slowly has to realize.

Nick's mother Madison and stepfather Travis are very concerned about his sanity. But it takes a lot of convincing and several beats of action for both of them to believe his crazy tale about a girl eating another person. To them, people just don't do that. They are all confronted with a reality where the rules of the world violently go out the window. They work at a high school and are very hopeful about being able to blend their families together and save Nick from himself. But everything about them comes across in a really blatant and unnecessarily ironic way. One student knows that something is wrong with the world and Madison doesn't want to hear anything about it. Meanwhile, down the hall, Nick is literally teaching an English class where the novel being discussed is one that talks about nature and survival. That is suppose to be cheeky and fun. The audience knows what's coming so it would be ironic for Nick to be talking about such a thing when it's about to become his reality. It's just none of it is all that amusing.

The Walking Dead has always been able to do premieres well. For all of its narrative struggles over the year, that has always been a constant alongside the fantastic creature design and horror effects. Fear falters out of the gate because there is no reason why any of these characters should be worth following. The promise of change is enticing. But the energy of the premiere never really gets amped up until the very end when circumstances force Nick to kill his drug dealer before he kills him. It's an awkward situation that is purely contrived so that Nick, Madison and Travis have to face off with a zombie in the final act of the premiere. That action sequence works too. It's just a whole lot of bending over backwards for very little gain in the long run.

This show needs its own perspective and identity when it comes to this apocalypse. So much of this review has focused on the comparison between the two shows. Because The Walking Dead exists, it sets unreasonable expectations for this show. Something that the creative team doesn't really seem to handle all that well. The journey these characters face needs to be different than what has happened with Rick, Daryl, Carol, Michonne and company across the country. It needs to find the personal edge to what makes Madison, Travis and Nick more interesting in the face of the zombie apocalypse and do so in a way that is genuine without simply playing off the audience's knowledge and expectations.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Dave Erickson & Robert Kirkman and directed by Adam Davidson.
  • This franchise has a huge problem when it comes to depicting race. It's something that fans have noticed on the original series. The creative team has never handled the subject all that well. The team on Fear don't do anything to break out of that unfortunate trend either. In this premiere alone, two young African American males are either killed and turned into zombies or placed in an unknown situation void of any form of communication. It's just so hard to believe this creative team hasn't learned anything regarding the subject from the other show.
  • By that logic, the next victim to the virus is probably going to be the school's principal, right? For a second, the show actually teased that too! It didn't work at all.
  • It's surprising that the premiere gives Frank Dillane the most to do given that its two leads are played by Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis. All three are doing the best with what they've been given. They can rise to the occasion. The writing just has to get there.
  • This is a drastically different role for Alycia Debnam-Carey than her work on The CW's The 100. The two shows will probably share some traits eventually. But that's far off in the future. Right now, she comes across as nothing more than the teen daughter who is purposefully left out of the loop by the rest of her family.
  • Elizabeth Rodriguez and Lorenzo James Henrie also pop up as the other side of the blended family - Nick's ex-wife and teenage son. She's basically a non-entity and he's a whiny brat who doesn't want to spend time with his father.
  • The news footage showing the police dealing with their first zombie was very cool to look at. That visual worked nicely. That and Nick running over the undead Cal more than made up for the lame opening sequence with the first overly sexualized zombie.