Fear the Walking Dead premiere recap: Only the end of the world again
If you tuned in late, here are the first three minutes of tonight's Fear the Walking Dead premiere:
It's a clever bait-and-switch: a post-apocalyptic nightmare that turns out to be the pre-apocalypse, as a crush of cars and taxis reveal a Los Angeles that's utterly unprepared for the horrific zombie outbreak on the horizon. And there are some interesting insights to be drawn about a city that misses the chance to slow the pace of the zombie apocalypse because it's content to ignore the plight of its neediest residents.
But the real point of the opening sequence is something simpler: the implicit promise that, yes, there will be zombies on this show, be patient. There's a reason, after all, that AMC made that three-minute clip available online in the days leading up to the show's premiere: Even Fear sees the folly of launching a zombie show without any zombies.
In theory, I'm the perfect target for Fear the Walking Dead: someone who once enjoyed the original Walking Dead, and who long ago gave up on it. After four seasons of the main series, I finally tapped out. I loved the basic premise, and the detail-oriented world-building, but I was sick of the dull, one-note characters and the cyclical storytelling. Short of a zombie attack that killed off pretty much everyone and started over with a new group of survivors, I couldn't think of a way for The Walking Dead to win me back.
Instead, Fear coexists with The Walking Dead. They take place in the same fictional universe with no overlap, and given the sheer difficulty of travel after a zombie apocalypse, there's basically no chance the two shows will ever cross over. But it offers the next best thing: A chance to correct the original series' various missteps by telling an entirely new story, thousands of miles away. It may be a spin-off — or, as its creators prefer, a "companion series" — but it's also a kind of mulligan, taking all the best parts of The Walking Dead while leaving all the worst parts behind.
Unfortunately, I can't say I'm blown away by the bland, squabbling family that sits at the center of Fear's narrative. The first character we meet is Nick (Frank Dillane), a drug addict and generally obnoxious human being. After his horrific first encounter with a zombie at a church, he wakes up in the hospital and delivers a string of smug, unfunny wisecracks. Can a TV show introduce a Poochie within its first 10 minutes? Fear the Walking Dead is bold enough to try.
To its credit, Fear clearly wants us to care about these characters, though its premiere is so ludicrously overstuffed that we don't really get to know anybody. The rest of Nick's family is more likable (though just as thinly drawn). Madison (Kim Dickens) and Travis (Cliff Curtis) are coworkers and newlyweds, and they've each brought children into the marriage. Madison has Nick and Alicia (Alycia Debnam Carey), his ambitious younger sister; Travis has Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), the scowly son he had with ex Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez).
Much of the premiere is focused on the family's human-sized problems. Travis investigates Nick's sketchy-sounding story about the horrors at the church. Madison, a high school guidance counselor, confiscates a knife from a student who has an inkling of the impending dangers. Alicia sets up a beach rendezvous with her boyfriend (Maestro Harrell), but winds up being stood up. ("You better be dead," she texts, in one of at least a dozen too-cutesy teases about the horrors that are about to unfold.) And everyone looks for Nick, who fled the hospital in a moment of chaos. The zombie stuff, meanwhile, is all in the background: a weird viral video of a man who bit the throat of an EMT on a Los Angeles highway, and an ever-increasing number of students who are staying home sick from school.
When Travis and Madison finally track Nick down, they find that he's in worse trouble than ever: He killed Cal, a sketchy friend who was carrying a gun. (It's unclear whether Cal actually intended to shoot Nick.) But as they determine what to do next, Cal's corpse, inevitably, rises and starts lurching after them. And suddenly, the entire family's problems have grown a lot bigger and stranger.
The end of the episode raises an intriguing and uncomfortable truth: For some people, the zombie apocalypse is actually a pretty good chance to start over. Madison, who's about to lose a very promising future at Berkeley, is getting a pretty raw deal. But in the regular world, Nick would be all but finished: strung out, prospect-free, and guilty of more than a few crimes, including theft and murder. But if you're worried about getting hauled off to prison, this outbreak is conveniently timed; before long, the police will be far too busy to investigate a single gunshot homicide in a Los Angeles ravine. (Of course, the fact that the corpse is still wandering around would raise some other, more pressing questions anyway.)
As it stands, Fear the Walking Dead is in the uncomfortable position of moving both too quickly and too slowly. Cal's death marks the end of these characters' normal lives: From now on, they're living in a nightmare. But while it would be obnoxiously coy to delay indefinitely the zombie apocalypse of a show called Fear the Walking Dead, we've had so little time to get to know who these people are — let alone care about their problems or like them. The regular world didn't have much to offer, so let's hope the end of the world brings out the best in them.