Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
The Los Angeles setting of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead is not the glitzy, Hollywood Hills paradise of super rich kids and Aviator sunglasses. Instead, well before any zombies start prowling the streets, this L.A. is a tougher, grimier version of the oft-filmed locale, populated by normal individuals who have long since had their bubbles burst by all manner of hard knocks. The city is certainly pleasant enough, with manicured middle-class houses and an urban appeal, but it’s rough around the edges.
That perceptible grit also sometimes makes L.A. feel like it’s balancing on a knife-edge – which is certainly the intention of creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson, as well as episode director Adam Davidson. There’s just no considering Fear in a vacuum – the series is a companion piece to post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, and it in some ways strives to match its predecessor’s unsettling, end-of-days tension. The setpieces help in that pursuit considerably, from a shadow-drenched church to a sun-baked, dried-up riverbed. From the opening scene, an eerie suspense hangs over the proceeding, like a slow rot, creeping forward slowly enough that you understand why it takes so long for some characters to notice something’s up.
Compared to The Walking Dead, Fear is somewhat unexpectedly more of a slow-burn, marinated in mood and sometimes agonizingly sedate. The series is set to chart the fall of society as a zombie epidemic (which is still unexplained – and don’t expect any resolution on that front) takes root across the country, but its first two installments take their sweet time before really getting to the undead action. What Fear seems more interested in is how people react not just to the obvious terror of a flesh-eating corpse, but to the gut-twisting fear and paranoia of uncertainty. To the series’ central players, the real fear involves both running from those nasty walkers and pondering whether their arrival signifies something far more terrifying – the collapse of law, order and the basic concept of civilization as they know it.
High school guidance counselor Madison (Kim Dickens) has that nibbling on her mind, but a lot more at stake in the here and now. Her children, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and Nick (Frank Dillane), are both troubled souls, albeit for different reasons. Alicia nimbly tackles the role of the perfect daughter, but there are little cracks in her facade that seem primed to widen as the apocalypse gets under way. Nick, on the other hand, has already gone off the rails, with a nasty heroin habit and a greasy mop of hair that will probably become less striking as people realize there’s more at stake than personal hygiene. Meanwhile, Madison is working alongside her fiancé Travis (Cliff Curtis), a high school teacher, to try to convince Alicia and Nick that they’re still a family. It’s not going great.
And so, it’s surprisingly believable when Madison and Travis all but brush off the early signs of zombie Armageddon. Both have enough to juggle already without worrying about that bizarre police shooting on the news, where the guy just kept coming no matter how many bullets tried to knock him down. It’s neither here nor there, a tabloid article worth a glance but little more. In its first two episodes, Fear is more of a family drama than a thriller, and far more of a suspense piece than a slice of small-screen horror. The world didn’t fall over night, and though everyone’s aware that something’s amiss soon enough, the show teases out its titular flesh-eaters with an agonizing leisure.
Of course, everyone who flocks to Fear is well aware of what’s on the horizon – and that can make waiting for Madison, Travis and company to catch on a little maddening. Then again, the walkers on display here are new and fresh, a danger hitherto unseen by humankind, and there’s a new, heart-pounding form of anxiety to be gleaned from watching tragically naive characters let the zombies get far too close for comfort. Fear is about the downfall of humanity, and it’s certainly going to be fascinating to watch our world devolve into one populated by Walking Dead sadists like The Governor and Gareth, but it’s also about the dawn of a terrifying new day.
No one introduced thus far in the show, save perhaps an acne-scarred high school student who starts carrying a knife around almost as soon as the first walker sinks its teeth into a victim, could possibly guess that things are going to get as bad as Walking Dead fans know they will. And one of the most promising aspects of Fear is how Kirkman and Erickson seem set to play with their characters’ misplaced trust in the government to work things out. The world still has a long way to fall, and the diverse mixture of characters at the center of the show should allow for some terrific moral dilemmas to take shape later on as individuals clash over whether to band together or strike out on their own.
Keeping the tension high is going to be key if viewers are to latch onto Fear with the same adulation afforded to the flagship series. Currently, the show’s moving at a walker’s pace as it charts the outbreak’s early days, but it’s only natural to wonder how long that “we know something you don’t know” hook will keep viewers invested. After all, fans estimate Rick Grimes was only in his coma for a few weeks, during which the world truly went to hell. If Fear is to truly take root on AMC, it will have to immensely deepen its cast of characters long enough for them to do more than just run away from zombies and lament at the end of days.
At this newborn stage, Fear has an incredible amount of potential to emerge down the line as a dramatically rich, morally ambiguous thriller-drama. The opportunity is there – Kirkman and Erickson just need to seize it more aggressively than they have thus far. Now, though, as far as spinoffs go, Fear places a distant second to Better Call Saul (AMC’s other big swing at expanding a hit series). Whereas that show very quickly set itself apart from Breaking Bad with a bitterly ironic tone and some ingenious storytelling maneuvers, Fear is still very much dwelling in its predecessor’s shadow. And as mildly intriguing as the show is now, Dead-heads will certainly demand that Fear the Walking Dead will eventually feel like more than just particularly tasty leftovers.
It's admirable how boldly Fear The Walking Dead establishes itself as a subtler, slower burn than its guts-and gore-filled predecessor, but the shambling pace may end up testing the patience of more restless viewers.