‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Review: Series Premiere Is Mixed, But Promising
Recap and review of Fear the Walking Dead – Series Premiere – Pilot:
I can’t say I was that big on the news that The Walking Dead would be getting a prequel/companion series. The series premiere of Fear the Walking Dead didn’t really do much to alleviate any of those initial concerns, although I can’t say it was a bad premiere either. While the bad was really bad (basically anything that took place at the school), the good was REALLY good (the final ten minutes, pretty much). In fact, the good parts were enough to have me interested in keeping with the series for another five weeks.
Part of the positive of a show like this is that it doesn’t have to spend a whole lot of time on the “what” of the outbreak. The Walking Dead has already covered that part of the question: it’s a virus that’s somehow creating walkers out of normal citizens. This allows Fear the Walking Dead looks to offer us a look into how civilization fell, and how social order was overturned in the wake of total chaos. Because, really, the “how” is every bit as interesting as the “what” and the “why”. However, this approach also creates a narrative problem. Because we already know what’s happening, a lot of the plot lacks suspense. There’s no real mystery here, so we’re basically spending the better part of an hour to get to the walkers. It’s a series premiere that relies on character building first and foremost, which is actually a decent place to start, for a series with such a high-concept premise. Frank Dillane is the highlight as Nick Clark, a heroin junkie who fears he’s losing his mind when he wakes up in a drug den to discover his undead girlfriend eating a corpse. The deterioration of Nick over the course of the premiere is the best part, as we watch him go from cocksure, rebellious teenager, to a frail, frightened young boy. When he tries to get his drug dealer, Cal, to tell him if any special hallucinogenics were in the drugs he gave him, Dillane plays Nick as someone desperately grasping for a reason to believe in his own sanity. It’s powerful stuff, and it’s made all the more riveting once Nick finds himself fighting for his life against Cal.
When Nick kills Cal, we know what’s going to happen, but Nick doesn’t. And that’s where this format can actually do a lot for the drama. The audience is placed in a privileged position, because we have information Nick doesn’t. He doesn’t know Cal is going to come back as a walker, but we do. Nick once again questions if he’s losing his mind once he returns with his mother and her boyfriend to find the body gone, but we know he’s not going crazy at all. And that inevitability adds to the unease and tension that follows, particularly later on, when Nick’s mother, Madison (Kim Dickens), approaches the undead Cal, thinking he’s just wounded. It’s a total scream-at-your-TV / “No, don’t go near him!” moment, and it’s an effective enough scene to inspire faith in what’s ahead. Hell, the entire closing act of the episode is great, whether it’s Nick running over walker-Cal with the pickup truck, leaving only a wide-eyed husk of a corpse, or whether it’s the earlier emotional collapse Nick suffers when he realizes Cal’s body has vanished. That latter scene is tremendous for both Dillane and Dickens, and it’s made all the more poignant by the ambivalent relationship that’s been established between Nick and Madison. A high school guidance counselor by day, Madison expresses uncertainty early in the episode over whether or not she actually wants Nick to return home, since he’s a potentially destructive influence on his younger sister, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey). However, when Nick breaks down, Madison embraces him, and holds him as he shivers and sobs against her body. And he hugs her back, finding what little comfort he can through the mother with whom he’s had a strained relationship since the start of the episode. It’s a beautiful, earned moment between a mother and her child. And those are the sorts of moments I hope we get to see more as this series progresses.
Of course, with the good comes the bad. I’m sure she’ll be given more to do as the season rolls on, but nearly every scene with Alicia felt grafted onto the show from a different series altogether. In fact, her presence felt sort of redundant this week, since she’s basically there to reiterate points made earlier (and more succinctly) in the episode. For instance, her back-and-forth relationship with her mother, and the “you’re not my dad!” type arguments with her mother’s boyfriend, Travis (Cliff Curtis), feel like echoes of the same arguments and plot points illustrated through Nick. Then, in another scene, we see her watching the first walker takedown on her cellphone with her friends, despite us having already seen the footage from a different angle in the teacher’s lounge with Madison and Travis. I suppose you could argue that Alicia’s version of the scene shows us the kill shot, serving the purpose of teaching the characters how to kill walkers. But that information doesn’t get used in this episode, 1) because she doesn’t get the chance to tell anybody, since Madison sends her home for her own safety, and 2) because we don’t encounter a walker until the very end of the episode anyway. Basically, the only original things Alicia does is daydream with her boyfriend about leaving L.A., and bond with Nick by feeding him Jell-O, which I suppose illustrates that they’re close.
But, again, none of this particularly ends up mattering by the end of the episode, so the only hope is that it will somehow matter next week. And that’s all well and good, but hot damn, did I not enjoy having to sit through this Alicia stuff tonight. Similarly, Cliff’s issues with his teenage son are just as frustrating in their redundancy. Thankfully, this was confined to just one scene, in which Cliff’s son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), completely blows his father off over the phone. But while this show is going for a “family drama set at the beginning of a zombie apocalypse” vibe, which is perfectly admirable and fairly unique to the genre, the story feels awfully cluttered right now. I think it’s partially a problem of pacing, but also a problem of trying to do too much, too soon. Again, I can only hope that next week’s episode won’t spread itself too thin, because there IS a lot to like here in both the performances, and the atmospheric nature of how it’s filmed. This isn’t the Georgia of The Walking Dead, but it’s also not the modern noir-soaked California streets of True Detective Season 2. This is its own beast entirely, and one worth exploring.
The series premiere for Fear the Walking Dead left some things to be desired, but I mostly thought it was a good episode. No pilot is perfect, and while I found this to be a bit of a mixed bag, I think the show is working with a solid foundation. So while I might not be excited about the series, I’m definitely interested in seeing where it goes. On the one hand, it sort of feels like all this story is a prologue to a post-apocalypse story. On the other hand, I’m glad that we’re taking time setting up how this apocalyptic event happens, and how this plague spreads, along with the reactions across the board. There’s a lot worth looking into in that story.
But what did you think of the series premiere of Fear the Walking Dead? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Fear the Walking Dead, watch the first three minutes of the series premiere here!