The first thing a spinoff — or “companion series,” in AMC’s parlance — has to do is make a case for its existence. Fear the Walking Dead premieres Sunday, and the reason it exists is clear: The Walking Dead is a massive hit (and so is its after-show, Talking Dead), and AMC is shrewd enough to want to further capitalize on its success.
It’s understandable that some viewers would be wary going into Fear the Walking Dead, for a few reasons: it’s hard to imagine lightning striking twice, and TV is still so overrun by zombie narratives that yet another seems unnecessary. But Fear the Walking Dead is pleasantly surprising, thanks to a few clever differences from its predecessor.
Fear takes place at the onset of the zombie apocalypse, rather than thrusting us right into the midst of it. It’s a time when there are just weird things happening, chalked up to a viral infection or a bad drug trip or airborne toxins. The show is set in Los Angeles (a popular choice for these end-of-the-world disaster scenarios, for good reason), and there’s not really any indication that the two shows will ever collide. Additionally, rather than being a story about a ragtag group of survivors killing zombies, it’s more of a family drama that follows a dysfunctional, blended family struggling with its own personal issues, which happen to coincide with this impending societal breakdown. These are all elements that could be more enticing to some viewers than the original, and it makes for a pretty compelling series.
Madison (Kim Dickens) is a high school counselor and mother to Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a model student with plans to attend Berkeley, and Nick (Frank Dillane), a junky who got kicked out of community college. Madison is dating Travis (Cliff Curtis), who also works at the school and has a son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), who doesn’t want much to do with his father. The show is already rich with complicated family matters, angsty teenagers, and tense familial relationships — I’m tempted to describe this to friends as Parenthood meets The Walking Dead— before the action really gets going.
What’s most impressive about Fear the Walking Dead is how it blends these two conflicting narratives (family drama, zombie apocalypse) in creative ways. We meet Nick on one of his druggy days, and he encounters a zombie attack. In the hospital, he rants about “flesh and blood and viscera,” but it’s assumed that he’s just still high. In other plots, without giving too much away, Nick’s withdrawal from drugs and Travis’ attempts to find Chris both coincide with things getting worse in Los Angeles, increasing the tension of both stories.
There are some problems here, such as the incredibly slow pacing and viewers’ natural resistance to caring about these characters so quickly (especially when we know that any of them can “turn” or be disposed of at the drop of a hat) when there are much bigger things at stake. Fear lacks its predecessor’s urgency, and its strict survival plot; in contrast to most of The Walking Dead‘s street-smart, weapon-carrying characters, this family is better equipped to deal with sibling fights or petulant teenagers than they are with zombies, though I’d argue that only adds to the fun suspense.
Fear the Walking Dead is, based on the first two episodes sent to critics, a fairly solid companion series that retains some elements of The Walking Dead while also carving its own little home for itself. You don’t even have to know anything about the original to appreciate the show. You can step right in and wait for Los Angeles to collapse, just as the characters do.