Lately, zombie shows are behaving like zombies themselves. Once you see one of them, you can bet there will be more behind it. And right now, between The Walking Dead, Talking Dead, and Fear the Walking Dead, AMC is ground zero for the epidemic—expecting fans to act like walkers and consume anything that’s thrown their way.
Created by Dave Erickson and The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman, Fear the Walking Dead fits into the original show’s mythology and timeline—it takes place during Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) coma, just as the outbreak begins—but the premise is supposed to be new. It’s set in Los Angeles, and it introduces us to characters we haven’t met, including Madison (Kim Dickens), a high school guidance counselor; her English-teacher boyfriend, Travis (Cliff Curtis); her daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey); and her drug-addict son, Nick (Frank Dillane). The pilot begins with a legitimately scary moment: Nick sees a junkie eating somebody’s cheek. Though when he mistakes the attack for a drug hallucination—leaving other characters to mumble about “reports in five states” of “a virus or a microbe”—it’s clear that Fear the Walking Dead is just another Lethargic Person’s Guide to the Apocalypse. Everyone spends too much time packing their bags or watching the news when they should just GTFO, as Madison’s students might say. Since we already know what the future holds, that pace feels especially slow. As Fear lumbers from one “turned” human to the next, checking off classic zombie plot points, you might think, C’mon, already, get to the part where cops’ bullets prove useless against the undead!
Given the pre-attack setup, Fear could’ve devoted more time to character development, making us care about these people before their flesh gets ripped off. But the dialogue tells us less about who these family members are than what is happening to them. Travis is particularly eager to explain the obvious. “Something really bad happened here,” he says, after wiping red viscera off the floor. “Guy’s not dead!” he says when a corpse stands up. During an English-lit lecture about Jack London’s To Build a Fire, he outlines Fear’s themes too neatly, claiming that the novel is “trying to teach us how not to die.” Isn’t that the most literal lesson behind any zombie drama? Does that even count as symbolism?
The biggest problem with Fear is that it doesn’t have a larger metaphor—yet. The best zombie stories are really about cultural anxieties, and the second episode taps into them better, with a police-brutality subplot that could lead somewhere interesting. But the Hollywood backdrop doesn’t provide any sharp insight into, say, an industry driven to feed the masses’ basest desires. L.A. looks just like any other city. And Nick’s addiction raises a question we’ve seen in zombie movies and dysfunctional-family dramas before: Should you save only those who can save themselves? Alicia says Nick’s inability to get sober fits the definition of crazy: “You repeat the same behavior and expect different results.” She could be saying the same about Fear. It keeps repeating the same old tropes, expecting to give us a different kind of zombie show. B–