Teens vs. zombies, except no fun.

By Darren Franich
September 29, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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The Walking Dead: World Beyond

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There are so many obvious things wrong with World Beyond, AMC's bland Walking Dead spin-off for the youth. The main characters are nice, brilliant, and boring. Sisters Iris (Aliyah Royale) and Hope Bennett (Alexa Mansour) are supposed to be polar opposites: a paragon of virtue versus a renegade against society. But they're both smart junior chemists who love their dad. They learn quickly from each other's different perspectives, which suggests great parenting and blah writing.

In World Beyond's premiere (Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT), 10 years have passed since the corpses started chomping — an in-universe wink to the TV franchise's own 10th anniversary this Halloween. Iris and Hope are teenagers with scant pre-apocalyptic memories, beyond the stray misery flashback of their late mother. It's a cool concept the original Dead already flashed forward toward: What's it like growing up in a world of zombies?

Carlos Serrao/AMC

Nothing in the first two hours of World Beyond suggests the awesome possibilities of life in a calamity reality. Everyone wears some variation of fitted blue jeans and brown jackets — the Deadverse uniform — except for Elton (Nicolas Cantu), a quirkmonster in a tan corduroy three-piece. The main characters live behind walls on the old Nebraska State University campus. Security is maintained by guards like Felix (Nico Tortorella) and Huck (Annet Mahendru), very nice people untroubled by a decade of ultraviolence. In our own universe, teenagers obsess over mortality in all sorts of ways: heavy metal, supernatural chic, mega-kill video games, the flawed adolescent conviction that Punisher rules. Heck: crucifixes! In World Beyond, everyone has lost everything, and I don't think I even spotted one single tattoo.

The campus colony has an alliance with the Civic Republic, a shadow coalition with helicopters and assault rifles. An envoy named Elizabeth (Julia Ormond) flies in for handshake diplomacy. She also brings Iris and Hope good tidings from their father, who disappeared into the Civic Republic's headquarters. He's a scientist working on some mysterious something. Hope worries her dad's lost in the lion's den.

The Bennett sisters set off to find him, eventually, for reasons I won't spoil that make no sense. They're joined by preppie anthropologist Elton and Silas (Hal Cumpston), a big dude with sad eyes. You don't get much sense of rich character dynamics ahead. Iris asks Silas what kind of music he likes. ″Different kinds,″ he says. I get that Silas is shy, but that vagueness extends throughout the whole ensemble. Felix and Huck are the adults chasing the runaways, and Mahendru at least has fun trying out a drawl as a strong, silent type. Sadly, she also has to describe herself as ″a strong, silent type."

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Here for the cool kills? Been there, done that. There's a fiery landscape full of scorched deadites, a conceit better realized in a sacred mothership episode, ″The Grove." Really, was anyone asking for this? Teenagers already have their own Walking Dead show, which is called The Walking Dead. The original series was a secret family phenomenon, moving the goalposts of Sunday night prime-time acceptability by domesticating horror-film grotesquerie for the mainstream audience. I recall a long-ago New York Comic Con Walking Dead panel where a couple people in the Q&A line were comically young children. Was that all-ages appeal disturbing or hilarious? If I were AMC, I'd be worried that those kids are now teenagers binging The Umbrella Academy and Stranger Things, pop-of-color extravaganzas with high-caffeine plotting. Meanwhile, here's another brownish-gray stroll through a grim forest of woe.

World Beyond is officially a ″two-season limited event." That's either a cool new storytelling model or a pre-cancellation. AMC is all in on Dead, greenlighting a sequel series and a spin-off anthology to run alongside Fear the Walking Dead as the original shuffles toward finality. That doesn't even count the upcoming films about Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes, or ancillary programs about Norman Reedus riding motorcycles and what a chill husband Jeffrey Dean Morgan is. I can't decide if the network's quintuple-down mentality is desperate or savvy. That's a lot of eggs in one basket, years after Dead's ratings peak. But the core fandom is loyal. Like, Talking Dead can still pull over a million viewers, a ridiculously big cable number for a couch with humans on it.

And there are moments in World Beyond that reflect some essential Dead appeal. Elton's a sixth-extinction nerd who thinks humanity was always doomed, zombies or no. His fellow survivors dream of normality: reconnection, repopulation, civilization rebooted. Elton estimates 15 years until the last human dies — so at least nobody on World Beyond ever has to turn 30.

That prediction stuns Hope. ″We're the last generation?″ she asks.

″Or the endlings,″ Elton says, ″As the last of a species is called."

Teenagers worry they are humanity's last generation: That's a pretty common plot thread in our own world, where lots of people yearn for normality while 2020 spirals further down the drain. Never underrate how the Walking Dead experience reflected (created?) a new sentimental strain of nihilism, crisscrossing high-fatality monstrosity with primal narratives of against-the-odds family struggle and mawkish misfit-community sweetness.

The original series was also, once upon a time, astoundingly good at killing boring characters, while forcing other boring characters to become less boring by killing their own boring loved ones. Will the same thing happen here? I worry the whole content strategy evolution toward Civic Republic-y continuity has strangled the franchise's best instincts. It's too much world-building in a universe built on world-demolishing. Still, the World Beyond premiere fixes one major problem in the bloodiest way possible. And one blah character has a secret killtastic origin story so outrageous that I laughed my head off. World Beyond's short run could offer its own brutal appeal. It won't take long to see how much worse things get. C

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