‘Fear the Walking Dead’ arrives with a whole lot of goodwill behind it. Thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the series to which it is a prequel, I fully expect this premiere to set some ratings records for AMC. But is the episode itself any good? Hold on to something folks, it gets bumpy from here…
Let’s let the cat out of the bag early: The first episode of ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ (which ran a long, sluggish 90 minutes) is not very good. I’m sure I’ll get some backlash about comparing this premiere to the outstanding pilot episode of ‘The Walking Dead’, but feel free to compare it to any first episode of a series that went on to be successful and this one won’t rank very high on the charts. In fact, about the only show I can think of with a pilot this weak that went on to be a huge success is ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. The positive news is that ‘TNG’ was also based on a hugely successful father series, so hope springs eternal for ‘Fear the Walking Dead’.
The episode begins inside an abandoned, boarded-up church where a teenager named Nick Clark (Frank Dillane, who immediately reminds one of a young Johnny Depp) wakes up and calls out for a gal named Gloria. Turns out that the church is a makeshift drug den in Los Angeles for strung-out junkies, of which Nick is one. He goes off searching for Gloria in the church and hears the sounds of a male screaming in the distance. He comes across one dead guy with his neck gouged out and then discovers Gloria hunched over the body of a second guy. When Nick calls out to her, she turns around and we see that she’s already a Walker. Of course, none of the characters here, including Nick, have any idea what a Walker is yet, so Nick high-tails it out of the church and right into an oncoming car. He’s taken to the hospital and restrained to his bed. I hope you enjoyed this opening, because not much else happens until the last 20 minutes of the show.
Nick’s mom is high school guidance counselor Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), a single mom currently dating and living with English teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis). In addition to son Nick, Madison has a younger daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who’s a student at the high school where both Madison and Travis work. Travis is divorced (we haven’t learned yet if Madison is divorced, widowed or just a single mom) and has both an ex and a son of his own, though both are only seen for a few seconds during the pilot.
There’s a lot of foreshadowing about what is to come in this episode, starting with young student Tobias (Lincoln A. Castellanos), who brings a knife to school and tries to warn Madison about what’s coming. Apparently, there are already rumors online about a plague-like virus in the city, but details are only being spread on the internet, while the main press and government officials stay mum.
Nick tries to tell Travis about what he saw in the abandoned church but, of course, the presumption is that Nick was so strung out that he was suffering from hallucinations. However, Travis is interested enough in Nick’s story that he goes to check out the church himself… at night, naturally. While inside, he comes across another screaming junkie, who serves no other purpose than to jump out from behind a door, where he seems to have been standing for no particular reason. Travis sees blood on the walls and then comes across a whole bunch of it on the floor in the same spot where Nick found Gloria. Travis still isn’t sure what went on there, but he has the feeling that Nick isn’t lying about what he saw.
Nick manages to talk a nurse into untying one of his restrains and quickly frees himself. When the patient next to him conveniently goes into cardiac arrest (or a seizure, or whatever), Nick uses the distraction to escape both his room and the hospital. He goes to see his drug dealer Calvin (Keith Powers) at a nearby restaurant. Nick wants to know if something was wrong with the drugs he got from Cal, but Calvin is more concerned that Nick has outed him as a drug dealer to Madison and Travis. Cal then drives Nick to one of L.A.’s river basin areas, where it becomes obvious that he plans to shoot and kill Nick. Nick gets into a struggle with Cal during which – in one of this pilot’s biggest clichés – the gun goes off and Cal collapses to his death… or so Nick thinks.
Panicked, Nick goes off to find Madison and Travis and tells them what happened. The three return to the spot of the shooting in Travis’ truck, but Cal’s body is no longer there. Backing the truck back through one of the basin’s tunnels, the trio see Cal behind them, doing the zombie walk toward their vehicle. Not knowing anything about Walkers yet, Travis and Madison hop out of the truck to confront Cal, who promptly tries to bite Madison. Seeing that they’re in trouble, Nick takes the driver’s seat inside the truck and backs over Cal. Then, with Cal now in front of the truck and still moving toward them, Travis floors it again and knocks Walker Cal back out into the basin area. Madison, Travis and Nick then see that Cal is still moving even though he should be dead, making them wonder just what the hell is going on.
There are a lot of problems with this premiere, but I’ll touch on the most important ones. The goal of a pilot episode should really to focus on two things: First, provide a storyline that will get viewers to want to tune into the show the following week. Second, provide characters that are interesting and that the home viewers can make some sort of connection with.
The first part of this equation shouldn’t have presented a problem, as the vast majority of people watching ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ will already be familiar with the premise of the series. But that’s also a detriment here, as the viewers are so far ahead of the characters when it comes to what’s happening. We spend much of the pilot (and, presumably, much of the episodes to come) waiting for the characters to catch up to what we already know.
Now, it actually makes sense that a pair of high school teachers aren’t going to find out much about what’s behind the Walker virus in the weeks to come, since the characters on ‘The Walking Dead’ have already lived through these events and have only recently come to understand more about the rules when it comes to the virus. It sort of makes one wish that this prequel would have chosen either government officials or scientists as the main characters, but I guess the creators don’t want to explore that aspect of their creation, which is a shame because that would have made for really interesting television.
Since it’s obvious that this prequel won’t provide many (if any) answers about what caused the virus or Walker outbreak, it’s very important to give us characters that viewers can both relate to and care about. While it’s nice that the creators want to give us a racially diverse cast (although I found it funny that the three main African American actors in the pilot wound up (a) Walker-fied, (b) missing and likely turned into a Walker, and (c) a prime candidate for becoming a Walker in Episode 2… which only adds to the frequent complaint about black actors getting offed on the main series), I’m not sure that anyone yet stands out. Despite the fact that the Madison character is supposed to be the Rick Grimes of ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ (at least in terms of being the lead character and main focus), the pilot puts most of its attention on Nick, a junkie who – when he isn’t high – seems rather weak and pathetic and made me wonder how he’s ever going to survive when the outbreak becomes more serious. Is this really a character we’re going to come to care about? Will we get to an eventual Season 3 saying things like “Hey, remember when Nick was a druggie and really wimpy?”
It’s perhaps important to note that this new series is being show-run by David Erikson (a writer and producer on the first four seasons of ‘Sons of Anarchy’) and not by Scott Gimple of the main series, though Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero are all executive producers on this new show (and Kirkman helped write this pilot). One wonders if the fan reaction is poor enough, will AMC play musical chairs with the show-runner spot (as happened on ‘The Walking Dead’) until finding a person who fits this show and these characters the best?
Of course, ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ still has plenty of time to find its groove (it’s already been renewed for a second season), and I’m certainly not ready to dismiss the series after just one episode. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this was a very strong entry, either. For ‘Fear’ to survive, it’s going to need to establish itself as its own thing, and not just ride the coattails (or should that be body parts?) of what came before it.