It’s inevitable that the pilot of Fear the Walking Dead will be compared to the first episode of The Walking Dead, the mighty horror-drama series that opened the door for this spin-off to be made in the first place. This may seem unfair, considering that the narrative trajectory and, to a lesser extent, the tone of this series is different from its progenitor, but the fact that Fear the Walking Dead is more of a family melodrama as compared to the more Western tinges of The Walking Dead doesn’t neglect the fact that they both take place in a world ruled by the undead. And as a teasing glimpse at a world on the brink of tremendous upheaval, the first episode of Fear the Walking Dead takes too much time setting up the world and family dynamics of the central characters to really give the jolts of tension and surprise that one would expect from such a series, and which The Walking Dead pilot nailed with exhilarating pacing and focus.
The central difference of the two series, however, is family vs. community, and the difference between Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead is as wide as Ordinary People compared to Stagecoach. The new series opens on a promising note, as drug-addled Nick (Frank Dillane) escapes an attack from one of the first of the turned in a dilapidated church that now houses strung-out addicts, only to then get hit by a car. This underlines a major thematic fascination of the original series, the concept that the world of the living is just as lethal as the world of the undead, and Nick’s own addiction becomes a similar nod to that idea. The attempts by Nick’s mother, Madison (Kim Dickens), and her second husband, Travis (Cliff Curtis), to treat and regain Nick into the familial fold takes precedence in their minds to the first rumblings of the zombie apocalypse, of which Nick is one of the first witnesses.
The impression that the episode ultimately leaves is that of a mildly expressive melodrama, one that troublingly links the rise of the undead to drug addiction. The two zombies that are revealed in the episode are a victim of addiction and a proliferator of addiction, though the latter is tellingly guised as a helpful member of the community. In this, the writers and directors again seem to be hinting at not only the end of the world of the living but also a scraping away of a false normalcy, the veneer of civilization being washed away into the chaos of addiction, resentment, survival, and greed. These notions are hinted at throughout the episode, but the pilot consistently retreads to setting up of rote emotional dynamics in these characters, including Madison’s daughter Alycia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), and her relationship to her boyfriend, Matt (Maestro Harrell).
The issue, ultimately, is that the family drama is pretty tame stuff on the whole, and creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson are clearly looking to draw out the drama over the tension of the impending dangers the family will face. Rick’s solitude at the beginning of The Walking Dead, allowed for us to get a more intimate and immediate sense of the zombie-dominated world, and made his first interactions with Morgan all the more striking in their instability and danger. The glut of characters that this series begins with suggests a larger focus on the importance of the familial bonds that continue even beyond divorce. It’s the first episode, so it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to understand where all of this is going, but the middling fascination with the importance of family is conspicuously dull. On the other hand, any fan of The Walking Dead will know that the raw wounds and dubious concerns that family members inflict on one another can erupt in the most bizarre and violent ways.
★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism