Last night, we finally got to see the much-discussed The Walking Dead spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead. Admittedly, I turned to AMC last night with a little trepidation.
How could it possibly be as good as TWD? Would I like the urban setting of the side of Los Angeles that tourists and stars don’t frequent?
How could they make it exciting to watch when we, the viewers, already know the world and challenges the characters are just starting to face? I feared I would be wasting my time.
Show co-creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Ericksen quickly kicked these questions to a gritty L.A. curb as I got lost watching the family at the core of the first episode as it struggled to figure out what was happening in the same weeks that TWD’s Rick Grimes lies in a coma.
To my surprise, much of the suspense comes from being precognizant of what’s happening. Seeing the drug-addicted Nick Clark (played most excellently by Frank Dillane) strapped to a hospital bed as an elderly man on oxygen is wheeled in beside him – knowing that this man could die, be reborn a walker, and munch out on our young anti-hero – creates suspense. Seeing characters you’re starting to like investigate a site of several murders with reported snacking involved puts a little curl in your toes as you anticipate the worst.
More than this brand of suspense, much of the interest comes from learning the traits of each character and the tension between them. The couple at center, Travis Manawa and Madision Clark (played by Cliff Curtis and Kim Dickens), is dealing with the tensions from their children and an ex as they try to quilt together a blended family – something many people can identify with.
In Madison’s daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), we find an overachiever who cares about her family but is also tired of being weighed down with their issues. Travis’ son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) is disappointed with his father and doesn’t want to share him. Travis and Madison both work in education, and they show a dedication to family and each other that makes you root for them. Finally, Nick is the family eyesore: the drug-addicted young adult who they cannot control but cannot give up on. Dillane easily steals the show with his portrayal of a physically and mentally fractured drug addict who cannot tell if what he saw was real or a result of his addiction. At one point, he himself looks like the walking dead.
Like TWD, this show features actors who can really act and all who have put in time learning the craft at one drama school or academy or another. Many of the faces are familiar even if you might not remember where you’ve seen them – but none of them are pretty hacks.
Of course, the creators are giving us the lay of the land now, so expect even more action and suspense in the future. Last night’s introduction set this up two ways:
These characters are capable of becoming survivors in the TWD sense.
Both Travis and Madison are clearheaded and unafraid to investigate unsafe areas to find the truth. Imagine what they’ll do for survival? Alicia is smart, which can always be handy as long as her desire to get away from her family doesn’t get in the way. Even Nick, just two days clean from drugs and exhibiting some mental unraveling, finds the strength to run over his dealer-turned-walker – twice – to save his mother and her boyfriend.
Plenty of groundwork is laid for tension.
As any fiction writer can tell you, characters have to go through hell to make a good story. From watching TWD, we know that how the living do or do not get along has a lot to do with the interest and action of the show. The blended family was a solid tool for building future tension.
In Fear, we not only see this family and its issues as potential problems but also we get hints of how the police and the medical industry handle the situation. The preview for next week makes it clear that more of how the government responds is coming soon. Then add in some new characters – as Kirkman made clear will happen – and we are sure to see even more interest building.
So don’t fear joining in on this new spinoff: It can hold its own in The Walking Dead’s Sunday time slot until the much-loved series returns in October.
By PJ Graham
AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. Central time. Media photos provided by AMC.