“Fear the Walking Dead” Review
The pilot for “Fear the Walking Dead” just aired, and boy do I have some thought noodles boiling over in my skull-pot.
First off, let me establish that A) I love the Walking Dead. The show, not just ravenous ambulatory corpses. I’ve enjoyed every season (yes, even season 2). I tell you that so you understand this: when I say I had some pretty major problems with the premier episode of “Fear the Walking Dead,” you’ll know that this is coming from a fan, not a hater.
Yes, I liked the farm episodes, really. I did, for realy reals.
Disclaimer #2: This review/deconstruction is going to be snarkier than a rap battle between Winston Churchill and Jon Stewart. However, don’t let the snark over-sell the message – I just enjoy being snarky.
Disclaimer #3: Television show pilots are almost never good. The rare ones that come out of the gate swinging are unforgettable, but most TV shows start pretty loose. The characters are broad stereotypes (Friends), the show doesn’t know what it wants to be (Agents of SHIELD, Star Trek: TNG), or the network just didn’t give them enough money (Buffy). TV shows take time to find their footing, and I completely understand. I’m willing to forgive a lot, and wait to see how it’s going to shake down. Some shows don’t even get interesting until halfway through the first season because they’re sitting on a twist (Agents of SHIELD, Dollhouse), and maybe that’s what we’re seeing here.
Who knows? Anyway, let’s get into it:
Fuck This Show
Kidding, kidding. That’s too harsh. But “Fear the Walking Dead” came out of the gate stumbling, and then its pants fell down, and then it landed face-first in horse manure while Marty and Doc escaped in the background.
Comparing the first episode of “Fear the Walking Dead” to its parent show’s pilot is like comparing jock itch to a hot rock massage. “The Walking Dead” pilot was explosive, fascinating, and it moved. Now, you could say that “The Walking Dead” pilot was good because it had a bunch of zombies and the “Fear the Walking Dead” pilot didn’t, but that’s a surface complaint that doesn’t really strike at the root of the problem.
Did “Fear the Walking Dead” only have two zombies in it? Yes, basically. But that’s not the core problem with the episode. Let’s start with the basics of plotting, and move up to concept and characters from there:
The Plot Thinnens
Speaking of plot: there isn’t one. Not really. “Fear the Walking Dead” spent an hour and a half with four characters, and only one of them had a plotline. Nick, the young dude running around in the girl’s camisole in all the promo spots, has a drug problem. And he’s kind of a fuck-up – everything he touches turns to shit, and over the course of the unnecessarily long hour-and-a-half pilot episode, Nick is the only one who actually does anything of consequence.
The other 60% of the running time is devoted to his mom, stepdad, and sister, none of which do anything interesting. In fact, their “plot” is just that they’re all worried about Nick (or, in the case of the sister, acting like she isn’t worried about Nick). Boring Dumb Stepdad and Oddly Skeptical Harsh Mom spend all of their screen time having conversations about Nick or worrying about Nick, instead of, I don’t know, making decisions or having dramatic moments. They literally orbit Nick’s plot, and nothing else. It’s like if the Transporter movies burned 50 pages of script on Jason Statham’s mom, talking to her best friend over coffee about how she hopes the Transporter comes back from another crazy mission.
I know it sounds like I’m being a douche, and I probably am, but I’m completely serious. Let’s start with Boring Dumb Stepdad’s plot. Boring Dumb Stepdad does these things: visits Nick in the hospital, talks about Nick with his wife roughly forty times, teaches English class, gets in a traffic jam, doesn’t fix his weirdly shattered windshield, visits a drug house and slips in blood and guts and gets attacked by a drugged-out wacko and then doesn’t tell anyone and continues acting totally normal about these shocking events, and then drives his truck over to the climax.
Oddly Skeptical Harsh Mom visits Nick in the hospital, talks about Nick to her husband roughly forty times, doesn’t punish a kid for bringing a knife to school (almost a plot? Maybe?) or even following up on this kid who is saying weird threatening things and displaying textbook schizophrenic behavior, doesn’t believe when her husband kind of hints that he slipped in guts, gets in a traffic jam, walks around, stares blandly at what is clearly a gory unliving walking corpse, credits.
The Sullen Sister visits Nick at the hospital, talks about Nick, then has about four scenes where she cuddles with her very understanding boyfriend who refuses to bring tension to any scene at all, ever. Then she watches a video on YouTube of a zombie. Credits.
Nick, on the other hand, gets in a series of wacky/horrible drug-addict adventures that are actually pretty compelling when he isn’t forced through another awkward scene with his flat family. He gets hit by a car, he escapes a hospital, he steals an old man’s clothes, he gets in touch with a drug dealer who tries to kill him, and he encounters ANOTHER zombie. So not only does Nick have the only interesting dramatic moments, he also seems to be single-handedly in charge of reminding us that this is a zombie show.
That’s about twenty-five minutes of plot stretched agonizingly over an hour and a half.
I know it feels like I just talked about the characters and now you’re mad at me for feeling like I padded out this article, but I only did that to make you feel how I felt while watching “Fear the Walking Dead.”
The characters I mentioned are all victims of what is called “assumed empathy,” and it’s a frequent problem in movies and TV shows. Even the great writers do it sometimes when they forget themselves. “Assumed empathy” is the pitfall where a writer/director/in-charge-person figures that because the camera is focused on these particular people, the audience has to care about them. It’s a common error, but it’s kind of unsurmountable. The fact is, none of the characters on “Fear the Walking Dead,” with the exception of Nick, are likable. Maybe “likable” is the wrong word – we can care about the fates of characters who aren’t likable: Walter White being a classic example.
Let me say this: there is no reason to care about any of the characters. Boring Dumb Stepdad and Skeptical Harsh Mom aren’t given any qualities that fill us with empathy. Yeah, they have a druggy son, but it’s played more as an annoying inconvenience then as a heart-crushing problem. They both have good jobs that seem to be going well. Neither is particularly funny, they don’t have any memorable dialogue, and while we’re told frequently that they love each other (in dialogue), there’s really nothing in the story that corroborates it. So this boring married couple are in love and they’re kind of assholes to their kids. So they could both be eaten by zombies in the next episode and the audience would be like, “Yeah, that happened.”
Sullen Sister faces a similar problem – we’re told (frequently) how smart she is, but we don’t really see it. Literally every character shaves off a few lines of dialogue to remind us how clever and bright she is, but unless you count moping around with your boyfriend or staring slack-jawed at YouTube videos, there’s no sparkling genius at play. They could have at least given her smart dialogue, made her a witty person (or a Daria-type snarker, if they really wanted to go with a sullen, bright character), but she mostly just mumbles and then shuffles out of her scenes.
We Are the Walking Dead
Another problem is that all the characters (bar Nick) come off as muted. Even Skeptical Harsh Mom is pretty mellow about her harsh skepticism. Boring Dumb Stepdad has a decidedly mellow reaction to falling into a pool of blood and guts. He looks surprised, and then doesn’t call the cops or even mention it to anyone. He kind of tells his wife that he saw something bad at the church, but he delivers the news like he’s on methadone, and it’s just another point in the mellow argument that they’re having. The Mom also just brushes it off, like, “Nah, you didn’t fall in a bunch of blood and guts.” Boring Dumb Stepdad kind of nods, like, “Yeah, that’s probably true honey.” In the intervening scenes, Boring Dumb Stepdad just goes to work and teaches “Call of the Wild,” no evidence of psychological stress on his face or in his actions, EVEN THOUGH LAST NIGHT HE FELL IN A POOL OF BLOOD AND GUTS.
He doesn’t even bring it up when he’s talking to Nick, who had also fallen into that same pool of blood and guts, even though everyone was gaslighting Nick. So, either Boring Dumb Stepdad is a complete asshole and is allowing Nick to continue thinking he’s going insane, or, the writers just forgot or didn’t care that this milquetoast guy had just witnessed the aftermath of a cannibal barbecue.
Nick, again, feels alive. When he’s scared, he acts scared. He cracks jokes to cops, he gets angry, he freaks out, he picks up a weapon the second he sees blood. He runs a zombie over while everyone else is just kind of like “dead guy jogging that’s an unlikely sight so early in the morning.”
As another sharp contrast, when Boring Dumb Stepdad and Skeptical Harsh Mom see a person who is clearly dead and shredded start to wiggle around, this is the mom’s reaction:
Mom: *Dull stare. Glances around.* “What’s going on?”
YOU FUCKING SCREAM IN TERROR AND SHIT YOUR PANTS. HE HAS NO FACE. HE’S TRYING TO EAT YOU. HE’S DEAD. REACT GODDAMN IT, REACT.
You know you’re in trouble when the heroin addict is the most vivacious character on the show.
The Moment of Conception
I have a feeling that most of these problems stem from the concept – what kind of show is “Fear the Walking Dead” supposed to be? What is it trying to be?
The promotional materials were honest, at least – the creators told us that this wasn’t just “Walking Dead, again.” They told us it wouldn’t have a lot of dead folks in it. They wanted to create something less intense, a character piece where sometimes there was a zombie. We were going to see what society looked like as it crumbled, rather than the post-coma world that Rick woke up in, the world where the walkers had already won. It’s not a bad idea – it seemed like they understood that “more of the same” probably wasn’t a great starting point. And I was damn excited. And then . . .
What happened? Well, I don’t know, because I’m not on the production team. But if you’ll allow me to theorize:
“Fear the Walking Dead” had too many chiefs and not enough Indians, which is a phrase I just invented. The concept was probably thus: family drama, and zombies. Its high-concept, but that can be great sometimes. However, then this probably happened:
Executive: “Okay, I read your script. I noticed that there aren’t any zombies in this, our network’s new zombie show.”
Writer: “Well, yeah, but you see, zombies are really a metaphor, a setting rather than – ”
Executive: “Do you remember how many houses I bought because of ‘the Walking Dead?'”
Writer: “I don’t remember the exact amount, no, but it seemed like a lot of houses – ”
Executive: “So many houses. Now, I need this show to do what that show did.”
Writer: “Because houses.”
Executive: “Bingo, zippy. Now I need at least one zombie getting his brains blown all to hell.”
Writer: “We’re trying to build up tension and atmosphere, and I don’t think that – ”
Executive: “I’m pretty sure I already said ‘bingo, zippy.'”
Which is probably why the show takes a few more missteps – the “big reveal,” that horrifying moment, the first time most of the characters see a walker . . . is in a YouTube video. Plain as day, zombie gets shot, stands up, eats some people, shot in the brain, which puts him down. The characters nod, look a little bit surprised. “Oh,” they seem to think, “I’m probably going to have to deal with that later.”
What a fucking horrible fumble. The first time a character sees a zombie is an iconic moment, a defining moment, where we see what that person is made of. How they handle otherworldly horror. This isn’t even a zombie story convention, it’s just a regular story convention. Don’t show the characters a monster, put them in the moment. Don’t have someone tell them to shoot the zombies in the brain – have them need to discover it in a moment of sheer panic. The fact that Shaun of the Dead, a famous parody, has a newscaster tell the main characters to their face that they have to destroy the zombies’ brains is a joke. It’s supposed to be surprising and funny. Don’t hand-deliver story and world beats to your characters, holy crap.
That’d be like if Brody in Jaws saw a video of the shark first, instead of that jaw-dropping moment where it appears just inches from his hand. Come on, dudes. Come on.
So, why was that moment there? Either the writers just straight up botched it, or, that executive conversation I posited up above actually happened. The network demanded that a zombie get his brains blown out in the first episode, even though it made no sense from a storytelling perspective.
So, what is the show? Family drama that happens to have zombies, or a zombie horror/action show? Right now, unfortunately, it’s failing at both. As a zombie horror/action show, it’s a complete failure. There aren’t any zombies, or horror, or action. Which, honestly, is not something I can really tag them for – they clearly weren’t trying to make a horror/action show like “The Walking Dead.” Now, does it work as a family drama?
A Good Family Drama?
Not really. Because, like I gabbed about earlier, it’s hard to invest in these characters; they’re generally unlikable, they don’t make any notable decisions, and nothing dramatic really happens to them. They keep sawing on this “our kid is a drug-addict” thing, but it’s in a bubble. It feels like backstory. There are no events, decisions, or dramatic scenes tied to this idea – the family is just kind of pissed off that they have to deal with Nick’s problem. The mom doesn’t dramatically kick her son out of her house – instead, he runs away, and she just says “oh, well, maybe he should stay away.” That’s not dramatic. It’s blah. It’s a character commenting on another character’s dramatic moment.
Another example – Boring Dumb Stepdad is divorced from his previous wife, and has a son there who also doesn’t like him. The son refuses to come see his dad, and so the Boring Dumb Stepdad says “okay, fine, keep him.” Again, the Boring Dumb Stepdad didn’t make a decision – the kid was already not coming. He simply commented on another character’s dramatic decision. (A side comment on that – the son is a surly asshole. Which, is kind of the defining character trait of everyone on this show. They default to “surly asshole” in every possible situation – which, I guess might be an accurate portrayal of residents of Los Angeles, but it doesn’t make for a terribly interesting cast.)
Get to The Point
My brother said something very insightful that kind of stopped me in my tracks, and really, it’s what made me write this article. Just after the show ended, my family was discussing it, because that’s what we do. Whilst praising the good and questioning the bad, my brother stopped the conversation with this:
“I’m not even sure what I wanted out of the show.”
It tickled my neurons – what did I want out of the show? If it was “the Walking Dead, again,” would I really want that? My brother went on to mention how the parent show is already starting to recycle plotlines: they encounter a town that is either a) weak or b) full of assholes. They chill there for a while, zombies come and blow everything up, they’re on the road for a while, they encounter a town that is either etc. Even the character plotlines circle back: Rick is too nice, so Rick has to get hard. Hard Rick does something horrible, everyone is mad at him, so Rick has to get nice. Rick is too nice, so Rick has to get . . .
Etc. Again, I like the show, and I’m reducing it to clichés when, in fact, it’s more nuanced than that, but there is a subtle repetition. Now imagine two shows, written by the same people, covering the same topic? Might not work, at least not for very long.
So then the question becomes, if there is a Walking Dead spinoff, what do I want it to be? I honestly don’t know. Do I want a family drama where sometimes there’s zombies? Eh. I mean, it could be saved by incredible writing, but that’s like saying a salad could be saved by putting a ribeye on top of it.
Do I want a prequel that shows how society crumbled? I mean, it seems like an interesting idea, and could be saved by incredible writing (ribeye salad), but doesn’t it suffer the problem of all prequels? The Prequel Problem, if you’re not familiar, is thus: when you know what’s going to happen, because you’ve already literally seen the outcome, how does a story have tension? The Star Wars prequels were terrible for a lot of reasons, but lack of tension definitely didn’t help. Oh no, what’s going to happen to the Jedi Order? They’re all going to die, obviously, we already know that. Will the Republic fall? Yes, of course. Is Palpatine going to – YES, HE WINS, WE KNOW.
“Fear the Walking Dead” has very few surprises for us. There are moments where the characters are confused by the events, but because we as the audience know the zombie apocalypse is a foregone conclusion, and we know what a walker is and how to kill one, it makes the fumbling characters seem dumb. Now, that’s not the characters’ fault, but that “figure it out already” frustration seeps through in every scene. We know where this story is going. Just get there already.
My dad said they were trying to be too sophisticated, and I kind of agree with that. While a riveting family drama with “sometimes zombies” feels like a clever, transgressive idea in your head, on screen it comes across as disjointed. Do people who love family dramas want to see zombies eat people? Do lovers of zombie violence want to watch a slow family drama? I’m not sure that they do, in either case. The show is sitting on a fence and chafing its taint on the planks.
My wife suggested that they started the story too early – they should have started with evacuations already underway. The collapse of society should already be collapsing. It’s a classic storytelling technique: start the story when the interesting stuff happens. As it is, we’re essentially being treated to onscreen backstory, which is a deep no-no in storytelling: don’t warm up the engine, just open the garage and drive out. Or better yet, already be driving.
If they really wanted to see Boring Dumb Stepdad teaching “Call of the Wild,” have it be his first scene, and then the National Guard starts kicking open classroom doors and pulling everyone to safety. Or, even less dramatically, have a “fire drill” that turns out to be an evacuation to a relief station. Or, option 3, have the school go on lockdown because there’s a suspicious person on campus. The cops come in, blow a lone zombies brains out with hundreds of kids and teachers watching through the windows. Then the cops cover it up, and now the characters are investigating the conspiracy. Something. Have something happen.
So, it sounds like I hate “Fear the Walking Dead.” In all honesty, I don’t. I found it to be guilty only of the crime of being boring. There are moments where it gets interesting – basically, Nick’s scenes – but this pilot was bloated and full of telling-not-showing.
“The Walking Dead” is at its best when it’s giving the characters interesting moral choices, and there wasn’t anything like that in this episode. “The Walking Dead” is at its worst when it features scene after scene of characters bickering quietly, and that’s the majority of the pilot of “Fear the Walking Dead.” It’s a misstep, but I think it’s a correctable one. They started slow, big deal. The preview of the season at the end of the episode promised some plot, so I’m cautiously optimistic.
I’m perfectly willing to write the episode off as a rocky start and move on – pilots are hard, I get it. Will I be watching more? Yes. Will I be tapping my foot as soon as the next episode starts, hoping to Nergal the Babylonian God of Battle that something actually happens? God yes. Or, Nergal yes.
Should you watch it? Eh. If you love zombies, don’t get bored too easily, and have a lot of extra time to kill, sure, check it out. If not, maybe wait a few weeks, see what your friends are saying about it. Use them as canaries in the mineshaft of television. Who knows? Maybe Boring Dumb Stepdad will be devoured on screen, and stare mildly up at the sky and say, “Oh I don’t really enjoy this at all.”
We can dream.