FEAR THE WALKING DEAD (2015) – Episode One Pilot Review
Directed by Adam Davidson
It’s refreshing to see a character come across a flesh eating zombie and not know what the hell it is. The location is a creepy old church, he’s high and this thing looks fierce. Music builds and in fright he runs out on to the street only to get hit by a car. No this is not some post-apocalyptic end of days where people are walled up in farmyards or shopping malls. Instead it’s contemporary day Los Angles with wild traffic and normal people like us going about their daily routines unaware that patient zero of the undead has just been found. This is the new companion piece to the AMC blockbuster The Walking Dead: a new breed of zombie show which has already broken viewing records on the other side of the pond. Having dropped all of the original cast and shifted the action from the east coast, this spinoff’s creative team have abandoned the now five year old hoard. Instead they want to show us all the things Rick Grimes missed in his blissfully ignorant slumber i.e. how the outbreak started and how humanity came to terms with it.
This time the human element is provided our leading couple, English teacher, Travis (Curtis) and, school counsellor, Madison (Dickens). These two budding office romancers work in a high school that seems to specialise in teaching thematically relevant content including chaos theory and man vs. nature. Joining them are her heroin addict son Nick (Dillane) and angsty daughter Alicia (Debnam-Carey), whilst his boy Chris (Henrie) is a resentful voice on the other end of the phone. Around them kids are missing, a nerd talks vaguely about conspiracies and the police go viral for continuously shooting someone that won’t die (in a slightly distasteful bit that seems to say #zombielivesmatter). But make no mistake, rather than an outright horror this is family drama with zombies.
Most of the 75 minute pilot is about drug use and domestic values, with much of it taking place at the bedside of Nick, following the accident described at the start. Unsure as to if he actually saw something, or is simply paying the mental price for years of drug use, all he knows is he needs another fix. He breaks out to get it, meets his dealer and this is when the blood and guts hit the fan. And really, this is about it. Granted there is a false scare in the first act, when Travis goes to investigate Nick’s ravings and finds a pool of blood where he said he saw the eating. But this is soon frustratingly dismissed by Madison’s insistence that ‘bad things happen in drug dens’ and is ditched for the next half an hour. Instead of indulging in terror, the approach here is a very character driven one with the slower pace standing in contrast to the panic of its predecessor. Ultimately they don’t want us to be scared as much as we are invested in the characters. Luckily all of the main cast are on very good form and already bounce off each other like veterans and give some emotional stakes.
Unfortunately they’re stronger than their material, and despite their best efforts fail to stop it resembling a banal anti-drugs after school special. The show’s very premise necessitates it will be a shuffler, rather than a runner, but as a pilot I don’t know that it could have won viewers over without such an inbuilt audience. In this respect it benefits heavily from dramatic irony and at points adopts the iconography of the parent series to play with our expectations. However, maybe because its source material has desensitised us so much to it, it never does so in a way that generates much tension. I don’t want to sound too dismissive yet, having only seen this opener. I’m just not sure there’s much shelf life to a programme that’s end goal is resembling the very one that spawned it. However, I’d like to be proven wrong. If the next few episodes can explore moral issues like the introduction of martial law, how the press handles it and maybe pressure groups to release them from containment. This wider scale may yet make it an interesting addition to the zombie cannon. But first they need to take the drama out of the home and onto the streets. There is, after all, a vibrant and busy city waiting to be explored.
Catch Fear The Walking Dead every Monday at 9pm on AMC UK channel on BT TV.