Let me be the first to admit that when I first heard about it, I thought Fear The Walking Dead was a misguided, ill-conceived idea. With five seasons under its belt and years of comic book storylines ahead, The Walking Dead shows no signs of slowing down; and the prospect of saturating the market with even more zombie-killing action in the form of a spinoff series seemed as though it would dilute the brand and be a cheap cash-grab. This is to say nothing of the fact that it is a prequel series, a phrase which generally sends a disgusted shiver up my spine. Let me also be the first to admit how deeply wrong I was. Not only is Fear The Walking Dead expertly paced and well-acted, but it toys with viewer expectation and anticipations in clever ways that make for a frightfully fun and compelling debut episode that follows a fractured family of four walking headlong towards certain disaster. If the rest of the series can live up to the example set by the first episode, then Fear The Walking Dead not only has the potential to live up to its namesake, but to surpass it in terms of sheer enjoyment. And this is coming from a diehard, dyed-in-the-wool The Walking Dead fan.
From the very first moments of the episode, Fear The Walking Dead toys with the viewer, taking us through the heroin-fueled fever dream of a junkie staggering through an abandoned church-turned-flophouse. A hazy tension permeates the opening sequence as we follow a strung-out young man wandering through the church, looking for his friends who have seemingly disappeared. What he finds, however, is the worst trip of his life — one of his friends is hunched over another, seemingly eating the flesh from his bones. Whether it is a bad reaction to the heroin coursing through his veins or something far more sinister, he isn’t about to stay and find out. Rushing outside, he sprints across the asphalt of the Los Angeles streets, blindly running away from the monstrosity he saw in the church. Suddenly and without warning, the junkie is hit by a car, sending him careening through the air. As he lies broken and bloody on the ground, the camera pans up to reveal not a zombie apocalypse tearing a city apart, but the bustling area known as Sunset Junction, a tiny hipster haven nestled in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. (Coincidentally, it is also two blocks from my apartment.)
What makes the above sequence work so well is the way in which it manipulates viewer expectation for dramatic effect. This is a narrative trick that Fear The Walking Dead employs countless times throughout its debut episode, using the tense, uncomfortable anticipation of zombie attack to unleash completely unrelated horrors (e.g. the car) or simply pull the rug out from under us with ultimately innocuous reveals (e.g. the high school principal hunched over the P.A. system). It is precisely because of The Walking Dead‘s pedigree and viewers’ familiarity with its many tropes and conceits that Fear The Walking Dead is able to subvert them in such exciting and entertaining ways. As a viewer well versed in Robert Kirkman’s nightmarish world, I am sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting in increasing discomfort and impatience as I wait for a walker to jump out from around the corner. But then it doesn’t happen…and it doesn’t happen…and it still doesn’t happen, until I realize that is where the show’s power lies. When our heroes finally encounter their first walker, it is a moment of both uncertain terror and tremendous relief; once again all is right with the world as the world begins is devolution into a hellscape overrun by flesh-eating monsters.
Yet apart from the ways in which Fear The Walking Dead parlays the success of its parent series into pulling continual fast ones on its viewers, it is the cast of characters that makes this series stand out from the crowd. When we next see the junkie, his family is surrounding him as he rests in the hospital. We learn that his name is Nick (played with a nervous, sickly aplomb by Frank Dillane), he is a teenage college dropout, and this is far from the first time his narcotics-related exploits have led him to a hospital bed. Standing around him are his mother, Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), a high school counselor who can’t seem to fix her own family; his mom’s boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis) an English teacher at the same high school; and his teenage sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who is smart, ambitious, and more interested in being with her slightly older boyfriend than dealing with her ongoing family drama.
Much of the episode revolves around Nick’s hospitalization and the fact that he has seemingly relapsed once again — something which disheartens his mother, concerns Travis, and frustrates an increasingly cynical Alicia. Though this storyline may play out a bit too much like a D.A.R.E. presentation on the perils of drug abuse for some, it rang true for me, immediately creating tangible relationships and a sense of stakes between our protagonists. With Nick serving as the Unreliable Narrator, uncertain of what he witnessed in his drug-induced haze, the rest of the family remains blissfully unaware of the danger about to overtake the city. Paranoia is still wracking the city, though; an increasing amount of students are staying home sick, and a lone motorist attacks the police on a freeway off-ramp, seemingly immune to the barrage of bullets with which he is riddled. It speaks to what will be one of the larger themes of the season: seeing how a bustling metropolis reacts to an extinction-level event like a zombie apocalypse. We get the barest of glimpses in this first episode, we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg and it will be a fascinating metamorphosis to watch.
That isn’t to say that the episode is without its problems. While I appreciated the slow burn nature of the episode, I can easily see how it will turn off some viewers who tuned in expecting more in the way of walker-slayin’ mayhem. Likewise, after Nick winds up having to murder his former friend, only to have him come back from the dead, the Clark family seems far too calm about everything that just happened. Perhaps it’s shock, but it seemed at odds with what was an otherwise largely grounded hour of television. In spite of these minor gripes, this was a terrific debut for a series that I had all but written off. I still hate the title, but I am willing to overlook that questionable bit of nomenclature of the remaining five episodes in season one are anywhere near as good as the pilot was.
Burrito Rating: 4 out of 5 pre-apocalyptic burritos
What did you think of Fear The Walking Dead‘s pilot episode? Share your thoughts and your theories in the comments below. Be sure to stay tuned to tomorrow’s Nerdist News for more in-depth analysis on Fear The Walking Dead.
Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of 100 Things Avengers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. You can follow him on Twitter (@Osteoferocious).