About 15 minutes into the pilot episode of “The Walking Dead” in 2010 we come across Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) as he awakens from a coma in a deserted hospital. He’s alone and confused, and is left to explore a post-apocalyptic nightmare filled with zombies.
Its spinoff companion series, “Fear the Walking Dead,” which premieres later this month on AMC, opens in a similar fashion, except the hospital gets swapped out for a different location and we get introduced to the world pre-apocalypse, through the eyes of a very different character.
And that’s where many of the parallels stop.
We’ve previewed the first two episodes of “Fear the Walking Dead,” and while we’re enjoying it, it’s certainly not its predecessor. Before you’re quick to sigh, that’s not a terrible thing.
Like the fantastic Telltale game series, “Fear the Walking Dead,” or “Fear,” as AMC and the cast and crew refer to it, is a completely separate chapter of a larger franchise.
As creator Robert Kirkman has noted, and executive producer Greg Nicotero told me at the end of last week, “Fear” is a different beast. As a whole, “The Walking Dead” franchise refers to a worldwide epidemic and this prequel/companion series gives another look at how others are dealing with it. While “The Walking Dead” focuses on how Southeast corner of the nation, “Fear” will look at how inhabitants of Los Angeles dealt with the undead apocalypse in the early days.
Don’t expect to get “The Walking Dead” with a clear leader like sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) from episode one. This is more of a mixed bag. We’re introduced to many more characters right from the get-go with a blended family consisting of a guidance counselor, Madison (Kim Dickens), an English teacher Travis (Cliff Curtis), a brainy teen (Alycia Debnam-Carey), her boyfriend (Maestro Harrell), and her drug addict brother (Frank Dillane). Curtis’s character Travis has a separate family from another marriage with a son Chris and ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez, “Orange is the New Black”).
There are a lot of people here to be worried over and whether or not they will make it through the first few episodes. Not a huge shocker: They all won’t.
As a whole, the pilot is a lot of introduction and set up before getting around to the reason we’re here — this mysterious (or not so mysterious if you have any clue what “The Walking Dead” is about) illness that’s spreading around Los Angeles and which has been reported in other cities. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of other horror items, specifically 2011’s “Contagion,” except we’re not on the hunt for patient zero in “Fear.”
Fans of “The Walking Dead” will be watching closely for hints at how the zombie apocalypse started. While it’s certainly one of the most interesting facets of this new series, don’t expect to get many answers. Though hints are provided, Kirkman has assured us time and time again we won’t learn how it all began. He solidified that in press notes provided to journalists ahead of the series’ debut. Essentially, that’s not the point of this new series. Instead, it’s to show us how another subset are dealing with the apocalypse.
“Fear” is a little slow to get off off the ground, but things really start to pick up in the last 15 minutes of the premiere as more people begin to notice everything isn’t right in the world and this “mysterious illness” begins to spread more rapidly.
Thankfully the two leads, Dickens and Curtis’s characters, Madison and Travis, provide much of the reason for you to stick around. While Travis is trying to figure out how to balance two families, Madison has become one of the break-out leaders so far, quick to take charge of a situation. It’s early to say, but I think she’ll be the new Rick of the series.
The important question: Is it as good as “The Walking Dead”?
Not yet anyway. That doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t be. It’s just extremely difficult to live up to the pilot episode of the original back in 2010. It’s one of my favourites I can watch over many times.
When Rick goes into that pitch black hospital stairway with nothing but a match to light his way, it’s terrifying. At the episode’s end when he heads into Atlanta and is overtaken by a zombie horde, you’re left on a cliffhanger with Rick trapped inside an army tank surrounded by the undead while his horse is getting picked apart.
For a show called “Fear,” you never get a moment quite like that in the first two episodes. While Madison and Travis are fearing for the lives and those of their respective family members on screen, in no moment of the series’ first two episodes does the audience ever fear for anyone’s lives as the title suggests.
What’s so special about the original 2010 premiere is that you’re discovering this post-apocalyptic world for the first time along with the protagonist. You’re both asking all the same questions — What’s going on? Where is everyone? — and, for the most part, you’re learning the answers along with good guy sheriff Rick Grimes.
Five years later on “Fear,” we come in as slightly omniscient viewers. A lot of that same curiosity and wonder is taken away here. What’s this mysterious illness falling upon a number of Angelenos? No surprise there. (Well, other than the fact that we don’t know the source of this mysterious illness.)
Other than that, there are two problems I have with “Fear” so far.
One revolves around the show falling into the pitfalls of cheap, easy scares. You know, the jump scares you’ll see when watching a horror flick sometimes. Example — Is that guy sitting in that far off chair actually sleeping or may he be a zombie? What about that kid with his head down on his desk in class?
The biggest problem, which I think many will have with the show, is seeing who ends up getting infected first. I’m not allowed to, nor will I spoil who gets turned first, but if you’re a long-time viewer of the series, it will hardly be a surprise. Here’s all I’ll say on this front — “The Walking Dead” has a very diverse cast until it comes to selecting who they’re willing to kill off first. It makes you wish the series took some more risks early on instead of being predictable.
Faults aside, at the end of the day, if you are really invested in “The Walking Dead,” chances are you’re going to tune in to “Fear” and you’re probably going to enjoy it enough to stick through all of season one’s six episodes. The new series adds another level of depth for fans obsessed with the franchise.
Plus, you get to watch the world as it’s being dismantled, and, from the looks of it, that’s going to begin to get more chaotic than an episode of “The Walking Dead” real fast.
“Fear the Walking Dead” premieres on AMC August 23 at 9 p.m.
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