It would have been easy to just create TWD: Los Angeles.
The Walking Dead is the most successful show in cable TV history with more than 15 million people tuning in to the Season 5 finale. The series is such a juggernaut that a talk show about The Walking Dead gets nearly twice as many viewers as the season finale of Mad Men. A spin-off was inevitable. If viewers have responded to a plucky group of survivors in Georgia, why not split off a couple of beloved characters trying to reunite with family out west? Or, you know, in New York or Miami? But if you’re talking to anyone involved with Fear the Walking Dead—which debuts August 23—don’t call it a spin-off. The party line is that they waited until they had a new show that would exist in the world of The Walking Dead but could exist without it.
“We didn’t want to do CSI,” says Greg Nicotero, The Walking Dead’s make-up effects guru, producer and frequent director. “We didn’t want to do a cookie-cutter show that was the exact same thing.”
What comic-book creator Robert Kirkman and his team of producers did instead was to go all the way back in time before Rick Grimes wakes up from that coma, before the zombie apocalypse had turned every city into a nightmare-scape, and look at how the collapse of civilization affects a family in an urban setting.
The show follows a blended family in working-class East Los Angeles. Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) are engaged co-workers at a high school. Both are single parents, and Travis’ ex-wife Liza Ortiz (Orange Is the New Black’s Elizabeth Rodriguez) shares custody of their son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie). The family faces plenty of problems even before the dead start coming back to life with an appetite for human flesh.
“One of the things I hope will continue to distinguish the show is this roundedness of the family conflicts; dysfunctional, blended family and what that means; and how do we let the apocalypse impact and exasperate that story as opposed to ultimately succumbing to the overwhelm of strictly survival,” says Fear showrunner Dave Erickson. “I think the comic has done that quite well, and the original show has done that quite well in its own very specific way. The hope is that we’ve allowed ourselves a little bit more time over the course of the season one to really invest in these families before we go full-on apocalypse.”
It’s that knowledge that the apocalypse is coming that leads to much of the tension in the show. We see walkers from the opening scene, but the characters are slow to learn of the impending doom around them. The audience members are invited to lean in, knowing the dangers these characters are about to face.
“Part of the goal with the pilot and the first few episodes was to make it about the shark you don’t see,” says Erickson. “We talked a lot about soundscape and about the gentleman who’s on the other side of the curtain in Nick’s hospital. The expectation is that that guy is going to turn, but it’s also something about his continued breathing and just creating this sense of dread without having to [show zombies]. We open with a walker, but then we kind of let it slow burn for the rest of the episode. I watched Apocalypse Now like two or three times before writing the pilot because there’s something about the surreal juxtaposition—and they do it on the show as well, when people in the know like Nick gets into this a lot earlier than everyone else, he realizes something is very wrong and waiting for everyone else to catch-up. Seeing that against people who are carrying on normal day-to-day routines, there’s something very bizarre and interesting about that. And it’s like those surreal juxtapositions in Apocalypse Now, like taking the beach so you can go surfing.”
Nick is Madison’s drug-addict, college-drop-out son, who is the first to encounter a walker in a crack house, but no one believes his semi-coherent ramblings. He’s played by Frank Dillane—most known for playing Tom Riddle in the Harry Potter series—and Dillane was a little worried he was scraping the bottom of the barrel throughout the pilot. “I’m very aware that in order for you to get better, I needed to start off pretty bad,” he says. That’s what we kept saying. Because I kept on being like, ‘Is that too much?’ Well, I know you’ve got to start fucking rock-bottom.”
Alycia Debnam-Carey, who plays Nick’s sister Alicia, says her character cares deeply about her brother, but is frustrated by his struggles. Listening to her talk, it’d be easy to forget this is a show about zombies. “Nick and Alicia have shared an experience that only the two of them can really understand,” she says. “They were both around the same age when they lost their father, and I think they had a good relationship when they were growing up. But I think just because of circumstances they’ve sort of fallen a little bit apart. But the blood bond is still so strong. When I watched [the pilot], I was thinking back upon when we were filming it and that moment of when Alicia goes over to the bed and sits on the bed: ‘I want to stay mad at you because you suck.’ It’s always about Nick. … I love how that scene started off with such a passive-aggressiveness and then kind of melted, but is still there. The tension is clearly still there.”
One of the differences between Fear and its predecessor will be the relationship of the new survivors’ two alphas, Madison and Travis. Where Rick donned the heavy mantle of leadership alone in The Walking Dead, Madison shares the role with her fiancée.
“It’s not like a woman donning the masculine: ‘I’m going to be a badass,’” Curtis says. “She’s a lioness. She’s a goddess who protects what she loves. And I think that’s very powerful for a woman to have a role where she can manifest that unapologetically. Badass is no longer the domain of the masculine. There’s a feminine aspect of that. And I think she’s absolutely beautiful at maintaining this tenderness. What she does when she is a lioness comes from love. There’s a fragility. [Travis] can see that and value that and be the one person in her life who can allow her to be in her power and to protect that tenderness. You don’t want to kill what’s tender in humanity for the sake of being powerful. I think that’s a mistake—myself and Travis.”
The other woman in Travis’ life, his ex-wife Liza, also finds strength in being a protector. “I think it reflects the real world,” says Rodriguez about her character. “I’m very protective of my son—I’m a single parent, and all my character cares about is protecting him, and that his father is a man of his word. Also, as a parent in this show, I think I have absolute empathy for Madison dealing with her son and all those troubles. Then we come under this roof where even if there are moments of awkwardness about who’s in charge, very quickly there’s an apocalypse happening. There are things happening that give you real problems, so there’s no time. You get perspective really quick.”
When things do start to fall apart, they take refuge together in the shop of Daniel Salazar (Rubén Blades) and his family. Blades thinks that everything that comes before the zombies is just as important to the story that Fear is trying to tell.
“The Walking Dead is like the 12th of October of 1492, and this show is like the 11th of October because no one remembers what happened the 11th,” he says. “The 11th of October, you woke up and the next day you have these people and you don’t know who they are with these animals and this language and then these diseases, and your life is changed forever. Nobody wrote about the 11th of October. This is the 11th of October.”
But we all know the 12th is coming, even on Fear the Walking Dead. “You know it’s going to be a show that’s exciting, and it’s going to have the elements of The Walking Dead that people love,” Erickson says. “I just think that we have an opportunity to front-load it with an intimacy that, in all honesty just based on the structure—they didn’t have time to do.”
What goes unsaid by everyone involved in the show is that while The Walking Dead has injected more human drama than anyone expected from a zombie series, it’s not often mentioned in discussions of capital-G Great Television the way those other AMC shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad often are. Whether it’s been hampered by occasional stilted dialogue or uneven acting or questionable character motivations, it’s always been punching a bit above its weight: great for a zombie show. The goal for Fear seems to be a story that would succeed outside the realm of the supernatural, but is enhanced and buoyed by its genre elements. It’s this emphasis on realistic drama mixed in with the fun of zombie genre that attracted Curtis to the role of Travis.
“It’s what made me feel that I had something to contribute to the show,” he says, “because I understood that. I don’t necessarily understand the world of genre. It’s not my natural habitat as an artist. But I do understand relationships and the value of love and what you’ll do for love and exploring those types of themes. The show is firmly grounded in that, and not just romantic love, but the love of our children. And the desire to build a family. We’re getting a second chance at building a family in the show, at a time that’s not conducive to building anything.
“There are clear devices that the audiences love,” he continues. “Storytelling and entertainment and film and television—the shackles are broken. We’re able to blend genre with drama. There are no rules anymore. As long as it’s done well—that’s the only rule now. If you respect the rules of genre and you respect the traditions of dramatic storytelling and ground them with authenticity, you’re allowed mix the two. So you can be entertaining and pointed at the same time. I think audiences are more sophisticated than they were, perhaps, and they can handle it.”
This is not the first time The Walking Dead has expanded its universe. What began as a comic book, evolved into a TV series, a set of novels, a number of webisodes, and two critically acclaimed videogames. While there is some overlap, each new medium explored different stories and characters and locations. Fear the Walking Dead is just the latest—and most prominent.
“In putting this together, we feel like we have a good experience in creating companion products,” says The Walking Dead showrunner Scott Gimple. “The Telltale version has a minute of Glenn showing up in the game, but other than that, it’s an entirely new character set, but true to the same dynamics of The Walking Dead. The novel series touches on the Governor, but other than that it’s entirely new characters. And we honestly feel that as opposed to being repetitive and exploring more the same world, the best way to explore what Fear was all about was to go to an entirely new place that had no connection to the mothership. Same rules, just in an entirely different place. We think that’s the core strength of The Walking Dead is that it can support those types of stories.”
The main way that Fear differs, though, is in taking us through the actual breakdown of society we see in the pilot of the original. That’s a question that has plagued fans since the first season, including Mercedes Mason, who plays Daniel’s daughter Ofelia. “I was a huge Walking Dead fan before I came on this project. So as soon as I heard that I’m on—when I was done screaming and crying with my mom—I had all the same questions. I was so curious as to what had happened to the world. We see Rick Grimes wake up in a coma, and it’s just nothing. There’s nothing there, and he sort of has to figure out as he goes along. ‘Do you have to hit them in the shoulder? Do you pull their eyes out?’ I want to know how all of that developed in real time. So, for us, we wake up on a normal day. We think that nothing has happened, we think that there might be a flu epidemic going on, and then suddenly were thrust into this world of absolute carnage with no idea how to behave or who we can trust. There are no cops; there’s no infrastructure. Everything is slowly falling apart as the minutes are going by. I wanted to see what happens to people when that happens. Like Ruben said beautifully, ‘There are people who wake up with war. There are bombs going off outside their windows.’ That changes you. But how does it change you? What becomes of right or wrong at that point? And I love that this show brings up all those questions and makes you think, that it’s not just, ‘Oh there are zombies on this show.’ It’s the human experience and human nature. I think that’s what so universal. That’s why The Walking Dead has been so popular.”
Beginning August 18, you’ll begin losing count of how many times Fear the Walking Dead is compared to the most-watched show in the history of cable television. That’s a lot of pressure, but everyone involved seems genuinely proud of what they’ve accomplished and know those comparisons are coming. But they also believe they’re creating something new.
“It’s not a spinoff,” says Dickens. “It’s more of a parallel world in the same universe. It’s been fun to have completely new characters and completely new stories and a completely new location.”
But if the viewership is anything similar to The Walking Dead, no one will complain about comparisons.