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Fear the Walking Dead Premiere Review: "Pilot"

Season 1, Episode 1

TV Reviews The Walking Dead
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<i>Fear the Walking Dead</i> Premiere Review: "Pilot"

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Fear the Walking Dead each week in a series of letters, just as they’ve done for The Walking Dead.

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Shane,

After five seasons of The Walking Dead—after Sophia walked out of that barn, after the battle for the prison, after The Governor and Alexandria and everything—the best episode may still be that first one. Rick wakes up from a coma, and we hit the ground running, discovering the zombie apocalypse right there with him.

There was no way Fear the Walking Dead was going to match that beginning. In deciding that the spin-off would go back in time before the fall of civilization, back to domestic problems and drug addiction and lit class, it was going to be a slower burn than the original. Show runner Dave Erickson needs us to care about this family before they’re fighting for their lives, but it’s hard to care about daddy issues and high-school boyfriends when we know the more violent and immediate obstacles they’re about to face.

And that was the biggest problem with this first episode. The show may have opened with a zombie in that first scene, but after five seasons of every kind of zombie encounter Greg Nicotero could imagine, it doesn’t cause the same thrills as it once did.

That said, Fear the Walking Dead isn’t trying to up the wow factor as much as it seems to be trying to take the franchise into Great Television territory.

From the casting to the writing to the camera work to the family drama, the goal here seems to be something a little more artful than what’s come before. And the potential is there. Kim Dickens’ TV resume includes capital-G shows like Lost, Friday Night Lights, Treme, Sons of Anarchy and House of Cards. Elizabeth Rodriguez (barely on screen here) arrives from Orange Is the New Black. And while New Zealander Cliff Curtis has spent most of his career on second-rate detective shows, he’s solid here.

But the star of the pilot is Frank Dillane, the actor who played young Tom Riddle in Harry Potter. A heroin addict, Nick Clark doesn’t know if what he saw in that opening scene, namely his girlfriend feasting upon the flesh of the other junkies, was even real. It’s a tough job as he has to start at his character’s lowest, but he doesn’t overdo it.

The pacing is slow as we get to know the characters, but it’s a pace that lets the camera take in shots it loves, a habit it shares with The Walking Dead. Some of them are worth it: pedestrians scampering to Nick’s aid after he’s hit by the car, the violent aftermath of the church with the cross in the foreground, the angles of zombie Calvin’s limbs at the edge of the reservoir.

The music is interesting as well—much more “classic horror movie” than we’ve heard before. And the dialogue mostly avoids those cringe-worthy moments of early Walking Dead.

But there were a few worrisome signs, as well. When the show tried to be a cop drama, it fell flat: the officers trying to get Nick to squeal on his supplier, the supplier taking Nick to the river for an execution when he worried that he wasn’t stable—as if every other heroin customer was solid.

So I look forward to the show embracing its genre as a zombie-horror-drama once the apocalypse starts gaining momentum. I look forward to getting to know this blended family as they, like White Fang’s Wheedon Scott, learn what survival means.

—Josh

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Josh,

I tried really hard not to read any advance reviews of Fear before I could see it myself, but it was hard to ignore the headlines, and the general impression seemed to be fairly negative. Which is why I was surprised to discover that I really enjoyed the first 90 minutes.

As you said, there’s one clear star here, and that’s James Franco look-alike Frank Dillane. As Nick, he managed to hit a really wide range of emotions in a single episode, from actual terror to exhaustion to resignation to cynicism to panic to junkie desperation to survival terror to “oh shit I just killed someone” terror to “oh shit I’m insane” terror to “oh shit zombies are real” terror, all while pulling off a solid junkie shuffle. (Speaking of which, you really don’t want to have a natural walk that looks like a zombie walk in this world, right?) When I looked Dillane up after the show, I was actually bummed to see that he was another in a long line of British actors playing American parts, because I thought, for once, we had produced a really good, young actor. How naive!

In any case, he was spectacular, and while I’m still waiting to see how the other characters will develop—so far, they seem vaguely archetype-ish, like a modern high school-based Breakfast Club—it’s definitely a good sign that we have one highly compelling, fully formed character right out of the gate. I also like the fact that he’s vulnerable, unlike Rick Grimes, and will enter the new, unstable world in a very raw state. Will that give him a small advantage, since he’s used to entropy, or will it make things worse?

(Speaking of apocalypse, I happened to watch this show just as news of the collapsing NYSE hit Twitter…not a great feeling, Josh. Are we watching a documentary from like, two years into the future?)

Some of the writing, too, topped anything we’ve seen in the real Walking Dead. In particular, this line stuck out to me:

Nick: Hey, it’s nothing new. Get my head shrunk. Get out, get clean.

Alicia: You mean that?

Nick: I always mean it.

In general, I also agree with your point that they seem to be striving for something a bit more “artful” here, which is a cool aspiration for a “spinoff” that should do very well in the ratings, insofar as Walking Dead fans stick around. There’s a sense of what I’ll call “behavioral realism” that we didn’t have in the original show—at least beyond the pilot, which I still think is the best episode they’ve ever produced. Even then, we caught Rick in medias res, so there wasn’t a ton of world building like we saw in Fear. I would argue that the TWD is sort of a horror slash soap opera, and a very entertaining one, whereas Fear looks like it’s at least trying to be something else.

Granted, sustaining that realism is the hard part. I would hazard a guess that we’ll see fewer zombie scenes in this version, more (and deeper) interpersonal stuff, and probably lower ratings. But I can’t help but think it would be a wonderful twist if a truly excellent cable drama came from the rib of cable’s best crowd-pleaser. I like Walking Dead quite a bit, as you know, and I’m trying to think of a good analogy here. It would be like if Arrested Development was somehow an Everybody Loves Raymond spinoff.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before we get there, and the weaknesses you pointed out were dead-on. The strange, shadowy behavior of the heroin mastermind made no sense—guys who are supposedly that smart are not street-level dealers, and they don’t monitor every client to make sure they can snuff them out at the first sign of instability. If that were the case, they’d be doing nothing but killing.

Beyond that, I found very little to complain about. It might not have captured that same ominous sense we got in the original, but I think that was on purpose—even the musical choices seemed geared more toward a combination of horror (as you noted) and standard drama, rather than the swelling, grating strings of TWD. And thus far, I can’t pinpoint an obvious weak link in the cast; we don’t have our version of Dale yet, thank God.

There’s quite a bit of ground to cover over the first season, but for now, I’m on board. As we move ahead, let me ask you: What do you see as potential pitfalls for the show? In other words, if this show is going to fail, how will it go off the tracks?

—Shane

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Shane,

I didn’t see the pilot at Comic-Con this year, but those I talked to who did seemed pretty divided on this episode. I liked it enough to watch it twice last night, but not enough to have some concerns that it will fall apart as the season progresses. This is not a prediction, just a collection of nagging worries:

1. If it doesn’t deliver anything new – I tried to imagine if I weren’t watching this after five seasons of The Walking Dead. That first scene would have been all “Holy crap! What is this?!?” instead of “Oh, here is where they discover the first zombie which will now try to eat you, but don’t worry, it moves slow.” I had the same reaction when Cal’s body wasn’t there. We all knew it wouldn’t be there. Watching others discover the realities of the zombie apocalypse isn’t the same as discovering them for yourself. This is an unfair hurdle for the new series, but it’s still a hurdle.

2. If it tries too hard to be a family drama and doesn’t embrace its apocalyptic horror elements – Look, I’m glad that these people feel real, and I look forward to them being fully formed with all the problems of a modern blended family. But I only half-watched Brothers & Sisters because my wife did. I signed up full-blown urban zombie apocalypse. Well-written and well-acted human drama is a bonus, but the storylines they’ve set so far aren’t enough to carry a TV show by themselves—we’ve seen the “broken family trying to hold it together” plenty of times before. I’m looking forward to seeing that as the world falls apart, but only if the apocalypse is spectacular.

3. If it falls too far in love with its kinda-artful cinematography – At the end of that first scene, just before the car hits, the camera follows Nick out into traffic. It shoots from the ground up into the sky and slows down time before the car hits. It’s just on the right side of the cool/pretentiously distracting divide, but I could see those choices starting to creep across that line.

4. Teenage angst at the end of the world – We have three teens in the main cast. I’m not too worried about Nick after the pilot. But while I thought neither Alycia Debnam-Carey (Alicia) nor Lorenzo James Henrie (Chris) put a wrong foot forward in the episode, I’m going to have little patience for sulky characters when zombies attack. Yes, there’s plenty to explore in teen/parent relations, especially when dad is taking on a second family, but if all we get is sullen petulance, my patience will wear thin.

That said, I can’t wait for next week. I’m thankful the pilot had a 90-minute time slot to get things going. It may be taking its time to ramp up, but if the payoff this season is big enough, I can be patient.

Taking away those first five seasons of The Walking Dead, would your opinion of Fear’s first episode be any different?

—Josh

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Josh,

That is the ultimate question with this show, and it’s also one I tried to answer with the second season of True Detective recently—how would it be different if we never saw its famous predecessor

It’s ultimately unanswerable, but it’s still fun to guess. With Fear, I think the initial answer is that we’d all be seriously intrigued with what the hell was happening in this world. We’d be on the outside looking in; instead, it’s almost like we’re watching a joke where we already know the punchline, and hoping the delivery is good enough to make us laugh.

As you pointed out, that’s a huge potential issue for this show, because the mystery is gone. We got to know Rick Grimes and company through the context of the zombie apocalypse, and it was fresh and surprising enough to make us fully invested from the start. Now, we still care (or at least I do), but they had the benefit of a life-altering catastrophe to hook me back in Season 1. This show doesn’t have that luxury, and I hope they’re smart enough not to use zombies as a crutch.

So the question becomes: What do they have that’s different? So far, we can only guess—the artsy style, the “realer” interpersonal dynamics, the atmosphere, the music. It’s obviously too early to judge, but it does set up the stakes for the season. It reminds me of the second person to ever cross the Atlantic by boat. Christopher Columbus discovered a whole new world, which is insanely awesome all by itself. But the second time the king and queen of Spain sent someone over, merely surviving wasn’t enough—they wanted gold. And so do we, which is both unfair to Fear and also completely logical. Something has to make it different and worthwhile in comparison to TWD, otherwise it’s just a diluted version of a better show.

That’s the bad news—the bar is raised from the beginning. The good news is that Fear already has a built-in audience, which hundreds of other shows would kill for. We’re here, we’re watching, and we’re ready to be impressed.

That’s not a bad place to start, and I think the most I can say now is that with the choice of Frank Dillane as the lead, Fear had made at least one solid move.

—Shane Ryan

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Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.

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