AMC’s zombie-apocalypse drama The Walking Dead began with a fascinating hook when it premiered in 2010: Georgia cop Rick Grimes wakes up from a coma to find that society has completely crumbled and most of humanity has either died or been infected with a virus that turns them into undead drones with a taste for living flesh. It was a brilliant in media res opening that thrust the viewer directly into the action, while at the same time putting us into Rick’s shoes, trying to make sense of what happened. The show quickly became the biggest hit on TV and has shown no sign of slowing down – indeed, it’s only gotten better as it’s gone along.
While the coma was a very effective way to kick off the series, it yadda yadda-ed a potentially fascinating part of the story: how exactly the virus progressed, where it started, how institutions broke down, and and how people dealt with those first inklings that no one was going to save them: not the cops, not the government, nobody.
That’s where the most hotly anticipated new show of the summer, Fear The Walking Dead, premiering this Sunday at 9pm ET on AMC, begins, and critical response to the first couple of episodes suggests that this franchise has a much brighter future than the world it depicts.
Paul Vigna of The Wall Street Journal, ever leery of spinoffs, was won over by the show’s strong first two episodes:
We had our fears when we first heard about a Walking Dead spinoff, and it had nothing to do with a zombie plague, or Woodbury flashbacks. It sounded like AMC was pushing its unlikely hit one step too far. How much story is there to really tell? Zombies eat people, people run, people fight, some die, some live to fight again. Moreover, myriad zombie stories have already lumbered over this ground. One of the refreshing things about The Walking Dead is that it hasn’t spent any time on the outbreak, but plunged the viewer right into the aftermath. Why essentially reverse that decision by producing an entire new show about the pre-plague days? After seeing the first two episodes of the new series, we can say this: Fear the Walking Dead has a legitimate shot at being as good as or even better than its older sibling. It doesn’t feel like a money grab. At times in fact it almost seems as if The Walking Dead were a dry run of sorts for this show, that all the kinks had been worked out on the first series. We don’t expect there’s going to be any repetitive debates down on the farm with this new show.
Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield likes the way the show turns its setting into a character:
The best thing about Fear the Walking Dead — and the reason it adds something genuinely new to the recipe — is the way it makes L.A. the main character, playing around with locales we recognize. At one point, two lowlifes meet at what seems to be the exact same diner where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson argue about bacon in Pulp Fiction. Except instead of debating whether it’s disgusting to eat pork, they’re talking about zombies stuffing their faces with human brains. There’s an element of burn-Hollywood-burn sadism behind all the urban-breakdown violence. Fear has the vibe that L.A. suffers because it gets stuck with the blame for everything that’s wrong with our sick society. That has driven melodramas from Earthquake to Demolition Man, from Helter Skelter to the infamous Quincy punk-rock episode. L.A. is the city that’s pretty when it cries — that’s why it’s so good at starring in disaster stories. As George A. Romero himself figured out by the time of Dawn of the Dead, there’s only one thing scarier than zombies in the woods: zombies at the shopping mall. This is the real decline of Western civilization, made all the nastier by the fact that the undead will be munching on whatever’s left. L.A.: It’s what’s for dinner.
Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter likes the tension created by the audience knowing more about what’s going on than the characters:
[Executive producer, co-creator and showrunner Dave] Erickson, fellow exec producer David Alpert and director Adam Davidson have to create a new and different Walking Dead universe, where the burgeoning and mysterious infection, pre-apocalypse, is riveting enough to sustain the slow build of figuring out new characters — and letting those new players have personalities that will lend themselves to episode-to-episode loyalty and interest. That’s not easy. And there are, undoubtedly, moments in the first couple of episodes where it’s just not nearly as much fun as the original and, because viewers want to see zombies, the whole thing feels like a lurching story we already know being told too slowly. However, dramatically the appeal is twofold: seeing what hasn’t been shown before — the confusion and then shock and then chaos of the early-days scenario; and, perhaps even more importantly, exploring (and toying with) the notion that viewers know more than the characters in Fear possibly could, so watching them be all-too-nonchalant when they should be running for their lives is fun and scary. Erickson and company do a fine job of getting at that dangerous naivete — where people allow the newly infected (and “turned” but not rotting) zombies to get right up on them. It stresses out Walking Dead fans who know what’s coming, while also making sense for the characters in Fear. This is all so new — mistakes of some consequence will be made.
The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray’s concerns about the opener were assuaged by a magnetic lead performance:
Since Fear The Walking Dead isn’t featuring any pre-end-times people or places from the other show, it’s missing a sense of irony that might’ve made its early scenes more meaningful. Plus, most of The Walking Dead’s best characters connected immediately because they were already battle-tested. It takes a lot more faith in the show’s creators to watch heroes who haven’t done anything heroic yet. But that’s where having Kim Dickens in the lead pays off—not to mention Rubén Blades as a barber who shows up at the end of episode two, and Shawn Hatosy and Colman Domingo still to come. Good actors can keep an audience engaged until the action starts; and in “So Close, Yet So Far” Dickens is especially good, as she has her first face-to-face encounter with a friend who’s “turned.” Dickens’ Madison is someone who’s spent much of the last few years cleaning up after a junkie, so her first impulse is always to try and help rather than running away. In a single scene of her unknowingly rushing toward danger, it’s clear what drew Kirkman and AMC to the idea of re-entering the Walking Dead saga from an earlier point (beyond the dollar signs, that is). There’s something exciting about following characters as they figure out the rules of survival for the first time, in the moment.
And Grantland’s Andy Greenwald appreciates how much the show invests in its main characters, but worries that it may have succeeded too well:
I’m thrilled that Fear was able to get me to invest in its vision of the end of the world. But are we sure Kirkman and Erickson are qualified to handle that investment with care? On The Walking Dead, even the most finely drawn characters are understood to be grist for the story’s ravenous mill. We cheer when they survive but are resigned to watching them die. Fear’s protagonists, however, still aspire to more than just making it through the night; the full scale of horror is yet to come. For five seasons now, The Walking Dead has made a mockery of the suggestion that hope is as essential to long-running TV series as cameras or craft services. But that show is about rugged stragglers growing comfortable at rock bottom. Fear, by contrast, is prelapsarian. Committing to the story of Maddie, Travis, and their family means committing to a one-way elevator ride straight down. And that strikes me as a big ask. Years of perfectly pierced foreheads and impeccably aimed crossbow bolts have lessened my fear of the walking dead. But I’m absolutely terrified at the thought of seeing these particular people die. So, mission accomplished? Fear the Walking Dead is surprisingly satisfying. I’m just not sure I’ve got the stomach for more.
Fear the Walking Dead premieres Sunday, August 23 at 9pm ET on AMC; new episodes air through October 4.