What's the premise? This is the spin-off prequel to AMC's phenomenally popular horror drama The Walking Dead, dramatising the same zombie uprising from the perspective of a family dealing with the immediate aftermath in suburban Los Angeles.
Who's behind it? The series is created by Robert Kirkman (co-author of the original Walking Dead comic) and Dave Erickson. Frank Darabont, who developed the comic-book into a television series, doesn't get any form of credit because of an ongoing legal dispute with AMC.
Who's in it? The ostensible leads are Cliff Curtis as Travis Manawa, an English teacher engaged to co-worker Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), a guidance counsellor at the same L.A high school. They're joined by Frank Dillane (son of Game of Thrones actor Stephen Dillane) as Madison's junkie son Nick; Alycia Debnam-Carey as her ambitious daughter Alicia; Elizabeth Rodriguez as Travis's ex-wife Liza Ortiz; and Lorenzo James Henrie as Travis's son Chris from his previous relationship.
What are your first impressions? I'm not the biggest fan of The Walking Dead—which took three years to become the show I wanted from the beginning, but even now keeps producing seasons that vacillate wildly in terms of consistency. But I went into Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD) with an open mind because I was optimistic it had been commissioned to correct mistakes the producers made while developing The Walking Dead. A show that will inevitably be ending sooner rather than later, so it makes sense to have a Plan B to keep this universe alive in healthier form.
Unfortunately, the changes FTWD makes aren't entirely successful. The biggest difference is that FTWD is going to show us how civilisation crumbled once the dead start coming back to life and biting people to spread their infection. That was a whole "origin story" The Walking Dead skipped over by having its hero asleep in hospital, as a way to shortcut the narrative to the more intense period of time when the world's gone to hell and large groups of rotting corpses are roaming abandoned streets, empty fields, and desolate highways. It worked for The Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later, so who can argue against it.
There's nothing wrong with FTWD choosing to reveal specifics about how everyday folk coped with a mass zombie uprising, although none of it really matters. As we're five seasons deep into The Walking Dead, we already know more about this situation and its lore than the FTWD characters will for awhile—although I found it strange that a big twist in The Walking Dead's tale (the reveal that you don't have to be bitten to 'turn') is patently obvious to anyone with a brain after just one episode of FTWD.
The other significant change is moving the action to the built-up environs of Los Angeles, even if the mother show began in Atlanta, Georgia, and occasionally returns to that city for various reasons. FTWD will be considerably more urban and street-level than its predecessor, that much is guaranteed, but again this comes with a concern: for while FTWD's pilot goes to great lengths to showcase real L.A locations like Venice Beach and the graffiti'd flood control channels, the rest of the series has filmed in Vancouver, Canada. And while Vancouver's a popular stand-in for various U.S locations since the days of The X-Files, it's simply no substitute for the real thing. It makes you wonder why they didn't just set the show in Vancouver or neighbouring Seattle, because The Walking Dead certainly benefits from shooting around the Georgian countryside its story's taking place in.
I guess the third biggest change is FTWD's strong family dynamic, although this too was a big part of The Walking Dead during its earlier seasons—before the escalating deaths broke up family units, to instead strengthen the bond between strangers thrown together under exceptional circumstances. FTWD's primary characters are all related, with the only divide being the fact they're a 'modern family' consisting of two halves about to be joined by marriage. It's an interesting angle to take—with step-kids and ex's becoming factors to consider when zombies begin to feast on people. There isn't much familial angst in the pilot because it's far too early yet, but that's the one aspect of FTWD's concept that feels like something interesting to explore.
Sadly, that's the only enthusiasm I can muster for what proved to be a very slow and unexpectedly dull first hour. The emphasis was on building the main characters as three-dimensional people whose lives are about to become a hellish struggle for survival, which is certainly laudable... but none of the actors had enough charisma to make me forget the conspicuous lack of zombies and action. As we're years into The Walking Dead, there was an unshakeable feeling this show is pointlessly going back to square one. And I was very surprised that Curtis and Dickens were pushed into the background so much, with the narrative more focused on drug addict Nick (who witnesses a friend feasting on bodies in a crack house and isn't believed by the doctors treating him after he fled the scene into the path of an oncoming car). Indeed, there are more characters in their teens and twenties in FTWD, which feels like an odd attempt to make this show feel sexier and more appealing to a younger demographic. But if that's true, does someone at AMC really think that there are 18-24 year olds who aren't watching The Walking Dead because there aren't enough pretty teenagers and most of the characters are their parents and grandparents age? If so, that's a little insulting and ageist.
What's the prognosis? Who am I kidding? Does it really matter what critics think? The Walking Dead has its own list of problems it rarely bothers to fix, but that doesn't prevent 16 million people watching every week in the U.S. FTWD is part of a worldwide brand now, and I'm sure it will be enough of a hit to last many years. AMC have already ordered a longer second season before anyone had seen the premiere. But in the longterm, I do wonder if shrewd viewers will get a little bored by its "fresh-faced" zombies (who are just regular-looking people with enlarged pupils and blood smeared around their faces), and I somehow doubt AMC has the budget to show how a major city would handle the mass resurrection of the dead. The budget for The Walking Dead was notoriously slashed after season 1, to the chagrin of original showrunner Frank Darabont, and opting to film in Vancouver suggests AMC are still being very frugal despite FTWD's guaranteed hit status.
When does it premiere?FTWD is already airing in the U.S on AMC every Sunday. Here in the UK, the show airs on the BT-exclusive AMC channel on Mondays @9PM. Amazon Prime UK will stream the episodes in 2016.