Ugh, so anyone who knows me or reads this blog will know that I have some powerfully mixed feelings towards The Walking Dead. It’s got a great first few seasons, no doubt, and some strong characters with a couple of standout performances. But the last couple of seasons have been kind of a hot mess, scrambling up motivations and character consistency to make room for hackneyed development of characters who reached their full potential three years ago and really need to die now. But it seems like all my close friends LOVE the show, so I have to sit there biting my lip whenever it comes up for fear of screaming “IT HASN’T MADE A LICK OF SENSE IN THE LAST TWO YEARS GOD FUCKING DAMMIT!” in their faces. I’m not so good at keeping friends, as you can probably guess.
But anyway, I’ll admit that I was pretty excited when I heard about Fear the Walking Dead (the show, by the way, should obviously have been called The Rambling Deceased, but that’s neither here nor there), because I’m a horror fan and I like shows and movies that have the balls to go through with showing the actual apocolypse, as opposed to shifting straight into full zombie mode, via the Zombie Coma trope (hello, 28 Days Later). Also, it had Kim Dickens in it, and she’s a bloody excellent actress, and the show’s mothership had done pretty well with giving it’s female characters at least a modicum of development that didn’t revolve around them getting raped every other episode. And then I saw the premiere of Fear the Walking Dead., and all my hope was shattered.
It was almost masterful in it’s badness- how could a show with this much budget, this much talent, and this much hype be so terrible? I hooted my way through lines like “What does that make me?” “…..human”, watched through my fingers as they butchered whatever character Kim Dickens might have had buried in this mess, and seemed to throw their fingers up at anyone who thought they might not smash through their black male cast with a machete like they had on The Walking Dead. I wanted to look away from the screen to save the people who’d made it the embarrassment of knowing someone had actually seen it. I mean, I thought it was pretty hilarious, but maybe that was just because I’m a braying television snob who can’t disengage critical brain during anything. Other people around me liked it, so I grudgingly carried on with the next couple of episodes.
And they were…better. Not amazing, not ground-breaking, but tight, well-acted, reasonably compelling TV that managed to introduce nuanced conflicts amongst the breakdown of society. It was like night and day, and it took me a while to figure out precisely why that was. I think I’ve narrowed it down to a few points, however, so stick with me, and we can try and figure out how one of the most stormingly dissapointing openings I’d ever seen has evolved into a tense zombie drama.
I’ll tell you the first thing that was wrong with that first episode for free: Frank Dillane.
Oh, whoops, no, that’s Captain Jack Sparrow, although you could be forgiven for thinking that Dillane’s bizarrely affected performance as a junkie caught in the first stages of the outbreak was an homage to Depp’s iconic pirate. He swaggers around wearing outrageous clothes, taking substances and spouting nonsense, which sounds great until you realize that the show is playing this deadly straight and they expect you to take Dillane’s wavering accent and unwatchably bad attempts at emoting seriously.
Setting your whole first episode- especially one that clocked in at a saggy hour in length- around this performance was a catastrophe of a mistake. Dillane makes sense as an occasionally snippy, occasionally endearing supporting character, as he’s been pitched as in the last two episodes, but front and centre he’s a disaster, especially when you have actors like Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis listed in your main cast. Look, I know I’m really beating this over the head, but here’s an interview with him where he says that he doesn’t know what acting is. This is a travesty on par with Hayden Christensen being cast as Anakin Skywalker- so many young actors would have killed for that role, and they gave it to this guy? Grumble, grumble.
Anyway, as I said, moving the focus from him to Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis is wise. As a pair of single parents trying to protect their families as chaos breaks out on the streets of LA, they put in a pair of sharp, direct performances that undercut the show’s occasionally schmaltzy family vibe. While the pacing was still wobbly, the script had cottoned on to the scariest part of the outbreak being the utter breakdown of society, and exploited that with lots of budget-blowing riot sequences. It felt like the first episode was groping about for some of The Walking Dead’s gruesome, sprawling, thematically heavy-handed glory, but the second two seemed to settle into their own pace of character-focused, smaller-stakes drama that works a lot better for them. I noticed that Robert Kirkman, the man behind both this series and The Walking Dead, wrote the first episode, so maybe it makes sense that it felt like such a poor shadow of it’s originator. He’s writing the finale, too, so I might have to blog about that if it’s as impressively bad as the premiere.
So, do I actually recommend this show? Yeah, go on then. Much of The Walking Dead, at least for the last couple of seasons, has been a half-hate-watching experience at best, so I didn’t expect a huge amount from a spin-off. But Fear the Walking Dead has something to it- maybe it’s the more family-focused story that seems to give the drama higher stakes, maybe it’s the fact that we’re being dragged along on what is a disorientating and well-articulated cavalcade of horror. Whatever it is, I’ll be tuning in next week, and you should consider doing so too.