The question on most people’s minds when “Fear The Walking Dead” was announced was not “Why?” (the ratings for “The Walking Dead” made greenlighting two seasons of a spin-off a no-brainer) but, “How will it be different?” It’s not like the world of “The Walking Dead” has a lot of room for nuance. So when it was announced that the show would be a prequel chronicling how the world descends into the zombie plague, as perceived by one suburban extended family. Well-trodden territory, to be sure, but it was at least a change of pace from “The Walking Dead” proper.
The pilot wasn’t very encouraging — unfortunately several of the leads turned out to be some of the most patience-trying characters in narrative fiction: sullen teens and drug addicts. Alicia (Sullen Teen #1) was given some development (or at least wasn’t as one-note), but Chris (Sullen Teen #2) was a pain from minute one and never managed to redeem himself. Nick (the drug addict) was similarly frustrating; if you’ve seen one addiction story you’ve seen them all, and “Fear The Walking Dead” brought nothing new to the table. Probably best to give Nick the Charlie from “Lost” treatment in Season 2: claim he finally kicked heroin and go about developing him as an actual character.
Despite the weak pilot, I still preferred the first half of “Fear The Walking Dead’s” first season to its militarized second half. The suburbs provided a quiet setting for some mounting dread, and also effective was the sense that a single zombie could be dangerous. Since the Ricketeers of “Walking Dead” Prime are an ultra-competent fighting force, watching the families of “Fear” struggle to take down a single walker added a nice edge of suspense in the early going. Of course, there were still pitfalls: Characters seemed willfully stupid about zombies even after it was obvious that you shouldn’t try to reason with them. Also, having such a big cast for such a short season meant that the characters were thin across the board, despite a fine cast including Kim Dickens, Cliff Curtis and Ruben Blades.
But things took a downturn in the show’s back half. Once the military lockdown began, it was nothing we hadn’t seen in other zombie media. Also, a time jump between episodes 3 and 4 meant that we didn’t see the characters acclimating to their new situation; they were all used to it by the time we caught up with them. The last few episodes were extremely rushed and underdeveloped; we only got the barest effort at establishing the community or any characters outside the main cast (there was a Mean Soldier, a Nice Soldier, and a Neighbor Who Is Losing It). Which makes sense, since the final episodes were all leading to yet another upheaval in the status quo.
And then we come to morality. I’ve never been much concerned with the morality of “The Walking Dead,” a show that repeatedly argues that killing is the only answer and that an unwillingness to participate in violence is a lethal weakness, because its bleak post-apocalypse wasteland is so divorced from our own way of living. But on “Fear The Walking Dead,” society has yet to fully collapse, so it seemed like something of an overreaction when Daniel decided the only response to his wife and Nick being forcibly taken to the local military base was to kidnap a friendly soldier and torture him with knives. Daniel at least had the excuse of his tragic background in El Salvador, but the moment Madison figures out what’s going on, she’s on board. Apparently the second her dirtbag son is possibly in danger, all bets are off.
Of course, that’s nothing compared to what happens in the season finale, “The Good Man.” Seeking to enter the military base undetected, our heroes decide the best possible cover is to release the thousands of zombies locked in the nearby stadium, let them overrun the base and escape in the chaos. The soldiers, the prisoners, the patients: all of them are acceptable collateral damage as long as the ostensible good guys can retrieve Daniel’s wife (who’s already dead) and Nick, who sucks. It’s apparently Daniel’s idea, but everyone else seems to be cool with it, since none of the characters find time to discuss whether this plan of attack is right or wrong. And oh hey, they abandon all of their neighbors without warning them, to boot. The end result is that the whole cast goes from zero to psychopath in the course of two episodes.
Since their collective morals are already compromised, there’s really nowhere else for the characters to go. The world has already descended into chaos, and the streets are empty, save for random zombies. So we’ve got a group of survivors wandering the desolate zombie apocalypse, willing to do whatever it takes to survive. Hey, that sounds like it could be a successful TV show!