The wisdom of situating “The Walking Dead” spinoff in a different place (Los Angeles) and time (at the very beginning of the apocalyptic outbreak) sounded like a shrewd move, and might still be. Yet the 90-minute premiere for “Fear the Walking Dead,” the eagerly anticipated offshoot of AMC’s megahit, initially feels too much like a snore, narrowly following a single, not-terribly-interesting family, and leaning heavily on musical cues to stoke a sense of suspense. A second episode begins to propel the story forward, thankfully, but for starters, anyway, it’s more a snack than a feast.
Created by “Dead’s” comic-book patriarch Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson, the new show can’t help but be a hit given the built-in demand and curiosity, which affords the creative team the latitude to proceed at its own pace. That said, the introduction ambles along too leisurely – dare one say zombie-like? – with a fair amount of fabricated tension but precious little that actually quickens the pulse.
The opening is certainly a grabber, with a 19-year-old junkie, Nick (Frank Dillane), awakening to a sight that, while familiar to “Dead” heads, should be enough to put any character that survives on a path to the straight and narrow. The experience lands Nick in the hospital, leaving his mother Madison (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis) at their wits end.
Even Nick isn’t entirely sure what to believe, although evidence gradually begins to mount that something is very, very wrong, including a disturbing encounter caught on video by the local news. That said, through the pilot “Fear” is more concerned with the micro – and indeed, this single family, including Madison’s daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) – than the macro, as if an episode of “Parenthood” suddenly had to deal with the zombie apocalypse.
A second episode, fortunately, improves matters considerably, mostly in charting how the uncertainty of what’s happening begins to break down society, from civil unrest to rampant fear of the unknown. This hour points in a more promising direction, although as yet the characters still seem a little malnourished, particularly compared with the original, which niftily wedded a horror motif to an ongoing, evolving soap opera where no one is completely safe (OK, maybe just a few key people).
For “Walking Dead” fans, “Fear” does tap into a fertile vein, since the earlier show’s main protagonist, Rick, slept through humanity’s fall in a coma, leaving flashbacks to putty in only some of the gaps. Watching social norms collapse clearly plants an uncomfortable foot in reality, although Erickson, Kirkman and company have a long way to go in terms of conjuring anything approaching that sort of emotional investment in these characters.
Granted, the obvious goal was to see these extraordinary events unfold through ordinary people, but Dickens and Curtis, both fine actors, are left to dine on a too-thin gruel.
Strictly in pragmatic terms, AMC was savvy about scheduling the show, launching it in a relatively dead window that will only help pound the drums for the mother ship’s annual landing in October. In success, this second series — already renewed for another season — has plenty of room to grow without intruding on that other universe, while offering the opportunity to strategically help fill the gaps in the original’s lengthy hiatuses.
Because “Walking Dead” is such a juggernaut, AMC can easily ride those coattails, at least for a while. Yet when it comes to the longterm future of this new program, the network might discover that the only thing it has to fear is, ultimately, “Fear” itself.