Fear the Walking Dead, prequel to The Walking Dead, was billed very much as a family drama first, and a zombie horror second, and in that respect it absolutely succeeds in its target. The methodically paced series opener is reasonably light on undead attacks, blood and gore, but what it does bring to the table is a well rounded and crucially likeable cast of core characters, who within the hour or so runtime are each clearly defined, interesting in their own right individually, but even more so in unison.
School counsellor Madison (Kim Dickens) has the task of juggling a relationship with her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis), whilst bringing up her children from her previous relationship; the smart but snarky Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), and the big winner of the episode, serial junkie Nick (Frank Dillane), who opens the series with aplomb, awakening from a drug induced slumber to discover his friend Gloria chowing down on a fellow addict.
It’s a bitingly tense opener, with the eerie glow of Californian sunlight streaming through the windows of the church-come-drug den Nick stumbles through, as both he and us as the audience acquaint ourselves with our surroundings. It’s a world already filled with darkness, and the worst is yet to come, with an infection spreading that sees the dead rising as a plague to the living.
Though some have bemoaned the pacing of the pilot episode, the time spent on establishing the lead family’s relationship is well utilised, and at such an early stage in the show’s life completely understandable. A methodical pace is not something that will be at all new to fans of The Walking Dead, which is also a show known to be happy to take its time, but more often than not the wait pays off. Admittedly, at times The Walking Dead has found itself grinding almost to a stand still, so the key for Fear the Walking Dead will be to learn from the pacing missteps its elder sibling has made and to be the better for these lessons.
It’s in the establishing scenes that the Fear the Walking Dead showcases its confidence in handling its characters and their relationships, with a number of excellent pairings on show; be it the loving parents, Madison and Travis, the sweet brother/sister duo of Alicia and Nick, or really any other combination of these four characters. The foursome make for a perfectly dysfunctional family, with Dillane’s Nick in particular standing out as an emotional and comedic anchor point.
It’s outside of the family that things are less successful on the character front. Whilst Travis’s ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is not seen for long enough to leave any lasting impression yet, their son Christopher (Lorenzo James Henrie) has about as much screen time, and still manages to come across as annoying and snotty towards his father. In fact it seems that all of the younger characters are a bit off with all round cool guy Travis…how rude! Meanwhile, Alicia’s boyfriend Matt (Maestro Harrell) brings the schmaltz, and whilst Madison and Travis also have their schmaltzy moments, at least they do so knowingly.
A bookending of the episode with undead action goes a long way towards easing any impatience that might be creeping in whilst working through the lives of the Clark family (plus that of the “Stepfather”, Travis). These moments play out with a smattering of classic horror elements, something that The Walking Dead has recently begun to do more of, with the score signposting the delightfully dreadful deeds soon to come; as well as one or two fake out moments which play with expectations effectively. It’s refreshing to return to a point in the Walking Dead universe where the dead rising is new, and seeing how different people react (and adapt) to the horror of it all. There is a worry of the show retreading familiar ground well worn by The Walking Dead, but early signs are pointing towards some exciting encounters to come.
Yes, the pacing is slow, but the end result is strong. What we have is a sensible, smart, likeable group of characters, in a well established world. Whilst the pilot did a lot of the heavy lifting and leg work in terms of character development, it still found time to crank up the tension nicely, and if the balance between these two aspects can be struck, then Fear the Walking Dead will be onto a winner. As it stands, it’s started with solid foundations for the undead to wreak their havoc upon.
The Walking Dead prequel gets off to a good start – there’s work to be done for sure, but there’s also plenty to be optimistic about for Fear the Walking Dead’s debut season.
Rating (out of 5):
Fear the Walking Dead airs on AMC UK, Monday August 31st at 9pm.