Culture

Is 'Fear the Walking Dead' Enough to Fill the 'Dead' Gap?

The Love Boat it ain't. (AMC)

After AMC’s runaway success with The Walking Dead, the network naturally launched a spinoff last season: Fear the Walking Dead.

The premise made sense. In The Walking Dead, Sheriff Rick Grimes wakes up in a hospital room to a world gone zombie. Characters who have already come to grips with the undead meet and wander through Georgia. Fear the Walking Dead goes back to the beginning of the zombie plague, on the other side of the country. Yes, when people try to escape the zombie hordes in Los Angeles the freeways are going to get really jammed. The undead illness mystifies people at first, provokes martial law, and then all civil order collapses before Congress can even pass an emergency supplemental to assuredly knock out zombie flu.

In the first season of six episodes, we met Madison and Travis, a high school guidance counselor and teacher who are dating, Madison’s heroin addict son Nick, Madison’s daughter Alicia, Travis’ ex-wife Liza, and Travis’ son Chris. Some of the characters take refuge from the inevitable L.A. riots in the barbershop of Salvadoran immigrants; the patriarch, Daniel, uses torture skills picked up in his home country to try to get information out of a soldier by filleting his arm.

Nick was picked up, caged up with other crying Angelenos, and about to be sent someplace unsavory when mysterious Victor Strand stepped in and bribed the guard to leave the guy alone. After originally planning to escape to the desert (Adelanto would not be my first escape choice), the reunited group heads for the Pacific down a dry L.A. River. Strand has a swank house on the beach, where bitten Liza is shot by her ex-husband before the crew heads out to Strand’s equally swank boat at the beginning of season two.

Strand is a luxury survivalist: he doesn’t want to help any of the other boats that are taking on water or sending out distress calls. He may be proven right as Alicia betrayed too much information about their location and accommodations to a smooth-talking Hawaii-bound bro on the radio. They’ve come across a boat that looks like it was attacked, with all of the passengers now floating zombies. Strand spots an unwelcome (living) visitor coming too close to his boat. They need to get outta there now.

And that’s where the first episode of season two, aired Sunday, left off. Are they ready for maritime warfare? Are they heading for an island, because that worked out so well for the escapees in Dawn of the Dead? This being an AMC prequel, the only thing we’re guaranteed is lots of internal angst and existential debates among the fraying group.

I’m entertained enough by the show to keep watching this season. But it doesn’t seem to carry the same investment value because of the characters. Sure, it’s early in the series run, but there’s no one to really root for like Rick and Michonne and Daryl and Carol and Morgan. Hopefully as the series develops it won’t be like a Friday the 13th film where the viewer grows so annoyed at the camp counselors a Jason rooting section develops.

Walking Dead scholar Jonah Goldberg put it well: “So far Fear the Walking Dead Season 2 is 100% better than season 1. But that’s not the highest bar.”

Variety reported that the spinoff pulled in fewer than half of the original’s viewer totals yet still won Sunday. Where I turned off — and others likely did as well — was for the hourlong Talking Dead aftershow. That works much better for a show with ardent fans, aka The Walking Dead. I wonder how much the cliffhanger for that show will come up in the aftershow chitchat for the spinoff.