Thursday, October 15, 2015

'Fear The Walking Dead' - Season One (2015)

Starring Kim Dickens, Cliff Curtis and Frank Dillane
Created by Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson

A sickness is spreading over the sprawling city of Los Angeles. High school guidance counselor Maddy Clark (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend, English lit teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), are having a spot of trouble. Maddy's son, Nick (Frank Dillane) is a heroin addict, and he's disappeared. The next they hear of him, he's in the hospital having been hit by a car. Nick tells a tale of waking up to see his girlfriend eating another addict in the abandoned church where they shoot up.

At the same time, one of Maddy's students tells her about a sickness sweeping the nation that everyone seems to be underestimating. He warns her that things are about to change for the worse, and Maddy's not sure he's making it up.

When chaos explodes in downtown, Travis and Maddy prepare to take their family out of the city. Standing between them and safety in the desert are rioters, the crumbling LA authority structure... and a growing army of the undead.

For all its faults, AMC's "The Walking Dead" is one of my favorite shows. But it does have faults, some of them pretty major. For one thing, the show is almost totally incapable of paying off buildup after a string of excellent episodes. Its finales are almost universally limp.

So would its much-anticipated spinoff, "Fear The Walking Dead" suffer the same issues? Yeah, kinda.

Things start out well. The show's look and feel is rather different than its parent show in the first few episodes. Much effort is expended to create a sense of impending doom, confusion and dread. The flesh-eating undead are kept mostly off-screen for much of the season's six episodes. If I were to grade "Fear" just on tone, atmosphere and technical construction, it'd be a surefire winner.

Unfortunately, a TV series has to be more than that, and when it comes to plotting and characters, "Fear" struggles in much the same way its progenitor does. The first three episodes build rather wonderfully as the characters attempt to understand what's happening and make it through the rioting and discover that the dead are returning and aren't friendly.

But then, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, the show decides to jump ahead a week. Civilization has fallen and the cast is now stuck in a fenced community, "guarded" by corrupt military remnants. In the lead up to the premiere, producers for the show promised that it would be different from the original show and a "slow burn" showing how one family deals with the crumbling order around them. But then, three episodes into a six-episode season, it basically abandons that premise.

The three episodes that follow are pretty bog-standard "Walking Dead" fare, albeit with fewer zombies. The finale feels like a decent culmination, and finally gives viewers the massive crowds of undead the original show is famous for, but it doesn't particularly feel earned. It seems like we could have gotten there a different way that would have been more interesting than the "fence" episodes.

And then there's the iffy subject of, yes, teenage characters. These are definitely problematic. Sometimes, it works, sometimes it doesn't. Having one of them be a heroin addict is troublesome, mostly because the show handles his recovery inconsistently. In the first three episodes, Nick goes through serious withdrawal, but in the final three he sometimes is fine enough to do whatever and sometimes is curled up vomiting. I'm no expert, but that came across as odd to me.

The other two teens, Maddy's daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and Travis' son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) have smaller roles, but unfortunately they're the ones that fall into the more typical teenager characters where they kinda do stupid shit that makes you want to scream at the TV. In a six-episode season, they don't get too many occasions to do this, which is nice, but that also sort of means that when they do, it stands out more. A major subplot in the second and third episodes involves Travis attempting to reach Chris in the midst of an LA riot, but the kid keeps shouting about "doing something important" while shots are going off and cars are being flipped and his dad is pleading with him to leave.

Also problematically, the show introduces two black characters in the first episode, reveals that one of them is a shady drug dealer and immediately kills them off. This is a problem the original show has rather famously struggled with, and "Fear" doesn't particularly set itself apart there, either.

The first season of "Fear The Walking Dead" is... okay. It didn't immediately grab me the way the original did, but the first three episodes build well before the show stumbles in its second half. Pacing issues, too-familiar subplots and the occasionally aggravating teenager derail a show that has potential but struggles to justify its own existence.