Fear The Walking Dead: 101 “Pilot” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The first few minutes of The Walking Dead’s pilot are almost iconic now – in a shootout with local criminals; Rick Grimes sustains a nasty gunshot wound and passes out. By the time Rick wakes up, an entire month has passed, and in that time, the world was entirely taken over by zombies. That month has barely been explored further in The Walking Dead’s five-season run, so it was probably unsurprising that AMC chose to expand their prize franchise in this intriguing time period. What exactly happened while Rick was in a coma? How did the world really end? Those questions have plagued fans from day one, and finally, spin-off Fear the Walking Dead is about to answer them…
Fear the Walking Dead’s pilot certainly got off to a stellar start, as drug addict Nick awoke to find his girlfriend chomping on a fellow drug addict’s face in a creepy, dark church, in what would turn out to be one of the very few appearances of actual zombies in this pilot episode. It’s a creepy, atmospheric start that utilised traditional horror tropes in a way Fear’s parent show rarely does nowadays – an exercise in gradually escalating suspense that culminated in an effective jolt as Nick was run over just after escaping the church. It’s perhaps surprising that an otherwise sedately paced pilot would begin with a cold open, but this invigorating first scene managed to allow Fear to hit the ground running in style.
Despite the action-oriented first scene, Fear’s pilot was heavily focused on character work as it introduced the central, extremely dysfunctional ‘blended family’. The blended family idea is a great one, allowing the show to juxtapose seemingly huge domestic problems with the world-shattering problems of the zombie apocalypse (the end of the world often helps to put things into perspective), but Fear stumbled in introducing the individual members of the family.
By far the most interesting is Nick, the aforementioned drug addict who is trapped in a vicious cycle of going ‘clean’, then soon lapsing back into addiction – among a collection of fairly one-note protagonists, Nick is an entirely unpredictable wildcard. It’s evident from the pilot that Nick cannot entirely be trusted, and could quite easily lapse back into addiction in the chaos of the apocalypse, leaving Nick as a compellingly unstable element who could lend a lot of uncertainty to future events (Frank Dillane’s tense, live-wire performance was perhaps the strongest of an impressive bunch of performances).
Aside from Nick, though, it’s all a little bit vanilla. The characters of Madison and Frank are both likeable characters portrayed by talented actors, but they’re unfortunately a little hollow – it’s hard to get a true sense of their personalities from this pilot aside from ‘concerned’ and ‘sceptical’, so they’re not an awful lot more than ciphers at this point. Alicia, Madison’s daughter, fares even worse – her character is purely uninteresting and riddled with clichés, and lacks even the basic likeability of Madison and Frank. It’s hard to truly write off the characters, however, as there’s a lot of groundwork laid for potentially compelling drama later on, such as the conflict between Frank and his estranged son, and the awkward stepfather relationship that Frank has with Madison’s children. For the time being, the characters generally just aren’t complex or interesting enough to warrant the amount of screen-time they’re afforded, and some of the family drama becomes an unfortunate drag; a conflict between ciphers and clichés, with only Nick to really liven things up.
Fear the Walking Dead’s pilot was afforded an extended 90 minutes (with adverts), but this extended length feels more like a burden than a boon – though it’s generally entertaining, the pilot often feels like it’s treading water before the proverbial inevitably hits the fan, with a handful of scenes that are either extraneous, or repetitive (Frank returns to the church twice, and Fear never really provides a justification for this pacing-wise). The slow pace is understandable for what Fear is trying to accomplish, but this pilot unfortunately came across as overlong and in need of cutting down into a tighter yet still character-based standard length episode. The following episodes look a great deal more eventful, at least, but Fear has put itself in the uncomfortable position of perhaps having left itself too much to do in the following five episodes, which could lead to some plotlines becoming a little rushed.
If the last couple of paragraphs have been predominantly negative, then it’s worth noting that Fear’s pilot is generally quite promising for a multitude of reasons. The idea at the pilot’s core – of starting with a snapshot of a regular family living their life, and slowly shattering that illusion as the world begins to crumble – is an excellent one that feels completely distinct from anything The Walking Dead has ever tried to do, managing to make this pilot feel like a fresh and necessary addition to canon rather than a money-grabbing retread. Fear is generally at its best when it’s committing to this idea, in small or large ways – some of the minor, almost throwaway indications that something is wrong such as a near-empty school bus or the sight of a stumbling walker left alone in a park are genuinely unnerving moments of psychological horror that are far more effective than the couple of cheap, generic ‘is he/she a zombie?’ jump scares that Fear serves up at other points. There’s some real potential for Fear to be to psychological horror what The Walking Dead has been to traditional survival horror, and the pilot certainly begins to exploit this potential in subtle and original ways.
It also succeeds with the more overt set-pieces, too – after a slow mid-section, the last 15 minutes were tense and thrilling, with Fear expertly conveying the panic and distress as the citizens of LA begin to realise that something is wrong. Though any viewer of The Walking Dead will have seen walkers shrug off bullets almost hundreds of times before, seeing teachers puzzle over grainy phone footage of a walker still has a noticeably strong effect, with Fear managing to make extremely familiar sights fresh and powerful once more. The final scene, too, is a strongly executed scene that cleverly integrates the sheer panic of the main characters into the direction of the family’s first, claustrophobic encounter with a walker. Nick’s panicky (and futile) attempts to run over a walker are an awfully long way from the large-scale, controlled zombie action scenes of The Walking Dead, providing an encouraging indicator that Fear will put a new spin on the walker killing action that is the bread and butter of its parent show.
The final scene works not only because of the reasons mentioned above, but also because it emphasises the danger of just one walker to an inexperienced group of civilians. In just one scene, Fear effectively reminds the audience that it only takes one walker to cause a potential disaster – essentially, it manages to put a sense of danger back into walkers that The Walking Dead has been lacking for quite some time, and if it manages to equal the tension and suspense elicited by this one walker with increasingly large hordes as the season goes on, then Fear might just become a worthy, equal companion to the show that spawned it…
Fear the Walking Dead gets off to a good enough start, with excellent moments of psychological horror combined with strong performances and intriguing thematic concepts – but mostly thin characters, patchy and unsubtle writing and often sluggish pacing inhibit it. At this point, it’s hard to write off Fear – there’s some clearly major issues it will have to overcome to match The Walking Dead, but there’s a huge amount of potential in this pilot for both compelling character development and effective moments of psychological and visceral horror over the coming five episodes. Fear the Walking Dead, just about, has cleared the first hurdle.