Nearly five years ago — Halloween night, 2010 — AMC aired the first episode of The Walking Dead, "Days Gone Bye," and introduced the show's hero Rick Grimes by dropping him into a zombie apocalypse. For the next hour, viewers watched the former sheriff wake up from a coma, navigate a world overrun by cannibal corpses and eventually hook up with a pocket of mistrustful human survivors. It was an incredible TV-show debut: incredibly intense, undeniably strange, and daringly bleak. A bar had been set.
So, first things first: No, Fear the Walking Dead's premiere episode, simply titled "Pilot," is nowhere near that good. But it is strong enough to suggest a bright future for this spin-off. Well, relatively bright. Any show about the slow death of humankind is bound to be a bit of a bummer.
Its best sequences may be its opening, one of the few scenes that blatantly plays with the expectations of Walking Dead fans and feels like a callback to that first fever-dream moment. Like Rick in the hospital bed, FTWD's Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) wakes up and stumbles into a nightmare. At his favorite abandoned church/heroin den, he emerges from a smack-induced stupor to find most of his fellow junkies dead and partially consumed — with the exception of his girlfriend Gloria, who's one of the eaters. Nick scrambles out of the sanctuary and into the streets of Los Angeles, where everything appears to be perfectly normal. Then he gets hit by car.
The show's creators — Dave Erickson and Walking Dead godhead Robert Kirkman — assume that most folks already know that this is a "prequel" to its parent show, with an entirely new set of characters experiencing the beginning of the zombie plague, before it becomes a pandemic. But no one was sure how far back it was going to go, which is what makes that first scene such a kick in the gut. It's as though Nick gets granted a vision of L.A.'s terrible future, before being wrenched back into our more mundane reality — the one where distracted Angelenos rush to work and wrestle with their personal problems, blissfully unaware of the carnage around the corner.
Which is what keeps "Pilot" — and could, by extension, keep the entire prequel — from being as stellar as its original-recipe predecessor. It focuses a lot, perhaps even too much, on the bland everyday drama of ordinary folks — y'know, the kind of work stresses and domestic crises that very soon aren't going to matter, when the living are fleeing the dead. But thankfully, there's a strong center for both its mild melodrama and its flesh-ripping horror. Deadwood/Treme's Kim Dickens plays Madison Clark, Nick's mother, who juggles her son's addiction, her job as a high school guidance counselor, and a romance with English teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis). She's also dealing with the rift that her sex-life is causing between herself and her honors-student daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), and between Travis and his own teenage son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie).
Dickens is the rare actor who can sell even the most hackneyed material, thanks to her ease in front of the camera; her characters always seem to be taking their troubles in exactly the right stride. She's not straining too hard for our sympathy or attention, and if she'd started Fear the Walking Dead at too high a pitch, Dickens would have nowhere to go emotionally when rotting ghouls start shambling toward her.
Still, most of the first episode is about establishing Madison's various relationships, which slows the pace waaaay down. And it doesn't help that Erickson and Kirkman's script relies so much on characters saying things like, "Did you just throw up in your mouth?" and, "The Merriam-Webster definition of crazy is doing the same thing and expecting new results." We don't need killer cadavers yet, but we could do with less clichés.
Still, the episode rights itself down the stretch, after Nick flees the hospital and goes looking for his dealer, Calvin (Keith Powers), to get to the bottom of what he saw at the church. The climax involves the concrete channels of the L.A. River, an excessive amount of lethal force, and the discovery that these days, some folks simply won't stay dead. The ending gets back to what Dead franchise does best, exploring how humanity remains unreliable and dangerous, even during an extinction-level event. When people react with what they believe to be righteous self-interest, they often make a bad situation way, way worse. Every solution creates a bigger problem.
And what makes Fear the Walking Dead distinct from its older-sibling series is that while we've grown accustomed to shambling flesh-eaters, the characters are experiencing this creeping, unstoppable zombie freakiness for the first time. They're all like Rick in "Days Gone Bye," except that they don't have corpse-strewn streets and abandoned vehicles everywhere to cue them that something's gone haywire. Modern life is already so chaotic that it's hard to tell what's just another piece of bad news and what's a big, red, flashing "OH SHIT" sign — the kind that signals it's too damn late to halt doomsday.
During one of Travis' literature classes, he talks up Jack London's Call of the Wild as a kind of instruction manual for "how not to die," and pegs its plot as a classic "man against nature" story. The same could be said of the two Walking Deads, with their weekly illustrations of End-Times Do's & Don'ts. Or maybe the franchise is so popular because we all prefer to ignore their real lesson, astutely recognized by one of Travis' students: "Nature always wins." Now it's time to see Kirkman and company's latest horror-tragedy can convince us that a dope fiend, a braniac, a bookworm, and a public school administrator can succeed in collectively kicking nature's ass.