You may remember that, at the end of Fear the Walking Dead's first season, one dysfunctional Los Angeles family escaped military occupation and mobs of flesh-eating zombies to join a rich, mysterious cynic named Strand at his fortified oceanfront compound. With the undead shambling toward the beach and the city facing a military airstrike, the survivors faced a choice: scatter back into the wilds of Southern California, or ferry supplies to Strand's luxury yacht and take to the seas.
So… who's ready for The Swimming Dead?
There a few ways to look at this spinoff's second-season premiere, entitled " Monster." Here's the good news: After an erratic, abbreviated six-episode run, the sister show of AMC's biggest cash-cow now appears to have a clear plan for how to distinguish itself from its sibling. The original idea was to tell stories about the early days of the apocalypse, and how a small group of confused humans made sense of what was happening while everything fell apart. But FTWD's writers never seemed to have enough faith in that concept, so they packed in the kind of dull domestic disputes that could be on any show — all while hastening the plot to the point where it could become, essentially, The West Coast Walking Dead.
Now that last season's remaining cast-members are out on the water, Fear's entire narrative structure is changing. The first episode opens in darkness and mayhem, as the Clarks (good-hearted mom Madison, brainiac daughter Alicia, and junkie son Nick), the Manawas (cautious dad Travis and angry son Christopher), and battle-hardened aging refugee Daniel Salazar all make a mad dash to Strand's yacht, the Abigail. When a new day dawns, our heroes are on a well-stocked boat, which is in good enough shape to sail at least 3000 miles; no matter how much the desperate people they float past may beg, however, they can't afford to take on any more passengers unless there's some net benefit.
What we could have here is a classic Wagon Train/Star Trek-type format. Each week our ragtag band navigates its way to another location, where they meet new people and face fresh choices. All the while, they're under the thumb of the charismatic, pragmatic Strand (well-played by the wonderful Colman Domingo), who warns them that, "I filled my mercy quota," and tells them that his three rules are, "It's my boat … it's my boat … it's my goddamn boat."
Now here's the bad news: "Monster" is a pretty terrible episode.
Maybe that's a bit harsh. This hour has its moments. The opening scramble is eerily beautiful, as is a sequence towards the end where Nick dives down in the ocean and gets attacked by a bobbing corpse when he resurfaces. Plus, any scene involving Strand is a winner, because he's the only one of these characters focused on the fact that, oh, y'know — it's the end of the freakin' world.
Otherwise, this episode repeats a lot of the story devices that made FTWD's first batch such a drag at times. For example, the whole reason why Nick's swimming in the first place is because he jumped in after Chris, who was a moody little shit last season, and who starts out this sophomore go-round on the same course, blaming his dad for killing his zombie-infected mom before she could turn. This is the kind of uninspired mini-crisis that the show's writers seems to think will really grab an audience. Will Travis ever win back the love and trust of his short-sighted asshole of a son? Tune in next week!
Meanwhile, in the other big subplot, Alicia makes radio contact with a David Bowie fan named Jack, and spends hours nurturing what would ordinarily be a bittersweet human connection, if she also weren't giving away potentially damaging information about the Abigail's location. Alicia's stupidity here is actually more plausible — and even relatable. The problem with her storyline is that it doesn't have any payoff. This pacesetting episode really needed to lead somewhere, given that it's basically the debut of an entirely new version of this show.
Alas, it ends with the yacht driving into the wreckage of another ship, before the sonar picks up a faster boat closing in on them. That wouldn't be such a bad cliffhanger, except that it comes after an hour of nothing else really happening. Once the crew sets sail, they spend all their time bickering, reflecting, and discussing where they might go. The near-total lack of a story — or much in the way of action — presumes that viewers already have enough invested in these characters to watch them just sort of float around for a while. That's a huge ask.
There's still reason to be hopeful about what Fear the Walking Dead might become. The set-up is sound; and while Strand's the only consistently intriguing character right now, the cast remains strong overall. But after the controversial way that the other Dead show ended its sixth season last week, it would've been great if the franchise could've come back with a spark of confidence. Instead, we get something needlessly slow-paced, underwritten ... and all wet.