PILOT LITE: Fear the Walking Dead (2015 television pilot)

Posted: October 10, 2015 in Pilot Lite, Walking Dead
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In 2003, when the comic series The Walking Dead began, there was little to suggest that it’d become the marketing behemoth that it is now. The book was well received and popular despite the fact that this was still the early days of the zombie pop culture convergence that’s been going strong for the last decade. While the series was always successful, its sustained popularity and new-readership these days is largely thanks to the fact that the comic was turned into a television series by AMC in 2010. The show has been running for five seasons (with a sixth on the way as I type this) and has lead to all manor of merchandising, up to and including a spin-off series.
Set in the early days of the zombie outbreak, Fear the Walking Dead displays society’s reaction to the rapidly changing world. I say that like it’s the focus, but it’s really more of a b-plot in the pilot. A majority of this introductory episode is spent establishing character relationships and following a family as they react to a sibling’s heroin addiction. The familial drama is on full display while any zombie action is reserved for the first and last couple of minutes of the episode. I think that may also be the show’s biggest mistake. It’s slow. Slower than a shambling corpse with a broken foot. I’ve made it very well known on here and in CommentaryCasts that I enjoy slow, character driven drama (I’ve pointed out many times that Drive is one of my favorite movies) but this is a different type of slow. I absolutely appreciate buidling characters and developing the world in which they live. The problem I have is that this technique is only effective if there’s a payoff.

The last zombie we'll see for quite a while.

The last zombie we’ll see for quite a while.

Thanks to the fact that this series is a prequel, we already know what’s going to happen to the world. Thus, all of the family issues, all of the addiction problems and all of the secret-romances won’t mean anything when the shambling, blood-thirsty undead are unleashed. The slow character building doesn’t seem like it’s going to lead anywhere. The only thing I could think of when the daughter character slipped off to steal hugs with her college-bound boyfriend was, “In a few weeks none of this is gonna matter, ’cause you’re gonna be running for your lives.”

The family that runs from zombies together...

The family that runs from zombies together…

I suppose if the characters were more interesting, this may not be as much of an issue. Sadly, everyone in the series is basically boiled-down to a single character-defining trait. Cliff Curtis plays Travis (well-meaning step-dad). He’s joined by Kim Dickens in the maternal role (tough but loving) to her two kids (the perpetual addict and the Jan Brady). Again, they are all incredibly broadly drawn. I don’t like being able to describe the leads of a film or series in just a couple of words, but so far, I can’t find anything else to say about them. I realize it’s only a pilot, but at 90 minutes, that should be more than enough time to at least hint at some sophistication within the characters. What’s more, Cliff Curtis and Kim Dickens are both excellent actors (Check out Sunshine and Deadwood, respectively) but they aren’t given much of anything to do here.

It’s just occurred to me that I may be judging a bit harshly. From the very moment that this series was announced, my primary reaction has been: why? I was initially concerned that the series would essentially be covering the same ground as the original show: harried survivors soldier-on in the midst of a viral zombie outbreak. So, I suppose the fact that this series is going in a different direction should be a good thing. Right? Be careful what you wish for, I suppose. When a show has the words WALKING and DEAD in the title, I guess I just expected a bit more of a horror angle.

Reuben Blades will surely shake things up in later episodes.

Reuben Blades will surely shake things up in later episodes.

All that being said, I really have no idea how the season is going to play out. For all I know, this could just be a first-episode growing-pain and the show could snap into focus as soon as it gets properly rolling. My biggest hope is that the whole “zombie outbreak” thing (you know, the reason people watch the show) doesn’t take too long to get going. Logically, if it took weeks for an outbreak to take hold then it would be far easier to contain. And narratively, it’s far more interesting if it hits fast and the characters aren’t given time to acclimate.

The last thing thing I’ll address is the final scene of the pilot. We’re finally treated to a real zombie that the characters have to deal with (not just run away from in a heroin-frenzy). The effects work is top-notch and the zombie looks really cool. What’s more, they actually dispatch it fairly intelligently (run him over again!). However, once they’ve immobilized it, the lead characters stand around, staring. Instead of abject horror, they look on with something resembling bemused confusion. Dickens’ character asks “What the hell’s going on?” to which Curtis responds “I have no idea.” And then the scene cuts to black, roll credits. It was an incredibly odd note to go out on, mainly because of how it was played. There’s not a hint of terror on their faces even though they just fought a living corpse. Instead they react like particularly large turd is clogging the toilet. Which, I suppose is a fairly good analogy for how I think of this show at the moment. “What the hell is going on with this series?” Honestly, I have no idea.

“Huh…that’s weird.”

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