Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Fear the Walking Dead each week in a series of letters, just as they’ve done for The Walking Dead.
“There seems to be an epidemic where people get this strange virus that causes them to bite other people. When a person gets bitten, they get a bad fever and die, but then they come back to life, somehow, and try to bite others. It’s like rabies but way, way worse. They can’t be killed except by destroying their brain, which is why you keep seeing people get shot in the chest over and over, but they don’t die. The really important thing is to avoid the reborn people, and you can tell them by the fact that they look and move like zombies.”
I wish one character—literally one—would have said those words rather than giving each other ominous stares and vague warnings in last night’s Fear the Walking Dead. More than anything, I’m feeling frustrated. This was pitched as a more artistic Walking Dead, and instead we just saw a bunch of annoying horror tropes. Including:
1. Sullen teens who just won’t listen. Whether they’re wildly misinterpreting a situation, ignoring phone calls, or refusing to take out their ear buds, these shitty stereotype kids will ignore all logic and just hate the hell out of their parents.
2. Parents who won’t explain anything to their kids, because we all know that treating kids like young adults would make too much sense. How many times last night did we see the following exchange:
Kid: Tell me what’s happening.
Parent: WHERE ARE YOU/COME WITH ME/JUST TRUST ME/OMINOUS STARE
The funny thing here is that it could actually save lives. Instead, it took a drug addict retching to keep Alicia from getting zombie-chomped by her ex-boyfriend.
3. The one dude who seems to know everything ahead of time. I actually kinda like Tobias, but still.
4. Frustrating phone calls where people don’t say the main thing they need to say, or somebody is too busy yelling to listen. The conversation between Travis and his ex-wife was the worst example— “I REFUSE TO STOP TALKING FOR A SECOND TO LET YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE ZOMBIES”—but the Travis and Madison calls were almost as bad.
5. The normal everyday event (in this case, a birthday party) that gets interrupted because stupid people fail to recognize signs that things are getting really, really bad, and nobody wants your stupid cake right now, unless there are cake zombies.
6. Every black character dying right away.
7. Sloppy use of actual current societal ill to make some misguided point about something. I think it was a terrible idea to tackle police-against-innocent-underrepresented-citizen violence and subvert it for drama. “It’s just like Ferguson, but imagine the police had to shoot those people, because they were zombies.” If you’re not going to say something smart about an issue that serious, you should probably avoid it altogether, right?
You might have to rein me in here, Josh, because it’s possible I’m just being grumpy. But after surviving that episode, my main thoughts are that A, Rick Grimes and company are way more fun, and B, this is reminding me of certain episodes of True Detective this year, where I stopped caring about anything except Colin Farrell. All I wanted, after the waves of annoyance hit me, and kept hitting me, was to see Frank Dillane as Nick. I got my wish, but I’m pretty sure he had more vomit episodes than actual lines. In any case, I still look forward to seeing him in future episodes, but “So Close, Yet So Far” soured me on almost everything else.
Where do you land here, Josh? You’re usually less harsh and reactionary than I am, so I’m turning to you for a ray of sunshine here.
I had the same frustrations as you with last night’s episode. Listening to Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis gush about how smart and strong each others’ characters were, it was disappointing to see them start off so maddeningly uncommunicative, especially when it came to their kids. Madison put her obviously smart and capable daughter’s life at risk twice by not telling her what the hell was going on. I want to care about this family, but part of rooting for these people over, say, their neighbor next door who loaded up water in his trunk and got out of the city, is that they’re survivors. We want Daryl and Michonne and Glenn and Rick to survive because of all they’ve had to overcome. Right now, Madison and Cliff are struggling to overcome their own carelessness and inability to deal.
But it’s not Dickens’ or Curtis’ fault that the writers were so committed to keep everyone in the dark. The acting has been solid, but the choices the writers have made have been something of a let down from why I was looking forward to this particular spin-off. The whole idea that “no one is talking about this” seems ridiculous to me. With an opportunity to speak to the issues of our day, Fear the Walking Dead has been hung up on the single idea that when the apocalypse comes, no one will want to talk about it.
In addition to weirdly trying to turn Ferguson on its head, the theme is one of a conspiracy of silence. The parents aren’t the only ones being weirdly guarded. Tobias talks about the “they” who aren’t warning us, who aren’t going to be able to fix things—the media and the government, respectively. We see police in the know, quietly preparing for their own protection, but even if we can accept that those in charge are trying to keep things quiet, where is the media frenzy? I mean this is L.A., the highest concentration of cameras in the universe, and we only have one single case that’s been broadcast to the world? American media always errs on the side of sensationalism, but faced with reports of a disease that causes people to try to eat other people, they’re going to stay quiet until they have more details? I mean, one guy goes crazy-cannibal on bath salts and that’s all anyone talked about for days.
The Walking Dead was always cagey about what exactly caused the zombie apocalypse to take hold so quickly. I’m wondering now if the producers just didn’t have a good answer to share, and they’re going out of their way to avoid having to try. I know this is a show about zombies, but I still want it to feel “real,” and I just can’t imagine that plugged-in teenagers would be as in-the-dark as Alicia and Chris are right now.
And yet, Shane… and yet. My biggest frustration last night was learning that we have to wait two weeks for the next episode. So obviously I do still care about this idiotic family. I want these people to communicate because I already want them to survive. The writing may be misguided, but the characters are believable and likable. And the massive challenges they face—trapped in L.A.—are going to be exciting to watch. I’m mad because I’m hooked and I want this show to be great. I’m harder on this show because my expectations are so high.
So there’s my single ray of sunshine, and it comes in part from the surly teenagers. Alicia and Chris may be pissed at their parents right now, but they’re also the ones most trying to be helpful. Chris bravely keeps the camera pointed at what he believes to be injustice. Alicia tries to leave the house twice—not because she’s a willfully disobedient kid, but because she cares about her boyfriend, her neighbor. They’re brave and smart and if someone would just let them know what the hell is going on, they’ll be okay.
So, we’ve vented pretty well here. Tell me what, if anything, you do like about Fear so far, compared to its predecessor.
Good venting, and I loved this quote: “American media always errs on the side of sensationalism.” Exactly, which is why it’s so hilarious to think that CNN or FoxNews would be engaged in a massive cover-up. Remember when that homeless guy in Miami tried to bite a guy’s face off? The news channels milked that for about two weeks, but we’re supposed to the buy the idea that they won’t be running dramatic, bloody graphics with headlines like “KILLER CANNIBAL OUTBREAK!” the minute the first zombie gets caught on camera.
To answer your question, I’m actually not sure what I like about Fear in comparison to TWD. In a weird way, I think it might be showing the merits of starting the zombie story en medias res, and it goes back to what you said—there’s zero explanation here. We’re seeing the origin, but there’s no origin story! I don’t get that at all, because part of the marketing around this show is that we’d see the apocalypse from the start, and if they’re going to take that approach, isn’t it incumbent upon them to actually tell us how it begins? Instead, we’re far removed from the action, and we just get hints and innuendo from inside a barber shop, or at a removed distance in a suburban neighborhood. Just as you said, it’s like they held a big writers’ meeting to generate ideas about the cause of the outbreak, came up entirely empty, and decided to go for the giant cop-out. There’s basically no difference between the start of this show and the original—we’re getting the exact same amount of information, and to me, that’s a big failure for Fear.
There’s another word we haven’t thrown out yet, and that word is “redundant.” Let’s assume the family reunites at some point soon, and flees for the desert or wherever, and we never get to see much more about the outbreak. In that case, how is this show any different at all from TWD?? People running from zombies, and trying to set up communities, with lots of internecine drama and violence, and the occasional triumph amid constant fear and danger? We’ve got that already, Josh, and the only difference is the people. And I’m not into these people, aside from Nick, so that just makes Fear a Walking Dead-lite…i.e., redundant.
Then again, there’s still time. This is a six-episode first season run, and maybe we’ll see a shake-up, or maybe the last four episodes will be a bit more artsy, or maybe Daryl will show up and take down the entire Los Angeles metropolitan district with his crossbow. I’d be okay with that. But I will say that I’m not super hopeful—last night’s cliches took the wind out of the pilot’s sails, and I thought the pilot was a promising start. Now, I don’t really believe there’s a commitment to a style shift, and the question I find myself asking is whether there’s room in my life for an inferior version of TWD.
America’s answer, at least for the pilot, was “hell yes!” The ratings were through the roof, and like you, I’m on the side of the people—I definitely want to keep watching. But interest is different from optimism, and I’m sticking with my Debbie Downer perspective for now, because I’m not having the same kind of fun I had with TWD quite yet.
Here’s a question for you, Josh—beyond Nick, who I think we both like, do you see any compelling secondary characters yet? In TWD, it’s an embarrassment of riches after Rick…you’ve got Michonne, Daryl, Glenn, Hershel, Tyreese, Sasha, and Carl. (Just kidding on the last one.) Who’s going to carry the weight for us in this show?
Well, I’d say Tobias, but it looks like he found his counselor’s survival skills wanting after she walked right up to her zombie principal (again, she’s already been attacked by a dead-looking guy once—maybe use some caution?). So he’s left our group of survivors to go it alone. That leaves the extended family of Madison/Travis, plus the family in the barbershop. There’s potential in the main couple if they could just start communicating. I really like Kim Dickens, and I’m looking forward to seeing her lead once she pulls it together.
We haven’t seen enough of the barbershop trio to make much of a judgment. Stern father, religious mother, beautiful daughter. And we’ve barely met Travis’ ex-wife. That leaves the kids, and so far, I like them all. Yes, there’s been some door-slamming and teen angst, but it’s all pretty understandable. And when faced with crisis, both Chris and Alicia have showed courage. Alicia, in particular, seems to have a really good head on her shoulders, which makes it all the more frustrating that no one will trust her with the knowledge they have. But I like these kids.
And that’s the thing. All the acting so far has been top-notch. The dialogue hasn’t once felt stilted. The cinematography is gorgeous. My main hang-up has been the unbelievable lengths everyone from the government to the media to everyday people have avoided uttering the word “zombie.” The details all feel there. It’s the big picture that needs salvaging.
Please don’t die, Tobias,
Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.